What Is the Jewish Agency That We Need?

by Professor Michael Chlenov

At the end of February, a scheduled session of the JAFI Trustee Council took place in Jerusalem. This session can be legitimately called revolutionary, as it presented a program of reforms developed by the team of JAFI chairman Natan Sharansky. Its ideology was presented by JAFI second-in command – its CEO and President himself, Misha Galperin – also a native of the USSR, who had an astoundingly quick career in the system of American Jewish federations.

According to its new concept, JAFI will now concentrate its attention not only on aliya, but on the development and support of the Jewish identity. The reformers are planning to give special attention to Russian-speaking Jews who are scattered throughout many different countries – Israel, the USA, Germany, Canada, Australia, and, of course, the former Soviet Union itself. As Galperin stated, “The time has to come to view the special form of national and ethnic identity of Russian-speaking Jews not as weakness or ignorance, but as strength!”

Indeed, this was the first time the international Jewish community had ever heard such words. For the last twenty years, the Zionist movement, as well as Israelis and the Western Diaspora in general, tended to view Russian Jews as a sort of “lost tribe,” isolated from Jewry as a whole and devoid of any roots. The Soviet Jews were to be taught what Jewry is and helped to assimilate quickly in a new Jewish environment. Yet, as we know, this process turned out to be rather difficult, and the greatest obstacle to this quick assimilation was that very particular Jewish self-awareness, based not on religion as the basic divisive element, but on an awareness of being a people and a national community.

And now those same Jewish leaders, carriers of that same worldview, have proclaimed the value of the national self-awareness of Russian Jews!

Naturally, we applaud this new ideology. But these is a serious organizational and administrative reform behind it, and, as always, a search for finances necessary for its realization. The latest session, even though it was somewhat flabbergasted by the innovations proposed, nonetheless voted to close all of the big JAFI departments that have existed since a time out of mind, the entire bureaucratic bastion of this structure: the aliya, education, and partnership with Israel departments. Instead, new departments will be made for separate projects, including a new super-department for Russian Jewry throughout the world.

It is supposed that JAFI is the only organization which can consolidate Russian Jewry and integrate it into world Jewry as a specific part of the Jewish people, and not as a dispersed crowd of individuals duped by the Soviets.

The idea in itself is not new. VAAD USSR attempted such a program as early as the beginning of the 1990s, but failed – it was far too early. The very same Sharansky and Galperin made another attempt around ten years ago, and failed as well. Then, 2003 saw the formation of the World Congress of Russian-speaking Jewry, headed today by Russian senator Boris Shpigel. But there does not seem to be much progress there, either – the organization is now focusing its attention on combating manifestations of Nazism in the Baltic states. A great part of this task is being done by the EAJC, which unites Russian-speaking Jews in the CIS. And, finally, there are quite a few organizations besides JAFI that also lay claim to worldwide activity – for example, the World Jewish Congress. JAFI has always had a different mission – a mission of Zionism, of collecting the diasporas.

We believe the main goal of JAFI today is to be a bridge between the Diaspora and Israel, to bring everything and anything Israel to the aged Jewish communities in different parts of the world. This is a task that no one else can do, and should become JAFI’s main task. JAFI should try to restore its severely tarnished reputation, restore the educational programs, devote serious time to Hebrew studies, bring information about Israel to our communities, and organize programs that will allow our Jews to visit Israel, to see and feel Israel.

We will see within the next few years whether the JAFI leadership will have been able to not only restore its lost potential, but to serve as a center of consolidation for Russian-speaking Diaspora Jews. This will largely depend on whether the JAFI leadership will be able to convince American sponsors that their task is truly nonlocal, but important to all Jews. Much will also depend on whether JAFI will be able to integrate the leaders of Russian-speaking Jews into its own structures. Right now CIS Jews are largely absent even from regular work, let alone from the leadership, of this large and important Jewish organization.

Professor Michael Chlenov is Secretary-General of Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.