Jewish Agency head warns incoming government not to alienate world Jewry

Cautionary statements come as likely coalition members propose measures that would dramatically reduce immigration, delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, gives his inaugural speech after being elected in Jerusalem on July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, gives his inaugural speech after being elected in Jerusalem on July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the Jewish Agency for Israel on Sunday warned the presumed incoming coalition against alienating world Jewry, after its members recently proposed legislation that would radically cut immigration to Israel and delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

“As the challenging task of forming a new government gets underway, we believe that it is critical to ensure our relations with world Jewry remain intact, and that the everlasting commitment to enable Jews from all corners of the globe to make aliyah must be upheld,” Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog said in a statement, using a Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body tasked with encouraging and facilitating immigration to Israel and with maintaining Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, has found itself in an uncomfortable position over the past week and a half, as the likely coalition has raised a number of proposals that would dramatically alter or threaten its mission. However, as a technically independent body that nevertheless operates largely in lockstep with the Israeli government, the organization has sought to avoid direct confrontations with the nascent coalition.

That proclivity toward noninterference has become more difficult to maintain as religious lawmakers’ statements have become more hawkish, leading to Almog’s statement, which used a reserved tone but was subtly critical.

Last Monday, a member of the far-right Religious Zionist party demanded that the government close the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, an area that is funded in part and supported by the Jewish Agency.

Last Wednesday, religious parties called for ending the so-called “grandchild clause” that allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate freely to Israel so long as they do not practice another religion.

The Jewish Agency is on the record as supporting the Law of Return and dedicates a significant portion of its resources to encouraging all those who meet Israel’s citizenship eligibility requirements — including no small number of “grandchildren” — to immigrate to Israel.

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich at the party’s campaign headquarters after election day, November 1, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

On Sunday, the Otzma Yehudit party called for ending official recognition of non-Orthodox conversions for the purposes of citizenship, a move with limited practical implications, but a deep symbolic slight against the Reform and Conservative movements.

On this too, the Jewish Agency is on record as supporting religious pluralism. The organization is also supported financially in no small part by American Jews, most of them Reform and Conservative.

In his statement, Almog stressed the importance of unity and respect for all denominations of Judaism.

“At this hour, we believe that nothing is more important than the unity of the Jewish people, including all its denominations, as well as protecting the strategic relations with world Jewry through ongoing dialogue. The Jewish Agency will continue to be the bridge connecting Israel and Jews the world over,” Almog said.

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