Sharansky's New Vision for Jewish Agency Comes Under Fire

A senior Jewish Agency official this week joined opposition to the organization's recent shift in focus toward Jewish education, saying it "ignored Israel's most urgent need and demographics." A partner of the Jewish Agency called the shift "a gamble which might not turn out well."

"What is going on right now is unacceptable and very painful to me," said Avraham Duvdevani, a longtime member of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors and Executive. He was referring to the new vision that the agency's chairman, Natan Sharansky, announced in February.

This week the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors in Jerusalem voted in favor of adopting a preliminary outline of the plan, which sets strengthening Jewish identity and education in the Diaspora as the body's main goal, instead of increasing Jewish immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency and Sharansky have said that refocusing on Jewish identity would indirectly encourage immigration to Israel. But Duvdevani, who hails from the Religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva and Mizrachi movements - says "Israel's demographics mean we cannot afford to wait for Zionism to come about as a by-product. Aliyah (immigration to Israel ) is this country's oxygen."

Duvdevani - who was recently elected to head the World Zionist Organization but still retains his Jewish Agency posts - said that the Jewish Agency's budget of roughly $300 million is too small to "carry out a real revolution in Jewish education, which would only come if Diaspora Jewry receives free Jewish education at a of cost several billions of dollars."

Last week, the Council of Immigrant Associations in Israel sharply criticized the shift, saying that "immigration groups protest and condemn the policy of the Jewish Agency, which decided to forfeit the centrality of working to encourage immigration." MK Ze'ev Bielski, Sharansky's predecessor at the agency, told Anglo File "nothing should take precedence over aliyah."

A Jewish Agency representative responded that the organization's "new direction does not mean it is turning its back on immigration."