Sharansky puts Jewish identity ahead of aliyah on Jewish Agency agenda
The Jewish Agency's main priority is no longer to bring more Jews to Israel, but to help preserve Jewish identity worldwide, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Shransky announced last week in a speech before American Jews visiting Israel.
Following Sharansky's statement, his predecessor, Ze'ev Bielski, said he hoped immigration to Israel would continue to be the Jewish Agency's main focus.
"If we have to think about the challenge we are facing, it's how to keep all as one family - it's not enough to speak about aliyah (immigration to Israel)," Sharansky said, adding that: "It's almost prohibited for the head of Jewish Agency to say so, but it cannot be the goal to bring more Jewish people ... We have to think globally."
These statements, which Sharansky made in a speech in Jerusalem before participants of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were according to people from the Jewish Agency the first time that Sharansky publicly placed Jewish identity above immigration to Israel, though he did say before that the two issues were equally important.
Sharansky's announcement signals the first major policy shift of his year-old administration. While the Jewish Agency was first conceived by the 1922 League of Nations mandate to build the Jewish national home in Palestine and was set up in 1929 as the Yishuv's quasi-government, the emergence of independent initiatives like Nefesh B'Nefesh in the West and Nativ in Russia have eclipsed its role in the immigration business.
The chairman presented strengthening Jewish identity as the biggest challenge facing world Jewry. "Our main challenge today in Russia, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere is how to bring more kids to informal Jewish education," he said, adding: "We have to build a school of proud Jews, connected to Israel." He also said the Jewish Agency remains committed to bringing Jews to Israel.
Sharansky delivered his speech at an event dedicated to the presentation of a new document by two researchers from the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute - Avi Gil, a former director-general in the foreign ministry, and Einat Wilf, a Knesset member for Labor and former aide to Shimon Peres.
"It was breath of fresh air to hear Mr. Sharansky speak about his vision for the Jewish Agency," said Wilf, whose document examines alternative scenarios for the Jewish people in 2030. "I didn't think I would ever hear the head of the Jewish Agency talk about needing to go beyond aliyah, and having aliyah not being the first priority," she told Sharansky and the crowd of approximately 150 people.
Wilf said Sharansky's speech was "the first step toward leading a more egalitarian round-table relationship," in which "all Jews can contribute equally."
One Israeli-born source with inside knowledge of the Jewish Agency said that these statements should be seen in the context of a plan favored by Sharansky to restructure the Jewish Agency so as to give Jewish education projects more emphasis at the expense of the agency's Aliyah department. A Jewish Agency spokesperson said this claim was unsubstantiated and incorrect.
"I agree with Mr. Sharansky that Jewish education and bringing young people closer is very, very important," MK Ze'ev Bielski, Sharansky's predecessor, told Anglo File. "But we should not forget that the Jewish Agency has always given aliyah top priority since its foundation. I'm happy Jewish education is receiving attention, but hope it's not at the expense of efforts to promote aliyah."
David Breakstone, head of the Department for Zionist Activity of the World Zionist Organization, said he supported Sharansky's vision. "There is not going to be any aliyah of choice without Jewish education," he said, "so even if aliyah were to be put forward as the preeminent goal of the Agency, the best way to get there would be through increasing budgets for Jewish education."
Breakstone added: "Sharansky's statement affirms that the Jewish Agency does not deny the legitimacy of Jewish life in the Diaspora. The centrality of Israel is an inviolable principle as far as I am concerned, but as such it needs to be concerned with enriching Jewish life everywhere and not only attracting Jews to it."
Scenarios for 2030
The book by Wilf - who replaced Opher Pines-Paz in the Knesset last month - and Avi Gil, a former Foreign Ministry director-general, is the end product of a seven-year project which tries to delineate four possible futures for the Jewish people in 2030, ranging from an idyllic picture of Jewish prosperity in all continents, to a doomsday situation in which major Jewish populations in Israel are wiped out by hostile forces.
"The idea of this project is to use scenario planning - a methodology which is very common in the corporate world," said Wilf, a researcher of the institution - which was founded in 2003 by the Jewish Agency as an independent think tank. She said that her 114-page book was the first structural attempt to apply these tools on the Jewish people as a subject.
In their book, Wilf, a former aide to President Shimon Peres, and Gil list a "thriving" future in which "Jewish momentum" - the vitality of Jewish life - is high worldwide, and in which "external conditions" are positive. In this ideal future, 60 percent of the world's 14-million strong Jewish people live in Israel, where they form a 90-percent majority and enjoy an increase in solidarity.
At the other end of the spectrum, the "nightmare" scenario lists the Jewish people at six million, following a wipe-out of major Jewish populations in Israel. Jewish identity is considered dangerous and unwanted, while American Jews see their political clout decline.
The two midway phases - drifting and defending - envisage, respectively, a future in which positive external conditions weaken Jewish kinship and increases assimilation and intermarriage, and a future in which negative conditions contribute to Jews forming a stronger connection with their identity and Israel.
In its practical recommendations chapter, the document identifies "intervention points" to promote the idyllic scenario and avoid the catastrophic ones - including encouraging Jewish leadership, and encouraging partial immigration to Israel by people who divide their lives between Israel and another country.
One "key decision" the Jewish people will have to take, is whether to rethink "who's in and who's out," Wilf said. "Do we treat marriages between Jews and non-Jews as minus one or plus one for the Jewish people? These are critical decisions with tremendous impact on our future in 2030 because numbers are a critical element of our identity."
Wilf said that she was going to push the recommendations and the document in Knesset. But a source who used to work with decision-makers in the field said Wilf's document appeared difficult to implant and that he doubted that Wilf would be able to get very far.
"The recommendation to decide who is Jewish is extremely contentious and hard to push," the source said. "The sad truth is that a Knesset member, especially a new one, has less clout than any aide to any department head in the treasury."
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