by Jonathan Strausberg
[Yesterday’s] Jerusalem Post reported that a deal is in the works for the government of Israel to provide direct financial support to the Jewish Agency for Israel. This could be a game changer, because Israel previously only provided support to specific programs that JAFI operated, such as MASA. As Federation contributions to overseas causes, including JAFI and JDC, have declined over the past few years, JAFI has seen its budget cut by nearly 25%. The result has been a cut in staff and services, including camps in the FSU, aliyah support services, and helping youth at-risk in Israel. These are programmatic areas that are typically funded with core dollars, not designated giving. Obviously, the increase in funding will have a direct impact in reversing the contraction that these programs experienced, but there are other potential broader implications.
This summer, the Jewish Agency went through a major governance restructuring. One of those changes was a revision in how JAFI’s Board of Governors is composed. In particular, the issue was historically how Israelis were selected through the World Zionist Organization to sit on the Board. The move was made to make sitting on the Board less of a political placement than it had previously been. This was a major push from North American donors and leadership who provide more than $150 million annually in core and designated financial resources.
This nearly came to a head this summer when Prime Minister Netanyahu announced Natan Sharansky as his choice to serve as Chair of the Executive (the professional head) of JAFI. In the past, the prime minister named the head of the WZO who would also serve as the head of JAFI. Wanting to de-politicize this process, Sharnsky went through a nomination process and was named head of the Jewish Agency and required that future heads of JAFI not also serve as the chair of the WZO. The end result is a less politically aligned Jewish Agency, which is what makes the government’s decision to provide core funding all the more interesting.
JAFI has and continues to provide many core services in Israel. The most easily identifiable is facilitating aliyah for thousands of people every year. This includes providing emergency evacuations in some communities (like Iran and Venezuela), running absorption centers, operating ulpan (Hebrew language classes for recent immigrants), and providing housing and job training/placement. These services have been particularly intensive and expensive in regards to helping the Ethiopian Israeli community. With this infusion of money, will the government’s role in the management/leadership of the Agency changed?
A few years ago, when the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews began giving millions of dollars a year to JAFI, their president joined the Agency’s executive committee, which has a major influence over budgeting and policy. Will there be a similar governance representation change now? We don’t know yet.
From an American donor perspective, the fact that JAFI will now receive direct operating support from Israel shows that Israel’s involvement in the Jewish Agency will change to being one of an “investor,” similar to the role of Jewish communities around the world. We still need to see if this deal will be finalized, but in thinking about the philanthropic relationship between Israel and the global Jewish community this would be a huge step forward.