Compounding One Mistake With Another Mistake

oopsThe failure of Israeli politicians and bureaucrats to fully appreciate the complicated voluntary [philanthropic] system in the Diaspora will only alienate current donors and fail to attract new ones.

By Stephen G. Donshik

If it were not so sad, it would seem be a comedy of errors. First the Israeli government announces the initiation of the World Jewry Joint Initiative (the Initiative), to be developed by it in a partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The next thing we hear is that the government is moving ahead on its own and does not seem to be engaging JAFI in planning the strategy and the developing the Initiative program. Using a tongue-and-cheek perspective, you could say that one mistake is being compounded by another mistake.

The entire Initiative process seems to be designed by the government to weaken JAFI’s standing in Israel and the Diaspora. Although JAFI is one of the two primary partners in the Jewish philanthropic world, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the government is acting as if JAFI should really play no role in this ill-conceived Initiative. The process continues to make it clear to anyone familiar with the organized Jewish communities’ relationship to Israel that the government (1) does not have a clue about how the Diaspora’s philanthropic system operates and (2) as a result does not know how to engage with its leadership.

So, what mistake is compounding another mistake in this scenario? It is becoming obvious that creating the Initiative was a way to strategically place the government in the role of strengthening the connection of the Jewish Diaspora to the State of Israel. This has always been assumed to be the role of JAFI. However, as has been obvious to most of us over the last decade or more, JAFI has been unable to maintain its standing within the Jewish philanthropic community, and its annual budget has been on a downward trajectory for years.

Instead of looking at serious proposals to re-engineer the organization and salvage the strengths of this historic instrument of the world Jewish community, JAFI continues to operate as business as usual and is fighting a losing battle while scrounging around for funds from every possible resource. As its allocations shrink from year to year, it has learned that it can no longer rely on its two main funding sources – Jewish Federations in North America or Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal). Recently it has begun to reach out on its own to Jewish foundations and individual donors, but they have not responded in a way to ensure the organization a secure future.

JAFI’s response to its continuing financial crisis and to clarify its mission has been to seek a partnership with the government of Israel. It had hoped that the World Jewry Joint Initiative would breathe new life into its efforts and at the same time provide a more secure source of funding. However, it did not anticipate that Israel’s real politics would mean a reconsideration of the anticipated partnership between JAFI and the government. Following the initial announcements about Israel’s efforts to strengthen the Jewish identity of Jews around the world and their connection to Israel, the government began the process of rethinking the relationship. Dvir Kahana, director-general of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, was quoted as saying, “The Ministry [is] continuing [its] dialogue with the Agency (JAFI) with the aim of finding the best way for it to fit into a role within the Initiative.” It appears that JAFI’s role, whatever it will be, will be less than that of a full partner.

The government does not seem to be aware that the Jewish philanthropic system will not support the Initiative if it is seen as a government program. Neither will it attract donors when they perceive tensions between JAFI, one of the overseas partners, and the Israeli government. Unfortunately, the failure of Israeli politicians and bureaucrats to fully appreciate the complicated voluntary [philanthropic] system in the Diaspora will only alienate current donors and fail to attract new ones.

What we have here is one mistake – the failure to reengineer JAFI – being compounded by the ill-conceived Initiative of the Government of Israel. This means that the Initiative, which was meant to attract support and involvement with Israel, will instead demonstrate the government’s inability to engage with those who have been committed to Israel for decades and to attract those who have not yet engaged with Israel and developed a commitment to strengthening the Jewish state.

This entire episode in Jewish communal life only reinforces the need for a meaningful planning process involving Jewish leadership from around the world, including those who have been involved in Israel as well as those who are not yet involved. Israeli philanthropists (as well as Israel politicians) should participate in the creation of a new system that is based on the equality of roles and involvement in raising and allocating funds for any programming in Israel or the Diaspora. If partnership in its true meaning does not become a basic working assumption when developing new strategies or implementing new and creative programs, we will continue to compound one mistake with another mistake and so on.

And we will continue to see the demise of a partnership that could be a valuable instrument in Jewish life in the present and future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.