By Sam Sokol/JNS.org
JERUSALEM- Announcing his pending retirement during an interview last week, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s outgoing two-term Chairman Natan Sharansky said the venerable Zionist institution needed “new people and new ideas,” igniting speculation on the identity of a possible successor.
News the former government minister and Soviet refusenik will step down in 2017 also fueled further discussion of the continuing relevance of the quasi-governmental entity, whose role in the wider Jewish world has come under fire in some quarters, following a series of high-profile financial and political setbacks during his tenure.
Since Sharansky took the helm in 2009, the agency has lost a great deal of funding from the Jewish Federation system, underwent an organizational and strategic reorganization and promoted a massive Diaspora outreach program, the control of which was subsequently lost to Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.
While many are still confident in the continuing relevance of the agency, some have begun questioning its role in a Jewish landscape significantly different from that of its heyday. During a briefing at a board of governors meeting last year, agency representatives were grilled by representatives of American Jewish institutions on their ability to run aliyah programs in the face of increasing competition from the evangelical-funded International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which has begun providing aliyah programs of its own in France, Ukraine and other countries.
At the heart of the issue was Sharansky’s 2009 strategic realignment of the agency, which merged its aliyah unit with other departments and saw it gain a “revised focus” on the fostering of Jewish identity abroad.
One board member went so far as to assert that falling budgets imperiled the organization’s ability to continue providing aliyah services when faced with rising competition. Another asserted it was “not a good strategic decision to get out of the aliyah business.”
While agency representatives countered that they were actually expanding aliyah efforts, it was clear to many observers that under Sharansky the main focus had gone from encouraging aliyah to strengthening identity.
Changing the focus
Speaking at a board meeting a year earlier, former board chairman James Tisch was blunt, saying the organization’s “reputation has bottomed” and was pinning his hopes on the group’s new Diaspora initiative, which, he said, will “in many ways be our future.”
However, in a series of political battles between Sharansky and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennet in late 2015, Sharansky was forced out of the initiative just as the IFCJ was making a renewed push to compete in the aliyah sphere. It was during the same period that the Jewish Agency’s chief fundraiser, Gisha Halperin, resigned.
“For a variety of reasons the federation system has been raising less, giving fewer dollars overseas, keeping more at home and adopting projects bypassing JAFI (the Jewish Agency for Israel),” IFCJ founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein told JNS.org, accusing the agency of lacking a raison d’être.
Citing dwindling budgets and competition from his own organization, Eckstein alleged that under Sharansky the agency had “missed the boat” and will be unable to continue to remain relevant.
The reason, he said, was that Sharansky, despite widely being considered a hero in the United States, is not a fundraiser.
“They have to decide what they want to do in life when they get older,” Eckstein added.
Others, however, are more bullish, citing continuing programs such as campus emissaries, the agency’s management of Israel experience programs, like Masa, and its continuing role as a convener of Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.
The agency, said former English-language spokesman Michael Jankelowitz, is the “only organization in the world where all religious streams and Zionist political movements sit together as equals,” serving as a sort of “parliament of the Jewish people.”
Citing Sharansky’s successful brokering of a deal to provide non-Orthodox Jews with a prayer space at the Western Wall, Jankelowitz said the organization is “still the most vital organization for fostering Diaspora-Israeli relations.”
While Sharansky’s departure will leave a “significant void,” said World Zionist Organization’s David Breakstone, PhD., he has left “sound infrastructure” which has brought over significant numbers of immigrants, worked hard to close social gaps in Israel and increased support for Israel on American campuses.
Asked about the ongoing discussion regarding its future, a spokesman for the agency dismissed criticism, citing its involvement in bringing over 30,000 immigrants to Israel last year and dismissing recent efforts by Eckstein.
“There is no organization with the infrastructure, experience, and know-how necessary to bring significant numbers of immigrants to Israel aside from the Jewish Agency,” the spokesman said. He added that his organization was actively involved in running summer camps in the former Soviet Union, leadership training courses in Latin America and other similar initiatives.
Speaking with JNS.org, one agency board member agreed with critics to the extent that a new tack was needed, although he was decidedly less negative than Eckstein, who’s had something of an adversarial relationship with the agency in recent years.
“The Jewish Agency must find a unique value-added proposition to the very dynamic relationship between Israel and the Diaspora in order to survive,” Daniel Goldman told JNS.org. “It’s for the leadership to decide, but it can be through education, aliya, or even in a more political role. The core questions dominating the debate are complex and need people who deeply understand both Israel and the various Diaspora communities. If it so chooses, the Agency can be remain a very relevant player.”