JAFI June 2012
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (left) and President Shimon Peres at JAFI's triennial Board of Governors Assembly in Jerusalem earlier this week. Photo by Moshe Shai
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"Oh wow, check out all the food, Vince. This has got to be our best meal in Israel." Josh, a high-school graduate from Boston, currently on an Israel internship program, sat down at the table in the Inbal Hotel's dining room, his plate piled with roast beef and spring rolls. "I'm going to fill a second plate," said Vince, in between mouthfuls, gazing wistfully at the buffet tables. This is their first big Jewish conference. They were brought along with 90 other under-35s to infuse some young blood into the discussion of the Global Jewish Forum, an event taking place now for the third time at the Jewish Agency for Israel's (JAFI) triennial Board of Governors Assembly.

The assorted grandees of the Jewish establishment, finding themselves at yet another conference, were a little less excited.

"I heard the same anecdote from Shimon Peres on Henry Kissinger, three times over the last five days," says one slightly jaded delegate, who like many others, came to Jerusalem for a short summer break, and managed to take in last week's Israeli Presidential Conference, this week's Board of Governors and the Quadrennial Conference of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service, all taking place in the capital. As they say in Yiddish, it's hard to be a Jewish conference-goer.

The repetitiveness of the board of governors' assemblies every few months, at the same Jerusalem hotel, is felt in more than just the buffets and presidential speeches. The same reports on budgets and operations, the tired but perhaps necessary discussions on the functioning of the largest Jewish organization in the world in committee rooms, while in the corridors, laymen and officials who have been meeting each other like this for decades catch up on family news and who just got the plum job with the Cincinnati Federation.

But despite the Groundhog Day feeling pervading the Inbal Hotel, there are some attempts at change in the veteran agency.

"Our mission remains to bring as many Jews here as olim, but we know that no one is going to come today without some previous connection and experience of Israel," said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency. "That's why the Israel Experience is now our main program."

"Israel Experience" is a range of programs to bring young Jews, aged 18 to 35, to Israel for periods of 6 weeks to three months. The Agency's strategists believe they have identified a gap between the hugely popular Taglit-Birthright program, which by now claims to have brought nearly 300,000 Jews on 10-day trips to Israel, and its own MASA program, which attracts much smaller numbers to its year-long residencies.

Birthright , with its glitzy PR and multi-million dollar donations, has always stuck in the JAFI's craw, but they have no choice but to go along with it. "Let's be honest," says one very senior Agency official, "these kids get nothing out of 10 days in Israel." But since some of the Jewish world's biggest donors, including backers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are avid Birthright fans, the Agency has to go along with the trend.

Exploring the elephants in the room

But they want to be more than another travel agency for Jewish singles. That's where Makom's Global Jewish Forum comes in. Yonatan Ariel, Makom's executive director calls the tiny unit within JAFI an "established funded underground" within the Agency that is "counter to the culture of the organization."

JAFI's core roles were and remain dealing with the logistic and financial aspects of Zionism – Diaspora fundraising to facilitate aliyah and contribute to the social infrastructure of the state. In contrast, Makom's job is to explore the edgier questions, or as Ariel puts it, "the elephants in the room."

So with six full-time employees in Israel and one in the Unites States, Makom is tasked with devising curriculums and coming up with unorthodox educational themes to give color to the Agency's programs. Little wonder that JAFI Director General Alan Hoffman was glued to the entrance of the hall where the Global Jewish Forum was underway, beaming in satisfaction, when he should have been elsewhere dealing with facts and figures.

As the main proponent of the Agency's shift of emphasis from aliyah to Jewish education, MAKOM is his elite unit, a commando force of ideas. Through the Global Jewish Forum, Makom strives to inject some ideological debate into the mundane proceedings of the Board of Governors' assemblies. 

Are all machers idiots?

As Robbie Gringras, Makom's artist-in-residence and leading light puts it, "We can't assume that everyone who is a macher is an idiot," and therefore, they can be challenged, perhaps, with controversial ideas. 

"Are Zionism and liberalism compatible?" is the subject of this forum. "We're dealing here with the issues that Peter Beinart raised," says Hoffman, referring to the political pundit's 2010 essay "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," which argued that young American Jews were abandoning Zionism because of Israel's failure to live up to Jewish liberal values. Beinart himself was not invited to the forum  – that  step was deemed too provocative by the organizers. "Personally, I think Beinart himself is passé," says Hoffman, "though these are important issues."

Instead, the 300 participants, conference delegates and the "under-35s" listen to lectures by Professor of Jewish law, Suzanne Last-Stone, Israeli writer and polemicist Gadi Taub and Professor Michael J. Sandel, a lecturer on ethics and justice at Harvard. They break into little mixed groups to discuss case studies on the boycott of Israel, women praying at the Western Wall, life in divided Hebron and Supreme Court Judge Salim Joubran remaining silent during the singing of the Israeli anthem, "Hatikva." And in the middle of it all there is lunch. "People have to be excited by complex issues," says Gringras of this departure from the more conventional Agency agenda to discuss the clash between a nationalist collective and liberal pluralism. The Makom team believes that with events like this, and dozens of smaller ones, they can "enrich" and "infuse" the Agency's other activities.

Have they succeeded? The last Global Jewish Forum five months ago discussed how to advance understanding between the Haredi community in Israel and "the Jewish collective." Since then another committee has been set up.