Is The Jewish Agency on the Way to Creating a Foundation for the Jewish People?

By Yisrael Gadiel

According to The Jerusalem Post on November 5, 2019, a fund affiliated with The Jewish Agency (JAFI) has agreed to provide funding to 50 institutions in 24 countries to upgrade their security. Although this process began in 2012 with the establishment of JAFI’s Foundation for Security Assistance for Jewish Communities, it seems to be another indication of JAFI’s search for relevance in today’s Jewish world. It suggests that JAFI is slowly moving in the direction, as presented in eJP in 2013, of becoming the The Foundation for the Jewish People. Yet, if indeed JAFI is moving in the direction of morphing into such a foundation, it is doing so without developing the needed strategy, direction, and leadership. It raises many questions that this essay addresses.

First, why did JAFI decide not to directly allocate funds to Diaspora communities for security, but instead to do so through a subsidiary created for this purpose? Was this process set up for legal reasons or to create the impression that the Foundation for Security Assistance will be a time-limited instrument?

A more important question is how the provision of security assistance to the Diaspora fits in with JAFIs mission. JAFI was created in 1929 to support and strengthen the settlement of Jews in what was then Palestine, and once the State of Israel was created in 1948, it focused on strengthening the state and providing welfare and economic assistance during a time of overwhelming need. Since the creation of the state JAFI has striven to both reinvent itself and to meet the ever changing needs of Israel from resettling new immigrants, to renewing lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, to creating relevant connections between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community, to strengthening the Jewish identity of young adults and their connections to Israel. However, does providing security assistance through the allocation of financial resources – likely raised in Diaspora communities – back to them fit with JAFI’s mission as the Jewish Agency for Israel?

Living in Israel, it is difficult for me to canvass all of the fundraising campaigns conducted in Diaspora Jewish communities, but I doubt that many highlight in their fundraising appeals the fact that some funds will be returned to the Diaspora to provide security. The Jerusalem Post article highlighted Jewish philanthropists who contributed more than $7 million for this purpose alone. However, this is a designated gift, and the donors are clear about how they want the funds allocated. Will every donor be given a choice whether to give funds directly to the campaign to support Israel through JAFI or to support the JAFI Foundation for Security Assistance? Of course some donors may prefer to support a Jewish Agency for Diaspora Communities, in which case a structure could be developed to enable wealthy Jews worldwide to provide funding for Jews wherever they live; in other words, the Foundation for the Jewish People.

Given the financial challenges JAFI faces in light of declining fund-raising campaigns worldwide, it is surprising that the Board of Governors would create a competitive campaign within their own organization and run the risk of having a shortfall of funds for their own budgeted programs. If they are indeed creating competitive, second-line campaigns, what message does that give the Diaspora fundraising organizations and their supporters? Perhaps it conveys the subliminal message that emerging needs take precedence over traditional JAFI budget line programs, or perhaps there is a real need to rethink the rationale for the bureaucratic organizational structure of JAFI and its programs.

Is this the time to consider changing the entire structure of JAFI to reflect a foundation model that can function effectively and efficiently to determine needs, provide guidance for funding, and evaluate its effectiveness to meet global Jewish needs as a global organization – but not as an agency for Israel?

The Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod-UIA, and various political and nonpolitical groups in Israel seem always to be considering what JAFI’s mission should be. There are reams of research reports and Board of Governor discussions about the reallocation of resources, the refocusing of priorities, and efforts to ensure the organization’s relevance in the twenty-first century. Could it be possible that the organization has outlived its present purpose and organizational form and needs to be reengineered?

Perhaps there is a confluence of too many vested interests in both the Political (the Israeli formal political system) and the political (the politics of the Zionists and the philanthropists) spheres. The continuing dominant role of the Israeli political sector and its vested interests in running a supposedly international voluntary organization is wreaking havoc with any attempt to create or formulate meaningful change in JAFI’s structure and function. These dynamics have a major impact on its decision making and would need to be taken into consideration before initiating any substantive, innovative change.

Having raised these questions about the way funding is being handled for security needs and given JAFI’s current organizational structure, I would hope that those involved in the various decision-making forums would initiate discussion about the consequences of creating additional campaigns for fundraising in competition with its efforts to meet its budgetary requirements. I also hope that these discussions will result in new directions – rather than just tinkering around the edges with JAFI’s funding structure – and real change. Israel and world Jewry would benefit from a fresh, creative, innovative, and substantive change to meeting Jewish needs around the globe.

Yisrael Gadiel has been following the issues of overseas philanthropy and international organizations working with Israel and the Diaspora for over 30 years. He has written numerous academic and popular articles on the dynamics and structure of organizations involved in working with the Jewish community worldwide.