Israel's Cabinet Approves $18m Increase in Diaspora Initiative

Finance Minister Yair Lapid casts lone vote against spending on Jewish-themed programs abroad.

Nir Keidar

The government will add 62.3 million shekels ($18 million) per year to its annual investments in programs that strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora over the next three years, according to a proposal passed in the cabinet on Sunday.

According to the proposal – a joint initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency – every dollar allocated by the government of Israel for these programs will only be spent if matched by two dollars from Jewish organizations overseas and private philanthropists. This is the same financing model upon which Taglit-Birthright, the program that brings young Jewish adults to Israel on free 10-day trips, is built.

Potentially then, an additional 561 million shekels could be spent over the next three years on Jewish-themed programs in the Diaspora.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid was the only cabinet member to vote against the new spending program, known as the “Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry.” His opposition to the initiative has put him and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett at loggerheads in recent weeks.

This new government spending commitment will come on top of the NIS 400 million that it already spends each year on Diaspora programs, primarily Taglit-Birthright and Masa, which runs dozens of educational, volunteer and internship programs for young Jewish adults across Israel.

Government sources said that the new funding approved Sunday would not be used to expand Birthright and Masa but rather to promote new programs or existing ones with a proven track record. According to government sources, these would likely include new initiatives designed to strengthen Jewish identity on college campuses as well as programs that target teenagers. They would not necessarily need to involve trips to Israel.

The original proposal presented to the cabinet sought to obtain a government commitment to increase spending on Jewish programs abroad through the year 2022. The cabinet, however, was not willing to undertake that long term a commitment.

According to the plan eventually approved at Sunday’s meeting, in 2016, the cabinet will be asked once again to approve an increase in funding for Diaspora programs. That increase could as much as double current levels of spending on such programs.

The plan, originally known as the “Prime Minister’s Initiative,” was conceived several years ago as a joint project of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency. The idea was to use the model of Birthright and build on its success to create other programs that would strengthen Jewish identity and engagement with Israel. In recent months, government and Jewish Agency officials have held various brainstorming sessions to evaluate proposals for such programs.

In its decision, the cabinet approved the establishment of a new administration that will spearhead the initiative. In principle, any organization that runs Jewish-themed programs in the Diaspora will be able to approach this administration in the future and request funding.

Following the cabinet vote, Bennett referred to the new initiative as “a revolution in the State of Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who attended the cabinet meeting, said: “This government decision, which comes during a difficult period of budget cuts, is the strongest expression of the centrality of Jewish identity as the cornerstone of Israel-Diaspora relations.”

As Haaretz recently reported, in the past two years, Birthright, which is widely considered the most successful of all Diaspora programs, has experienced declining interest in its free trips to Israel, prompting the organization to seek out new participants more aggressively.

A recent survey conducted by Birthright found that many young Jews are hesitant to register for the program out of concern that the trips would be too religious and push pro-Israel propaganda.