The “Initiative” is Dead

The much heralded Jewish Agency / Government World Jewry Joint Initiative is effectively kaput, a victim of Israeli coalition politics.

By Or Kashti

A new Diaspora Affairs Ministry program has been designed to deal with “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide, and “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel.”

About three months ago a new company, called the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People, received special, accelerated approval to run the program, with financing from the government and foreign donations. The program is headed by Diaspora Ministry director-general Dvir Kahana, formerly of Elad (the right-wing organization promoting Jewish settlement in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods).

In recent months Kahana and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) succeeded in ousting the Prime Minister’s Office and The Jewish Agency from the program. Those familiar with the initiative warned about “autocratic leadership by members of Haybayit Hayehudi, the emphases of the activity and expenditures,” as well as “turning the complex ties with the Diaspora into a political fiefdom.”

The ministry asserted that the program is “a strategic solution to the challenge of young Jews who are becoming distant from their Jewish identity and from the State of Israel.”

According to an internal ministry document, “In recent years there has been an ongoing erosion of Jewish identity in various communities worldwide.” Those familiar with Jewish organizations in the Diaspora say that this is a consensus notion there. But the assertions about the deterioration of the Jewish foundations of the family unit, and criticism of Israel, are considered controversial.

“Will the Israeli government now tell Jewish communities how to shape the family unit worldwide?” wondered a source who until recently worked in a Jewish organization in the United States. “There is no one accepted path on the issue of the Jewish family and assimilation, and alongside the Orthodox approach there are others less rigid and more inclusive. Instead of dialogue and recognition of the legitimacy of varied viewpoints, there’s a whiff of condescension here. Such an infuriating attitude is liable to lead to a clash with large [American Jewish] organizations.”

He adds: “If you want to hold on to young Diaspora Jews you have to let them express criticism. A proper approach would be to develop among young people on [college] campuses the option of sometimes embracing Israel and sometimes fighting it. The new program may recruit a small group of determined young people, but a large percentage of the younger generation will be lost along the way.”

A government official who is familiar with Israeli government programs abroad said that in the past the government avoided such direct statements. “The usual definition of Taglit and Masa [programs for young Diaspora Jews] is that they were designed to reinforce the connection to Israel as a central component in the young people’s Jewish identity. That definition is a far cry from a program based on a war against assimilation and critical discourse. The definition of ‘critical discourse’ is controversial. Not all criticism is anti-Semitic. You have to handle the Jewish world with a lot of sensitivity, and there’s a danger that this important issue is turning in a battleground of Israeli politics.”

In recent years the government has conducted several discussions about ties with the Diaspora. In 2014 the government decided on a multi-year program “to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora and the ties between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel and Zionism.” Called the Government of Israel-World Jewry Joint Initiative, it was to be based on shared planning by the government and The Jewish Agency. One third of the budget is government-funded and two-thirds comes from outside sources, such as The Jewish Agency and Jewish or philanthropic organizations with one third, 190 million shekels ($50 million) from the government, and two thirds, 380 million shekels, from world Jewry, meant to be used by the end of 2017.

The government decision upgrades the Diaspora Ministry, granting it a relatively large budget. By comparison, in 2013 and 2014 the budget was about 30 million shekels, similar to the annual budget of the two flagship projects for Diaspora Jewry, Taglit and Masa.

In the coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, Bennett fenced off his ministry’s new territory by stating, “The exclusive authority to lead, promote and administer the program will be in the hands of the Diaspora Ministry.” The promise that the change would not alter the role of The Jewish Agency soon turned out to lack validity. But not only The Jewish Agency was kept out, so was the Prime Minister Minister’s Office and its supervisory powers.