The Jewish Agency Plays Local Politics in Kiev

The Jewish Agency for Israel (The Agency) is a storied organization with a long history of assisting building the Jewish State. Today, with aliyah mostly an aliyah by choice, The Agency is trying to reinvent itself by focusing significant resources around Jewish Identity. While the “jury is still out” on the success of the latest strategic plan, the organization gets credit for moving forward, sharpening its focus and trimming [a meaningful amount of] excess fat.

Governance of The Agency is complicated. The Board consists of a mix of organizational CEO’s, wealthy donors, committed lay professionals and political hacks. In practice, despite denials, the Chair of the Executive serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. Every faction has their own agenda and only a small minority are truly dedicated to what is best for The Agency. Like the recent coalition discussions, all too many initiatives, and budgetary expenses, are subject to back-room negotiation.

All this pales compared to the political manipulations of organized Jewish life today in some countries of the Former Soviet Union [and Europe] and is currently playing out relative to the upcoming meeting of the Board of Governors scheduled to take place in Kiev in three months.

Last month, Josef Zissels – Chairman of Vaad of Ukraine – in a widely circulated letter, advocated for cancelling the upcoming session due to, as he described, the “challenges and risks … in holding the next Session of the Board of the Jewish Agency in Ukraine”. With life in Jewish Ukraine today being what it is, other prominent local powers (including Vadim Rabinovich) weighed in advocating for keeping the meeting as is. This was to be expected, for as many of us know, if Zissels says it is snowing outside, Rabinovich will insist the sun is shining. Meanwhile, neither would have bothered to actually look outside or check the local news.

Yesterday, The Agency finally responded saying, “Our partners in Ukraine see this prestigious gathering of representatives of Jewish communities and leading Zionist organizations in Kiev as a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the renaissance of Jewish life there.”

So, as of now, the Board meeting goes on as planned. But this is a stark reminder of how Jewish life functions today, on the ground, in some countries. The playing of egos make Israel’s recent coalition discussions appear minor league. Secondarily, the intersection of real-life politics can be hazardous to one’s health, as Rabinovich himself experienced just last week.

As to The Agency, long-time observers tell eJP they had no choice but to proceed with the meeting barring either the Israeli or Ukrainian government pulling the plug. Three years ago The Agency was forced to cancel their Board meeting scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia. A second cancellation in an FSU country would have been a significant embarrassment to both the organization and Sharansky.