Is It a Camel or a Horse? Some Thoughts on “The Prime Minister’s Initiative”

camel_signThey sit there in committees day after day,
And they each put in a color and it comes out gray.
And we all have heard the saying, which is true as well as witty,
That a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.

(American comedy writer and song parodist Allan Sherman)

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Back in November, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel, convened a first ever strategic planning summit. The goal – “to formulate a joint plan to enhance the Jewish identity of young Jews around the world and strengthen ties between the Jewish world and Israel.” Now, two months later, with planning well underway, The Jerusalem Post has taken an in-depth look at the initiative (which we encourage you to read).

Additionally, since the Summit, eJP has spoken with numerous participants and other interested parties – including federation and foundation executives, and organizational professionals. And, while months of preparatory work still remain, one indisputable fact has emerged from these many conversations: the Government of Israel is in firm control of the process and the initial outcomes will be negotiated by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the appropriate ministries. The government will set the agenda and at some point during 2014 the proposals will move to the Cabinet for approval (and ostensibly initial funding). Others will be made to feel included but will, in fact, turn out to be part of the scenery.

This is not to say that the government is not openly, and honestly, soliciting advice from all quarters – they are. But what is going on behind the scenes is political chess. From finding neutral office space in Jerusalem for the “coordinating group” to the establishment of balanced working groups, the end game is to devise a plan acceptable to the PMO, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Treasury – all headed by different coalition partners – and each looking (along with The Jewish Agency) to take maximum credit for the final proposals. And, in the process, to not offend any potential funding or program partner.

From a content point, perhaps the largest challenge facing the planning of this initiative is the lack of meaningful involvement from the key demographic they seek to reach – the under 35’s. Minus some Jewish Agency staff, this age group was significantly not represented at the November Summit, or from the pre-Summit canvasing carried out by The Jewish Agency in North America. They are also pretty much absent from the working groups. When questioned at the Summit, the PMO staff indicated they would utilize focus groups. Many have wondered aloud how professionals who have little to no understanding of the Millennial Generation, especially the all important North American segment, will be able to adequately assess these focus group results. In addition, in general, the working groups have limited participation by those actually on the ground working in the various program areas. With all due respect to some talented professionals, they sit in their [American or Ministry] office, occasionally visit a program they fund and profess to be knowledgeable of program design. Clearly one of the challenges will be convincing potential partners (including funders) that they’ve gotten it right.

A further challenge brought to eJP‘s attention by many is the current role of The Jewish Agency. Currently, The Agency both designs and implements programs. The feeling is growing in many quarters that there are numerous conflicts-of-interest with this model and that if The Agency wants to be involved in this type of initiative going forward, they need to be out of the program execution business (perhaps with the exception of pilots). While this is not a new discussion, many organizations see the enhanced government involvement as a golden trough, are salivating at what may be in it for them, and what they see as legitimate criticism of The Agency is fair game. This comes at a time when many are [again] questioning the real progress of The Agency’s most recent Strategic Plan, revenues from both the US federation system and KH are down (we note, our understanding is The Agency’s direct fundraising last year from their US team under Misha Galperin’s direction was above plan) and, the government committee created to present recommendations on resolving the conflict over prayer at the Kotel, headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, has yet to publish its report. While the latter is not an Agency initiative, Natan Sharansky was a highly public figure in the many conversations and lack of public progress is a source of continued agitation in parts of the U.S. Jewish community. Not a good segway to improved Israel/Diaspora relations.

As to “The Joint Initiative of The Government of Israel and World Jewry”, stay tuned; 2014 will likely prove to be an interesting year.

The JPost article includes a general timeline of what can be expected during the next several months. Also, The Jewish Agency has scheduled a full 75 minute briefing on the initiative status during their February Board meetings.