Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky accused the Diaspora Affairs Ministry of unprecedented, highly damaging intervention, which threatens to derail an urgent program for stepped-up pro-Israel activism on US campuses.

Sharansky told The Times of Israel Thursday that the campus project is the first phase of a major, multi-year World Jewry Joint Initiative. The initiative has its origins in talks that began two years ago between the agency and the Prime Minister’s Office about streamlining all efforts between Israel and Diaspora organizations to boost Jewish identity.

In the past, he noted, there have been a series of programs started by the Diaspora and then backed by Israel, or vice versa. Birthright, for instance, was an initiative of Diaspora philanthropists that the government agreed to support. Masa, by contrast, was a government initiative that world Jewry chose to support.

The idea behind the talks that began two years ago was to work together from the start.

“The goal was to define areas of interest to the Israeli government and world Jewry, to develop projects together (on bolstering Jewish identity) and to finance them together,” said Sharansky.

The consultations had made considerable headway by the time of the January 2013 elections. After those elections, said Sharansky, the prime minister said he would continue to lead the project, and that the new Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s ministry would implement it on the government’s behalf.

The plan was for every dollar spent by the government to be matched with two dollars from world Jewry. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would support any arrangement that was agreed upon by world Jewry.

The Jewish Agency’s challenge was to organize discussion on the programming between the government and the world Jewish community, including the North American Jewish Federations, Keren Hayesod and the WZO.

Over the past year and a half, Sharansky said, two major seminars were held in the US and Israel, with 150 educators and other specialists. Thousands of others around the world were involved over the Internet with the “Securing the Jewish Future” brainstorming session.

The illustration depicting trends one finds on the '3 Patterns' section of the Securing the Jewish Future website. (screenshot)

Illustration depicting trends one finds on the ‘3 Patterns’ section of the ‘Securing the Jewish Future’ website. (photo credit: Screenshot)

In June, he said, the government committed to putting money into the initiative, which JTA reported at upwards of $50 million through 2017. Sharansky said the overall initiative is supposed to reach an annual budget of $300 million after five years.

At a June meeting of the coordinating committee, chaired by Netanyahu and Sharansky, with the participation of the relevant ministers and officials from the agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, WZO and Keren Hayesod, Netanyahu said it was time to move from discussion to the implementation of pilot projects. He charged the Jewish Agency with coordinating world Jewry’s input and Bennett doing likewise with that of the government, Sharansky said.

In discussion with its partners, the Jewish Agency proposed focusing the pilot project on campuses — particularly given ongoing delegitimization of Israel and with the likelihood of anti-Israel campus activism getting worse in the imminent new academic year, because of the conflict with Hamas. Just days ago, the Jewish Agency, WZO, Keren Hayesod and the JFNA voted unanimously to present this project for stepped-up campus focus as the first proposed pilot project.

“Now we come to the ridiculous part,” said Sharansky. “And it’s crazy that we have to be talking about it during a war.” He said that during a conference call, as the Jewish Agency and its partners were discussing and voting on this project, some of them got an email from an adviser to minister Bennett, asking them not to vote on the proposal because the ministry had not reached an agreement with the Jewish Agency on its role and thus a vote now would cause problems for the government of Israel.

(A Diaspora Ministry Affairs official told The Times of Israel the ministry was only made aware of the Jewish Agency vote minutes before the conference call was scheduled. After quick consultation, the ministry decided to ask members, via email, to postpone their vote.)

“No members, to their credit, even raised the issue during the call,” said Sharansky. “They all voted unanimously.” Afterwards, however, he said, many of them asked what was going on.

Subsequently, said Sharansky, the director general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Dvir Kahana, wrote to a large number of world Jewish leaders about the whole initiative, in a letter sidelining the Jewish Agency, not mentioning the Prime Minister’s Office, and declaring that the ministry would be coordinating the process. This intervention was first publicized on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

Who is in charge?

The government decision that launched the World Jewry Initiative has created a structure through which this project is working, PMO spokesman Mark Regev told The Times of Israel. The top level is a special committee of directors general of the PMO’s office ministries, including Foreign Affairs, Education, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.

Under that special committee is a steering committee, whose exact makeup is still being determined, said Regev, but will include members of the government, the Jewish Agency, and representatives of world Jewry.

“The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is implementing government policy on the steering committee,” said Regev.

A Diaspora Affairs Ministry official told The Times of Israel the ministry sees this initiative as a historic opportunity to create a strategic plan for the Jewish world to strengthen Jewish identity and to enhance Jews’ connections to the State of Israel.

“Let’s use this as an opportunity to think big, to think strategically,” he said.

‘Let’s use this as an opportunity to think big, to think strategically’

He used the metaphor of a highway for Diaspora Jewish youth, aged 12-35, in which there are stops along the way for programs for bar mitzva teens, high school programs, Birthright, young professionals, etc.

Noting that many programs already exist for this age group, he said some of these programs will either be scaled up or broadened, and enhanced for other countries where they don’t exist.

“For that to happen, there are three stages we need to cross. One, create the plan — what’s on ‘the highway’? Two, create the entity and the governance that will have the authority to run the entity… And three, collect resources,” he said.

The Diaspora Ministry said a “cooperative and transparent” decision-making process is a key element of the initiative.

“Naturally, just as the Israeli government would not be in the position to dictate how Jewish funds or philanthropic entities allocate resources, the Israeli government, through its representatives, will be the only ones deciding on how to spend Israeli taxpayer money,” said the ministry.

The Prime Minister’s Office said it shares the enthusiasm of its partners in the initiative and looks forward to working with them in the coming months to finalize the strategic goals. The strategic goals will be determined when the committee of the directors convenes in the Jewish New Year, in accordance with its mandate.

Jewish Agency has historic role in dialogue

Sharansky expressed dismay at what he said was Kahana’s assertion that the ministry is responsible for dialogue with Diaspora Jewry, to the exclusion of the Jewish Agency. He said Kahana had told Diaspora leaders that “he doesn’t permit us to have this dialogue without his control. I just dismissed his words.”

Sharansky said the agency decided to proceed as planned with the campus pilot project “on the basis of the prime minister’s public declarations to the effect that he wanted to have us move forward.”

Sharansky stressed that the Jewish Agency’s role of dialogue with world Jewry is both historic and essential.

‘The Israeli government, with its political makeup, cannot always interact smoothly with all streams of Judaism’

“The Israeli government, with its political makeup, cannot always interact smoothly with all streams of Judaism, for instance,” he said, “and some parts of world Jewry have problems with this or that political party in Israel. At the Jewish Agency, at the same table, sit representatives of all streams of Judaism, including the Reform and Conservatives, different political parties, different countries. When there’s real trouble — over issues like non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, or the definition of who is a Jew — the government’s first call is to the Jewish Agency to help, to organize the dialogue.

“So it’s not by accident that this whole process (for boosting Jewish identity) was developed between the government and the Jewish Agency with all its partners,” said Sharansky.

“As long as it looked like the Diaspora Affairs Ministry director-general is merely a young man who doesn’t understand, that was one thing,” said Sharansky. “But now we had an unprecedented effort to interfere in the Jewish Agency decision-making process — sending a letter to JFNA heads and others; saying don’t vote (on the pilot project), and then publicizing that his ministry will be running all this.

“I’m making a fuss,” claimed Sharansky, “because it’s a big, important project. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is needed. But the Jewish Agency has a key role. The Prime Minister’s Office sees us as a central partner and now there’s lots of confusion.”

Pro-Israel students at UCLA distribute material in March. A new study says the University of California system is the scene of regular anti-Israel activism, setting it apart from the vast majority of US and Canadian campuses. (Hasbara Fellowships via JTA)

Illustrative photo of pro-Israel students at UCLA distributing material in March. A new study says the University of California system is the scene of regular anti-Israel activism, setting it apart from the vast majority of US and Canadian campuses. (photo credit: Hasbara Fellowships via JTA)

Sharansky stressed the urgency of starting the pilot project — a $30-million project — this year.

“The war is still on here,” he continued. “And now we’ll be in a war on the US campus battlefield. Every day we’re talking to our partners, including Hillel, for this battle. Our reserves forces, our Israel Fellows, are discussing the steps to take. We want to unite our efforts. We can’t afford to be stopped and distracted by these petty power games.”

Sharansky said the goal is for the pilot project to start “immediately” — to be presented to the government, approved by the committee of ministries’ directors general, and implemented. Of the $30 million in finance, two-thirds is to come from Diaspora Jewry “and we have guarantees from our partners for financing.”

By contrast, he said, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry says it doesn’t want to discuss specific plans yet, but first to work on structure, “a year of planning. We say start now.”

The Diaspora Ministry official said, however, “We are not delaying at all, we are in constant consultations with all potential partners and working together to create an initiative that will bring out the strategic value and proportion of what this initiative could potentially be for the Jewish people.”

“We’re in dialogue with the Jewish Agency on the best way to move forward. Our position is that to skip over the creation of a strategic plan for the initiative would do a disservice for the initiative and the Jewish people,” he added.

Two steps forward, one step back?

In light of the emergency created through Operative Protective Edge and the subsequent challenges faced on campuses in North America, the PMO’s office said it supports efforts to move forward expeditiously.

“If the Jewish Agency is ready, in cooperation with the other partners, for the coming academic year, we support Sharansky on that,” said PMO spokesman Regev.

Sharansky said the specific urgent project now aims to bring as many young Jews to Israel on new and existing Israel Experience programs. It also aims to encourage those coming back from programs in Israel to maximize their activism on campus, working together with local activists, and with the agency’s Israel Fellows — emissaries from Israel, sent out by the agency.

“It’s a synergy of existing and developing projects, designed to turn leading campuses into Israel-engaged campuses,” he said.

In any case, stressed Sharansky, “we are sending additional people to campus. We are making tactical moves. But this is a strategic project, designed to have strategic influence on campus. And it needs to start now.

“If it gets pushed off even to January 1,” he stated, “then this year’s students are lost. And this year, I fear, will be more difficult on US campuses than even during the Second Intifada.”