An Agency for the Jewish People

During the years I served as founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, I became convinced that the Jews are at a critical crossroads, and that the path they choose today will shape their future for generations to come.

During the years I served as founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, I became convinced that the Jews are at a critical crossroads, and that the path they choose today will shape their future for generations to come. The fact that we have survived, and in some cases thrived, until now, does not ensure our future. More of the same policies, leaders and institutions, with piecemeal reforms, will not do. Deep breaks in historic continuity require, if the Jews are to thrive in their pluralistic fullness in a rapidly changing world, a demanding combination of radical innovation with a concerted effort to preserve core features of their civilization.

The period of "enlightenment" broke the 2,000-year-old understanding of Jewish core identity as being exclusively religious in nature. The Holocaust then killed a third of the Jewish people, a psycho-shock that destroyed their main centers of creativity and confronted them with very troubling theological and existential questions. The emergence of the Jewish community in the United States as a fully integrated part of the American people is also an unprecedented, positive development. And the establishment of the State of Israel constitutes the most radical rupture of all in Jewish history, making obsolete large parts of Jewish patterns of life and self-understanding as they developed during exile.

For my own rapidly disappearing generation, these transformations were formative personal experiences, strengthening our Jewish identification. Because our children experience them through us, they remain a part of their identity, too. For the generations to come, however, these will be historic events that no virtual media can transform into long-lasting, identity-shaping encounters. Therefore, with the godly message of Sinai no longer the consensual basis of Jewish peoplehood, and nonreligious definitions of Judaism still vague and not agreed upon, the very continuity of the chain of generations is endangered.

To preserve and strengthen the exceptional meaningful existence of the Jewish people and prevent its evolution into a merely "normal" nation - a danger paradoxically inherent in the establishment of the State of Israel - a first requirement is to invigorate our cultural, spiritual and religious creativity, in the spirit of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. A second is to assure and strengthen the Jewish nature of Israel. A third requirement is the preparation of outstanding Jewish leaders. A fourth requirement is less difficult to meet, while at the same time the most urgent and essential for meeting the first three: the adoption of new institutional frameworks.

For this reason, the outcome of the June 2009 meeting of the Jewish Agency governing bodies was bitterly disappointing. The Agency has been in decline, due to its obsolete structure and functions, unrepresentative leadership and lack of a stable financial basis. Yet it remains a going concern, with much experience and impressive stakeholders. If radically remade, it can serve critical functions - and do so better than any other existing global Jewish organizations or one starting from scratch.

Therefore, the board of governors should have reconsidered the Agency's very fundamentals, starting with its mission and functions, before it dealt with matters of structure and staffing. Instead, the tradition of piecemeal reforms was followed, the result being well intended but counterproductive.

The much-heralded "reform" that was decided upon, the separation of the World Zionist Organization from the Jewish Agency, will not achieve the laudable aim of reducing the influence of political apparatchiks. Instead, it gives too much power to philanthropists, is likely to detach the Israeli government from the Jewish Agency and, worst of all, creates an absurd distinction between Agency and WZO tasks. Instead, the very missions of both organizations should be fused within a unified structure, encompassing also Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) and the Jewish National Fund.

A Jewish organization remade in this way, with a growing cadre of young leaders, should focus on four core missions: strengthening Israel's Jewish nature pluralistically; reinforcing the viability of Jewish communities around the world; integrating Israel and Diaspora into Jewish peoplehood; and upgrading the global importance of Judaism and the Jewish people. All this, with special emphasis on the next generation.

Innovative goals in line with the main mission should include, among others: assuring mutual understanding and reducing social gaps between Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish youngsters; upgrading the status of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel; facilitating Jewish creativity; organizing geopolitical and tikkun olam (social responsibility) activities; developing a new type of leadership to reenergize communities and draw in those who have left Jewish life; fostering a quantum leap toward making the Jewish people more of a learning-and-knowledge society, including core curricula to be shared by Israel and the Diaspora; institutionalizing new forms of aliyah in the form of residence divided between Israel and Diaspora communities; and drawing up a Web-based, new-media strategy to help integrate Jews and Jewish communities globally.

Only a complete revamping of the Jewish Agency into a "Jewish People Agency" can prepare it for its real 21st-century challenges. No partial reforms can meet the needs and prevent further decline. This is the critical task awaiting the Agency's new chairperson.

There was one promising decision made at the recent Jewish Agency meeting, namely Natan Sharansky's election as chairman. However much people may disagree over Sharansky's political beliefs, they are irrelevant to the Agency's main tasks. Needed at the helm is not another apparatchik or business entrepreneur, but a real leader and strategic thinker. Among all those who were in the running, Sharansky is most likely to fit this bill.

Remaking the Jewish Agency for Israel into the Jewish people Agency with a new mission, and developing a strategic action agenda, while mobilizing broad support among the Jewish People as a whole - these are the main challenges facing Sharansky.

The writer was founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (established by the Jewish Agency) and is professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.