The Jewish Agency: Bold Gamble or Huge Miscalculation?

Israel’s politics are not for the amateur. Nor, in many cases, those of the organized Jewish world. But neither prepares you for the contemporary global stage – even if your name is Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky thought he could play with the big boys. He even thought the Jewish Agency could operate freely in the former Soviet Union. He rolled the dice and lost. Badly.

The cancellation of the Jewish Agency’s upcoming Board meeting in St. Petersburg is actually a big deal. It is a loss of prestige both for the organization and for Sharansky personally. It calls into question the support of the various Russian billionaires he has been wooing and were expected to attend.

This is mostly political – the global kind. It’s about philanthropist and Jewish Agency Board member Leonid Nevzlin and the fact the Russian government considers him a fugitive. It’s about Sharansky, quite properly, not being able to assure the powers that be in Russia that Khodorkovsky‘s imprisonment would not be discussed in the public dialogue.

But this is also a serious management failure by the Jewish Agency. It is clear they did not obtain the necessary permissions for this meeting. Whether through bungling, chutzpah, internal politics or just plain ego they announced this historic event without all their ducks in order.

And somewhere in the middle of all this is Israel’s Foreign Ministry and what Avigdor Lieberman, with all his professed ties to Russia’s leadership, did or did not do to salvage the moment.

Many in Israel consider the Jewish Agency an obsolete organization; one whose mission has been fulfilled and has no place in the 21st century. I disagree. That a revised vision is necessary is beyond doubt. But they are definitely moving forward. This is a set-back they will overcome. But the cancellation of the St. Petersburg venue is not just some little PR hick-cup that can be pushed aside. Some bold move is necessary to repair the damage. Let us hope that both the Jewish Agency and Sharansky are up to the task.

And for those who also operate on the global stage and were pleased at yesterday’s turn of events, take heed. The meeting’s cancellation needs to serve as a wake-up call for all Jewish organizations operating in Russia. The politics of yesterday may be different but there is no assurance of being able to operate as freely next week as last.