The chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, suggested last week in an interview in this paper with Jonathan Lis that the Agency − and not Israel’s Chief Rabbinate − be the entity to which the Interior Ministry would apply to ascertain the validity of conversions in cases involving candidates for immigration (Haaretz English Edition, February 23).
This seems a reasonable proposal, and clearly, in view of the difficulties that the Chief Rabbinate raises with regard to the validity of conversions performed abroad, even by Orthodox rabbis, it makes a lot of sense. Without a doubt, the proposal is likely to meet with support from anyone who views − and rightly so − the Rabbinate in its present makeup as a party that represents the most conservative segments, if not the darkest reaches, of the religious camp.
Many look upon the unholy alliance between the Interior Ministry, which is ruled by Shas, and the Rabbinate as another example of the most extremist religious elements taking over the public domain, particularly in light of benighted statements by quite a few rabbis on matters pertaining to the Arab citizens of Israel, to foreigners and to women.
But the picture is more complicated. Not many in Israel are aware of the structure of the Jewish Agency headed by Sharansky, who himself is a symbol of Jewish solidarity. The Agency constitutes the institutional link between world Jewry and the State of Israel, and its makeup therefore represents this partnership. Recently, changes have been introduced that increase the Diaspora’s representation, especially that of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The makeup of the Jewish Agency’s institutions (the general assembly, which includes up to 518 delegates, and the board of trustees, which has 120 members) is presently as follows: 50 percent represent the World Zionist Organization, 30 percent represent the Federations, and 20 percent represent United Israel Appeal (Keren Hayesod). Since the WZO representatives in part also come from abroad, it is clear that Israeli representatives are in the minority.
It makes sense for the Diaspora representatives to be the majority in the Jewish Agency, and for them to be the ones who determine its management, including selecting the chairman: Seeing as Diaspora Jews − through the Federations in the United States and United Israel Appeal in the rest of the world − are the ones responsible for most of the Agency’s budget, it is only right that they decide how to spend the money allocated for the organization’s assorted goals, including immigration, Jewish education in the Diaspora and immigrant absorption. This is obvious, since he who pays the piper calls the tune.
But Natan Sharansky’s proposal would give a body that consists of a majority of non-Israelis the power to decide who shall be entitled to immigrate to Israel. That eligibility exists by dint of the Israeli Law of Return, and placing it in the hands of a body that is controlled by Diaspora Jewry would violate Israeli sovereignty in an essential matter. The delegates to the Agency’s general assembly and its board of trustees are dear Jews, some of them philanthropists and some of them functionaries and activists in dozens of respected Jewish entities abroad. But there is no reason to place in their hands the decision regarding who is entitled to immigrate to Israel. They do not live here.
Sharansky previously suggested that Diaspora Jews be allowed to participate in Israeli policy decisions relating to the peace process and to the status of Jerusalem − in other words, to let people who will not bear the consequences of policy decisions be a partner to them. The current proposal also tends to blur the lines between Israeli citizens, who live in Israel and bear the consequences of the decisions, and Jews in the Diaspora, who, while they may be Israel’s ardent supporters, have chosen − and this is naturally their right − not to live here and not to participate in the most revolutionary renaissance enterprise the Jewish people has ever known.
The solution to the issue Sharansky raises is a government decision that places the matter in the hands of an Israeli governmental body − the Justice Ministry, for example − and enables a pluralistic approach to the matter. Powers that are part of the fabric of the Jewish state must not be transferred into the hands of a body the majority of whose members are not its citizens.
Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, is a regular contributor to the opinion pages of Haaretz.
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