Melchior: Don't Downgrade the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs

As Olmert is poised to announce who will receive responsibility for Diaspora Affairs, the member of Knesset most familiar with the portfolio has pleaded for the premier not to sideline the issue.

As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is poised to announce who will receive responsibility for Diaspora Affairs, the member of Knesset most familiar with the portfolio has pleaded for the premier not to sideline the issue.

"I hope and trust that the prime minister will appoint someone for whom this will be his main work," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, who has served as minister for Diaspora Affairs three times since the post was created in 1999. "I hope it will be someone suitable for the post. Just as not everyone can be defense minister or justice minister, if it is not done properly, then it's a waste of time."

As reported in Haaretz last week, for more than a year no minister has wanted to oversee Israel's relationship with the Diaspora and the last two staffers dealing with the matter have been dismissed. However, sources in the Prime Minister's Office have indicated that Olmert will appoint someone in the coming days, likely a minister responsible for an additional portfolio.

"You could say that the prime minister has had the wrong priorities to have sat for so long without appointing someone, but then again, there is also no social affairs minister. Political interests and other things take precedence over matters of crucial substance," said Melchior, who is currently chairman of the Knesset Committee for Education, Culture and Sport.

"I'd like to see it be a full ministerial post and be given the weight it should have. That's what [former prime minister] Ariel Sharon wanted, although he didn't implement it."

Melchior first served as minister of Diaspora Affairs [plus Jerusalem and social affairs] when the post was created by then prime minister Ehud Barak in 1999. Melchior also held the portfolio under Sharon's unity government when serving as deputy minister of foreign affairs. He received the post for the third time when then minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs Natan Sharansky quit the cabinet due to his objections to the disengagement plan in 2005.

Melchior, who represents Labor-Meimad in the Knesset and is considered a political and religious moderate, sheds some light on the reluctance of other politicians to take on the brief, which includes, among other things, fighting anti-Semitism, working to restore Jewish property plundered in the Holocaust and involvement in the Taglit-birthright Israel and Masa programs, which bring Jewish youth on visits to Israel.

"It's like work with children," he said. "As world Jewry does not vote here, the people you work with and for don't have the chance to vote for you. Putting your efforts into this is not very good for your local political career."

Moreover, he continued, "the Jewish world is not of big interest in the State of Israel. For example, it is given a very minor place in the media. Now I'm not a cabinet minister, but I appear in the electronic media more than five times a day. [As minister for Diaspora affairs], I'd barely be mentioned a couple of times a week. At least it's not of interest to those who think they know what the Israeli public is interested in."

According to Melchior, many politicians are unaware of the scope of the portfolio. "For a subject like Jewish restitution, there is an enormous amount to learn, even to understand the basics of this issue. We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. Taglit-birthright and Masa have budgets of over $100 million. These are just a couple of the issues."

Although Melchior says he finds his current job "most exciting and interesting," he confesses that the Diaspora Affairs portfolio held a special place in his heart. "It's my passion. What can I do?" Melchior says that whoever takes on the role will have to contend with "long-term issues of crucial importance."

He expands: "We are one people and we have two options - to have no common purpose, no common destiny, no common beliefs and no common concerns or we can be one people with all these things in common. How can we take care we don't drift away from each other? Taglit-birthright - which turned round this situation for so many people - should be a major concern to those who care about the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. How do we turn the tide? We're not talking about one overnight trick. You need the weight of passion and decisiveness."

Melchior, who was born in Denmark and served as chief rabbi of Norway before immigrating to Israel in 1986, said that he does not think it is a total coincidence that the two politicians who have served as minister of Diaspora Affairs are both immigrants [the other being former Soviet dissident Sharansky]. "But it's not just because we're immigrants though," he said. "It's more to do with passion."