Knesset Panel to Vet Bennett’s Plan for Strengthening Diaspora Ties

Opposition from Jewish Agency may scuttle project, says government source.

Marc Israel Sellem

A special Knesset committee on transparency and accessibility of government information is expected to hold a hearing following the establishment of an entity approved by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry that is to implement a plan to strengthen ties with the Diaspora.

A government source said, however, that differences over the plan between the ministry and the Jewish Agency, which plays a leading role in the links between Israel and the Diaspora, could place the entire project in danger. The stated aim of the program is to address “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide and “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel.”

The ministry refused to provide details regarding the new corporate entity to which the ministry would contract out the plan’s implementation, but the arrangement has also been approved by the Justice Ministry. As far as is known, however, at the meetings that led to the approval to contract out the program to the new entity – the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People – it was not mentioned that the founders of the organization include leading figures with Jewish settlement organizations, or regarding Diaspora Affairs Ministry Director General Dvir Kahana’s former ties with the settlement group Elad. Kahana is a close associate of Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

The Israel-Diaspora program is to get 190 million shekels ($50.1 million) in government funding. The Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People is to raise an additional 380 million shekels in contributions.

Following coverage last week in Haaretz regarding the founders of the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People, Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Galon took Bennett to task over the handling of the matter. Bennett, she said, was “lending a hand to setting the entity in a questionable and hasty manner,” and that approval would not have been forthcoming if it hadn’t involved what she called “extreme right-wing people associated with Habayit Hayehudi,” the party that Bennett heads.

“The aim of the entity is to convey a hard-line Orthodox and anachronistic message to American Jewry with regard to essence of Judaism and family values,” Galon said.

Knesset transparency committee chairwoman Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) said she would demand that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry provides full details regarding the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People and the ministry’s contractual ties with it.

“It is unacceptable for a government ministry to conceal information about ties involving hundreds of millions of shekels with an entity funded with state money,” she said. “People in Habayit Hayehudi think Israeli taxpayers’ money belongs to them, and time after time they take advantage of the public’s faith to divide the public purse for functionaries and associates.”

Once, she said, it is for the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division, “which instead of building in outlying areas, transferred funds to the non-profits of Habayit Hayehudi people in Tel Aviv and Ra’anana. Another time, it’s public housing funds were transferred by [former Housing Minister] Uri Ariel to non-profits and yeshivas close to the party – and it’s all always under the cover of concealment and opposition to transparency.”

Last week, the split with the Jewish Agency widened over the agency’s claim that it was being excluded from involvement in the plan to forge stronger ties with the Diaspora. At the beginning of last week, Jewish Agency leaders informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they would not participate in the project as currently constituted. They followed up with a complaint to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s decision to team up with the Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People appeared to be the last straw for the Jewish Agency, a government official surmised, leading the Jewish Agency to openly oppose the project and placing the future of the project in question.