AnalysisThe Sharansky-Herzog transition

With a new leader, can the storied Jewish Agency buck 50 years of decline?

Deep changes in the culture and expectations of overseas donors have brought more money to Israel than ever before, but at the expense of big umbrellas like the agency

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Former Jewish Agency head Nathan Sharansky and then incoming Jewish Agency chair Isaac Herzog at an event welcoming some 300 new immigrants from France on a special 'aliyah' flight organized by the agency, at Ben Gurion Airport on July 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Jewish Agency head Nathan Sharansky and then incoming Jewish Agency chair Isaac Herzog at an event welcoming some 300 new immigrants from France on a special 'aliyah' flight organized by the agency, at Ben Gurion Airport on July 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In August, Isaac Herzog took the helm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, one of Israel’s largest nonprofits. Before 1948, the agency was the central player in the establishment of the State of Israel, and in the early years of the state served a vital role in its development. But that was seven decades ago. Over the last half-century, the Jewish Agency (Full disclosure: This writer was a spokesman for the organization from 2010 to 2012) has experienced a long, slow decline, with many questioning its purpose and continued existence.

In part, this decline was inevitable and foreseen. At one of the first gatherings of the Jewish Agency’s board after the founding of the state, then-prime minister (and previous Jewish Agency chairman) David Ben Gurion proposed shuttering the organization.

Once the house is built, he told the assembled leaders, you take down the scaffolding. The pre-state agency was the scaffolding — it ran the Jewish community’s pre-state school system and local councils, as well as its foreign affairs, including its contacts with the British Mandatory government — and the independent State of Israel was the house it had helped build.

In the end, Ben Gurion’s suggestion was dismissed, and for good reason. The Jewish Agency had vital roles to play as the main platform for connecting Diaspora Jews — and, crucially, their diplomatic and financial support — to Israel. And perhaps more importantly in the early years of the state, it could encourage and facilitate aliyah, or Jewish immigration, where the official Israeli state could not.

For a long time, it was pretty much the only game in town. As late as 1975, American Jewish donations to Israel amounted to some $283 million (equal to about $1 billion in 2007 dollars), and the Jewish Agency got $223 million of that sum, or 79% of all donations to Israel that year, according to a 2012 report by Brandeis University researchers Eric Fleisch and Theodore Sasson.

But starting in the 1970s, both American Jewish donors and Israeli nonprofits began questioning that primacy and establishing new channels for philanthropic giving that bypassed the old centralized institutions.

Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel with Operation Dove's Wings in October 2012 (photo courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel)
Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel with Operation Dove’s Wings in October 2012. (Courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel)

By the 1980s, the slow but steady decline of the agency in both importance and funding was in full swing, and has continued unabated ever since.

In 1985, the agency’s share of American Jewish giving to Israel had dropped to 56%. By 1994, it was 29%. By 2007, the last year measured in the report, the total giving to Israel reached a whopping $2.059 billion (boosted temporarily by the emergency campaigns in the wake of the Second Lebanon War), but just $330 million, or 16%, was sent through the Jewish Agency.

In 2018, the American Jewish federations, the main source of American Jewish funding for the agency, are expected to give about $113 million, according to an operating budget presented by the agency in February.

The financial shift the agency has undergone also reflects something important about the American Jewish federations. They, too, were the main losers in the shift of donor attention and expectations that began in the 1970s. They remain indispensable pillars of American Jewish life in the sense that their disappearance would deal a profound blow to a broad array of Jewish educational institutions and charities, but not in the literal sense that the American Jewish community would cease to function, or cease to be able to fund itself, as may have been true in the past.

Neither the federations nor the agency are the main agents of this decline. It has deep roots in American culture, and is part of a broader phenomenon that has seen similar trends in non-Jewish American philanthropy over the past five decades. American Jews, like other Americans, have moved from what the scholar Jack Wertheimer has called “expressive” giving — giving to a cause out of a sense of identification — to “instrumental” giving — giving that attempts to effect meaningful change in the world. The Jewish Agency and the American Jewish federations were the recipients of a great deal of identity-expressing donations over the decades, of donations from Jews who felt they were showing their affiliation through their contributions. But as donors shifted to thinking more about the direct results of their giving, they sought more control and a narrower focus for their philanthropy. It is there that large umbrella institutions like the federations or the agency now find themselves at a disadvantage.

There is good evidence that the Israeli nonprofit world has been aware of these changes for some time, and has reacted effectively to take advantage of them. According to the 2012 Fleisch-Sasson report, Israelis long ago stopped thinking of the one-time mainstays of American Jewish philanthropy — federations and, in Israel, the agency — as central to their fundraising abroad.

View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The report found that Israelis are founding growing numbers of organizations in the United States that fundraise for individual causes or institutions independently, allowing donors a direct relationship with a particular cause or institution, rather than asking them to contribute to an amorphous “Israel.”

In 1989, there were 265 such “American friends” organizations operating in America that allowed Americans to send donations to a specific Israeli target. By 2000, the figure had ballooned to 436. By 2010, it was 667.

This trend was true across all categories of donations. Israel’s secular universities and religious seminaries, progressive activist groups and settlements, hospitals, museums and theaters — all were fundraising actively and independently in the US.

The result has been a steady rise in Jewish giving to Israel, even as the once-central pipelines for that giving have slowly withered.

The Central Bureau of Statistics has found that overall giving from abroad to Israeli nonprofits, the bulk of which is made up by American Jewish philanthropy, rose from roughly $1.95 billion in 2009 to $2.91 billion in 2015, according to Brandeis researcher Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim.

Israeli NGOs no longer need, and growing numbers of donors no longer want, a big federation or lumbering Jewish Agency to bring them together.

A plenary at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (Flickr/JFNAMarketing)

It is easy to look at these trends and dismiss the agency as a has-been. As with most things, such sentiments are too simple. For one thing, the federations that fund it remain a massive philanthropic mainstay. According to Shaul Bar Nissim, they have sent some $2.3 billion to Israel between 2000 and 2015, no chump change in the context of the Israeli nonprofit world that these dollars helped fund.

The Jewish Agency, too, remains an immense force for good in Israel and abroad. It still spends, together with various organizations that co-fund its programs, the largest of which is the Israeli government itself, over $362 million each year in Israel and around the Jewish world.

The Jewish Agency puts up the $11 million annually needed to sustain the Youth Futures program, in which nearly 300 mentors help at-risk schoolchildren in the neglected peripheries of Israeli society to stay in school and deal with life’s challenges. About $27 million go each year to fund “youth villages,” where teens with severe family or emotional problems can go live, and where they can find the comprehensive educational and social help they need to become functioning adults.

It funds the hundreds of young shlichim, or emissaries, who go out from Israel each year to Jewish communities around the world and are now working in almost 100 communities and on 150 campuses. That costs about $22 million.

The list is long, and some of it is not easily replaced: housing, Hebrew classes and integration help for new immigrants ($47 million); pensions for former prisoners of Zion who lost years of livelihood for their Zionist activism ($2 million); 57 sheltered housing complexes belonging to the agency’s subsidiary company Amigour that are home to thousands of elderly, most of them Holocaust survivors; and some $5 million each year to Birthright Israel and another roughly $5 million for Onward Israel’s summer programs in Israel.

Any casual talk of “closing” the agency must contend with the human costs that would ensue from the shuttering or shrinking of such programs. A large number of people, some of them the most vulnerable members of Israeli society, others Diaspora Jews looking for a deeper connection to Israel, would lose vital resources if the Jewish Agency were allowed to wither away.

Immigrants at a transit camp in Israel, 1950. (Jewish Agency/Wikipedia)

The agency is cursed with the comparison to its past glory, and saddled further by the blow this deals to its internal self-esteem as employees grapple with the persistent specter of cuts, year after year.

But there are upsides, too, in this decline. One of them might be that the agency is freer from Israeli politics than it once was — for example, its chairman can be selected against the wishes of the Israeli prime minister — and thus better able to represent not only the Israeli government’s needs to Diaspora communities, but Diaspora communities’ needs and expectations to the Israeli government. This was certainly its role under the most recent chairman, Natan Sharansky.

Isaac Herzog’s appointment has likely strengthened this new independence.

There is also great potential in the agency’s natural donor audience, American Jews, who are measurably the most generous group in America. According to 2017’s Giving USA report, Jewish households give on average $2,526 to charitable causes each year, much higher than their Protestant ($1,749) and Catholic ($1,142) counterparts. At the same time, Jews are likelier to give, with 76% of American Jews donating in 2012, compared to 63% among all other Americans.

Can the generations-long fundraising crisis serve as a catalyst for the kind of liberating change the organization needs to take advantage of this potential?

In the end, the Jewish Agency must find its footing in this new world. Sharansky knew that, as does Herzog.

Then-outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and chairman-elect Isaac Herzog following Herzog’s election at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem, June 24, 2018. (Nir Kafri for The Jewish Agency for Israel/courtesy)

“It’s an organization that really doesn’t know how to tell its story. That’s why people doubt its necessity,” Herzog told The Times of Israel in an interview published Friday. He went on to insist its demise would be “a disaster,” and to promise to examine new avenues of fundraising.

But the shift has turned out to be harder to implement than agency leaders expected. An organization that helped forge the Israeli state and the society that flourished within it these past seven decades has struggled to retool and reimagine itself in the context of the strange, foreign culture (at least to its Israeli staffers) of its major donor base. In an age when the donor can no longer be taken for granted, this reimagining carries existential significance for the organization.

Last month, just two weeks into Herzog’s term, the agency’s top fundraiser, Josh Fogelson, announced he was leaving after three years on the job. Rumors in the organization say Herzog was displeased when he learned of the lackluster fundraising under Fogelson. But, of course, the failure was not Fogelson’s, who was considered a successful fundraiser in the Minnesota Jewish community and later at the Joint Distribution Committee.

Jewish Agency chairmen (as yet, only men have held the position) like to talk about “engagement,” “dialogue,” “peoplehood” and “platforms” for Israel-Diaspora relations. By the time he leaves the organization, Herzog’s term will be measured not by such vague rhetoric, but by hard numbers: Did the Jewish Agency under his watch, bucking a five-decade trend, successfully grasp the new shape of things and refashion itself as an attractive answer to the aspirations of a changing world?

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