The Once and Future Greatness of The Jewish Agency for Israel

Students from the Arava-Australia partnership; courtesy The Jewish Agency. Source: eJP archives.

By Bob Hyfler

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the idea however is to change it.”

No person in history understood and acted on Marx’s dictum more than David Ben Gurion. His was an obsession with a single goal – the creation of a Jewish state, modern and democratic, and a set of steps necessary to accomplish the goal. The organization founded 90 years ago would be the instrument to make Herzl’s dream a reality. The agenda of the Jewish Agency for Israel would have political, military, diplomatic, social, educational and financial components, all aimed at the creation of a state yet to be born. Of the many revolutionaries of the turbulent 20th century none was as successful as Ben Gurion, and no organization has met its founding purpose in a manner greater than The Jewish Agency for Israel. One must give history and its actors their due.

Yet today it is a truism in organizational and Zionist circles to say that the luster, if not the effectiveness, of the Jewish Agency has waned. Greatness is not a word associated with the agency and it’s programs.

“Programs.” The word itself sums up the predicament of JAFI. It is today a warehouse of programs without a strong overriding purpose. Many of the programs are impactful. Some might even be described as excellent. However what is missing is an across the board connection to its founding purpose: To create and sustain a viable state within the historic homeland of the Jews.

Many explanations are given as to why and how this has come about. Some would point to the “not so great man in history” theory, the absence of truly visionary leadership and a series of ill-suited professionals at the top. Others posit a Byzantine and unworkable governance and operational structures with multiple stakeholders and constituencies jockying for power and influence. (Some would say this culture is too “Israeli,” the embodiment of Israeli statism, as if Israel is not in the agency’s name.)

Lastly there are the true believers who continue to see vibrancy, new direction and a leadership up to the task. Blame is placed on elements in the American philanthropic establishment and the failure of Federations to meet their historic responsibilities. Success and greatness is just another $100 million or $200 million away.

Yet as what has already been stated, the malaise of JAFI is the failure to stay razor focused on the “old man’s” vision and charge. While 70 years ago it was to in-gather the exiles and build from scratch the infrastructure of the state, today the charge must be to sustain and build on that which was created. Most importantly, it is to attack and overcome those chronic roadblocks and impediments that undermine the vision of Israel’s founders.

And what might those impediments be? I would suggest two (out of a possible list of three or four.) In regard to these the Jewish Agency has the experience and skill sets to be a force for game changing good.

First, Israel has the greatest economic inequality of any modern industrialized democracy. In very large part it is linked to the nation’s failures in integrating women into the workforce.

Second, the “tribal” divides within Israeli society (secular, national religious, Arab, Haredi) as so eloquently defined by President Reuven Rivlin, impedes the emergence of an harmonious Israeli identity that is pluralistic, tolerant and respectful toward all. History tells us that either deep seeded group divisions or unacceptable gaps between rich and poor can, and have, derailed states and societies from within.

A comment, at this point, on Diaspora/Jewish relations and Jewish identity in the Diaspora, two priorities that have taken a strong hold within the 21st Century JAFI agenda. It takes few words, and even less exegesis, to conclude that the ever increasing sorry state of Israel/Diaspora relations is, in its majority, a by-product of the occupation. Of course, for those who cannot even bring themselves to say the “O” word no problem exists – just some understandable cultural differences easily overcome by a visit to Massada and a night out in Tel Aviv. For many of the rest of us, including generations under 40, it looms heavy over every conversation and every interaction. Some of us rationalize it, some hide from it (and Israel), some of us fight it. The Jewish Agency is ill suited to address its root causes.

On the question of Diaspora Jewish identity, my four decades of engagement on the issue tells me that the issue will primarily be addressed in the Diaspora with Diasporic initiatives. Israelis and JAFI can be allies and a resource but hardly the primary address for action. There are many other ways Israeli society can be a blessing to World Jewry but those ways begin on the Israeli home front as it hopefully becomes a light unto other communities.

Greatness is situational and always of the moment. It requires the smarts to understand what is required and the resolve to push forward and deliver. The Jewish Agency for Israel built the Jewish state. Can it now, in 2019, ensure, through its unique talents, Israeli sustainability?

Bob Hyfler has four decades of experience in the vineyards of Jewish communal work as a professional and today as a member of a national agency board. He is in the process of relocating to Palm Beach County where he looks forward to voting in a “purple” state.