Why Is No Israeli Minister in Charge of Relations With Diaspora Jews?

The broken-up Diaspora affairs portfolio, traditionally manned by governmental neophytes, has had its responsibilities split up between hard-right hawks. Peacenik Jews of the world, don't hold your breath for any change.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Naftali Bennett isn't used to being heckled. Throughout his meteoric ascent into politics, from his sweep of the Habayit Hayehudi primaries through the party's successful election campaign, and now in his powerful role as economics minister, booing just hasn't been part of Bennett's soundtrack. So it's kind of refreshing to hear that on Monday, a small group of Jewish students from the Diaspora who were participating in the Jewish Agency's year-long Masa program in Israel tried to shout him down at the program's annual closing ceremony.

The heckling was apparently organized by a new group of Jewish students calling themselves "All That's Left: Anti-Occupation Collective" (the name says it all), joined by a few members of HaShomer Hatzair youth movement. The protest against Bennett and his views in favor of perpetuating Israel's occupation of the West Bank was in the best democratic tradition. Yet one has to ask, who exactly would they have preferred to hear speak on behalf of the government that funds 50 percent of the program that paid for their year in Israel?

Which brings us back to Naftali Bennett, and the question of who exactly represents Israel to the Jewish Diaspora.

The capable Mr. Bennett is responsible for no fewer than three government ministries. He is responsible for the Trade, Industry and Employment Ministry, or, as he calls it now, the Economics Ministry; he is minister for religious services; and he is Diaspora affairs and Jerusalem minister. Naturally, the economics brief – with its manifold budgets and a mandate to act as the locomotive pulling Israel's economy forward – is the apple of his eye. And, as the leader of a religious party, the religion portfolio is also politically important to him; he even has a deputy minister from his own party to help him manage the affairs.

These two ministries probably don't leave him with much time to deal with the Diaspora, which even in this day and age has a population at least as large as that of Israel. But for some reason, they get barely a dozen officials and not even a deputy minister.

That's fine – the prime minister emptied the Diaspora portfolio of all its responsibilities anyway before handing it over to the inexperienced Bennett. Not that it had much substance to begin with. The Diaspora affairs minister was always one of, if not the most, junior of ministerial positions. Nearly all the resources and responsibilities for Israel's relations with Jewish communities are held by other government departments. In order to make the job look a little more impressive, various meaningless briefs were tacked on to it. The Diaspora affairs minister gained the title of "minister for Jerusalem affairs" – but that conferred upon him exactly zero responsibility, as neither the mayor of the capital nor the Interior Ministry were prepared to yield an inch of their powers.

In the previous government, the Diaspora affairs minister, Yuli Edelstein, had hasbara – or public diplomacy and public affairs, as it was variously known, which basically meant propaganda. Again, this amounted to little, as the Foreign Ministry kept its press department, and the various media functions of the Prime Minister's Office remained firmly under the thumb of Benjamin Netanyahu's team.

There is no hasbara minister in this government, but the function still officially exists within the polyglot ministry awarded to Netanyahu's loyal acolyte, former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs responsible for international relations. Apparently Steinitz is taking this very seriously and has already announced that he will lead the campaign against "delegitimization" of Israel around the world. The first sign of this was his attempt Sunday to take a tiny part in presenting the Mohammed al-Dura report, which disputed a French report from 2000 that appeared to show the death of a Palestinian boy.

So the Diaspora affairs minister is not responsible for the fight for Israel's legitimacy, an issue which deeply involves Jews around the world. What else is he not responsible for?

The actual relations with Jewish communities are maintained by the diplomats at the Foreign Ministry, who are not about to relinquish that duty. The absent foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has also long controlled Nativ, the once-clandestine agency which has responsibility for the still-delicate contact between Israel and the Jews of the former Soviet Union.

Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, the caretaker until Lieberman's court case is over, takes ties with the Diaspora very seriously – as he made clear last month when he reprimanded Jewish American leaders just for signing a letter encouraging Netanyahu to press ahead with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu, controls another ministry with Diaspora ties, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. (This is also a totally superfluous department. The housing, social and bureaucratic needs of immigrants would be much better served by the ministries that deal with those issues for the entire population, but no coalition is going to cancel such a great source of funding and jobs.) Under Yisrael Beiteinu's Sofa Landver – who memorably instructed Ethiopian-Israelis to "say thank you for what you received" – the Absorption Ministry has become a power base for the party among the "Russian" constituency.

Edelstein as Diaspora affairs minister was at least responsible for Birthright and Masa, two high-profile programs that bring young Jews to Israel for varying lengths of time, and in which the state invests more than NIS 300 million a year. But just as the new government was formed and the portfolio was awarded to Bennett, Netanyahu decided that Birthright and Masa would no longer be the responsibility of the Diaspora affairs minister, and that it would instead be run directly by the Prime Minister's Office. After all, the largest donor to Birthright is Netanyahu's patron, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and Bennett is not to be entrusted with such a crucial asset.

So the responsibility for Israel's connection with Jews resides nowhere, and everywhere, split between half a dozen government departments and agencies.

One thing that all the ministers with any involvement in Diaspora affairs have in common is that all of them – Bennett, Elkin, Landver, Steinitz (and Lieberman, when he's around) -- come from the hard-right ideological wing of the government. If peacenik Diaspora Jews are waiting for a government minister who believes in a two-state solution to address them, they are in for a long wait.

Jewish Americans.Credit: AP
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.Credit: AP

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