The Jewish Agency, An Organization In Crisis?

Perhaps, perhaps not. But one thing is certain: in their relations with both the American Jewish community and the growing and influential world of Anglo Olim, JAFI is in serious need of a spin-doctor.

I remember well two plus years ago, when Zeev Bielski, the popular and charismatic Mayor of Ra’anana, with the genuine support of the American Jewish community defeated Natan Shransky for the position of Chairman of the Agency.

Today, it seems the love affair is over.

The Jewish Agency, known in Israel simply as the Sochnut, has roots all the way back to the early years of the British Mandate. Storied earlier leaders include David Ben-Gurion. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, a quasi-government new Jewish Agency for Israel was created to facilitate economic development and the absorption of immigrants.

Today, JAFI is an organization operating in almost 80 countries on five continents with a 2008 budget in excess of $300. million.

However, like so many other organizations, JAFI operates with a deficit, partially due to cutback’s initiated by the North American Federation community. And in today’s world, this means JAFI needs to tighten up and look elsewhere for funding, reduce programs, or both. They have done a commendable job during recent years clamping down on expenses, reducing waste and generally becoming more efficient. Slowly, they are even beginning to understand the word transparency.

But, they sure seem to be making miss-steps these days. Let’s look at two front page stories this week in the English language press. (Among most Israelis, the Sochnut has become so irrelevant, the organization almost never makes the Hebrew papers).

First, appearing a few days ago in Haaretz, and echoed in America, this article:

“Jewish Agency, interfaith group deal angers U.S. community”

We all know of the major agreement announced two weeks ago between JAFI and the IFCJ where in exchange for a three year pledge of $45. million Christian supporters of Israel will sit on the Jewish Agency Board. At the time, there were virtually no unfavorable comments coming from America. Today, this seems to have all changed. According to the Haartez article,

“An agreement on increased cooperation between the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has upset many American Jewish leaders.”

Are we seeing the beginning of a backlash? The talkbacks on the Haaretz article were 100% against the agreement and have all since been removed from the paper’s website.

The only comment from JAFI when I asked for a response was,

“no pressure has been exerted on the jewish agency by its constituents following it`s agreement with the ifcj.”

Yet, and again from Haaretz,

“American Jewish leaders have not yet drafted a formal protest. However, they conveyed their objection to agency officials informally, and, as a result, the formal signing ceremony that had been scheduled for this week has been postponed.”

The UJC has not responded to a response request.

Somehow, I think we have not heard the end of the story.


On a different note, and from the front page of today’s Jerusalem Post,

“Several ulpanim expected to shut down”


This is pure dollars and cents, or more correctly skelels. In a move to save money, the government will apparently cease funding several ulpanim in March. While the closure was a decision by the Ministry of Education (“I am not denying that we are making budget cuts,” said a ministry spokeswoman) the Jewish Agency makes partial payments to most ulpan programs and is certainly in a position to exert enormous pressure. According to one recent oleh and ulpan participant,

“It does not seem logical. I don’t know how they expect us to function in society without providing us with the basic tools to survive.”

I would be very curious to hear JAFI’s response.


So, where are we? what are JAFI’s priorities for 2008? If you think they are ‘upsetting the apple cart’ by allowing IFCJ representation on their Board, the relationship as of late with western olim is an embarassment. We’ll talk about this another time.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.