Among the many arguments still ongoing between and within the eight parties which may, or may not, form a new Israeli government Sunday evening is one that not even the most avid followers of Israeli politics will have noticed.
One of the reasons for the dispute’s obscurity is that it’s happening inside the Labor party, hardly one of the major parties in the coalition. Another reason is that it’s not jeopardizing the government’s formation or stability.
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The third and perhaps main reason is that the argument is over the Israeli government’s most inconsequential and superfluous ministry: Diaspora Affairs.
The three main protagonists in this squabble are freshman lawmaker Gilad Kariv, who wants to become Diaspora affairs minister; Labor leader Merav Michaeli, who doesn’t want to appoint him to the position; and Nachman Shai, the former Labor lawmaker whom she prefers for the job.
Kariv and his supporters claim that there’s no-one better than him, a Reform rabbi, to fix Israel's rocky relationship with the progressive elements of American Jewry. Michaeli’s position is that she doesn’t want to appoint first-time lawmakers as ministers and that Shai (next in line on the Labor slate to get in to the Knesset) has extensive experience in Diaspora affairs as ex-head of the Israel office of what is now the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
I admit that I’m torn on this.
Part of me agrees with Michaeli. Labor only has seven MKs and each one is needed for exhausting work in the Knesset plenum and committees. Kariv, who is an important voice of progressive Judaism, has much more of a contribution to make to Israel’s increasingly acrid debate on the future of Israeli Judaism, with his now enhanced parliamentary platform, than he could ever achieve as a minister-ambassador to the Diaspora.
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Shai is an old establishment hack. He’ll be fine in the job. Such as it is.
The other part of me doesn’t want anyone in that job. The Diaspora affairs minister is a position that was created simply to provide a job for a useless minister and should have been abolished as soon as that original jobsworth went on his way. Instead, we’ve had this waste of public funds blighting the government for over two decades now, doing absolutely nothing of any value.
Whatever formal relations the Israeli state has with the Jewish Diaspora is managed by the usually-professional diplomats of the Foreign Ministry and the informal ties between Israelis and Jews are not something the government should even be involved in.
The very existence of a Diaspora Affairs ministry maintains the myth that Diaspora Jews are so clueless and benighted about their Jewish identities and their relationship with the Jewish state that they need an Israeli politician to help them out with it. That’s a particularly Israeli conceit, and if the good Rabbi Kariv really wanted to improve Israeli-Diaspora relations, he would argue for the abolishment of the ministry and focus his precious time on making Israel the kind of country more Diaspora Jews could be proud of.
In an interesting quirk of timing, it’s not just the Diaspora Affairs ministry which is going vacant right now, but the Jewish Agency chairmanship as well, with the election of its incumbent Isaac Herzog as Israel’s next president. Apparently, Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid is in line for the job.
Someone suggested to me this week that the two jobs should simply be merged and, on the face of it, that would make sense. The Jewish Agency carries out most of the tasks that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry is supposed to be involved in any way, and it would certainly save many millions of shekels. But savings aside, it would simply perpetuate exactly the same problem. Neither Israel nor the Diaspora actually need any of these ministries or organizations.
The Jewish Agency is the largest in the archipelago of “national institutions” that built the Jewish state before its independence – the World Zionist Organization (WZO), Keren Hayesod (UJIA) and the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). All should have been closed down and their roles subsumed into the Israeli government once the state was founded in 1948, but that’s not how politicians roll.
The Jewish Agency and its siblings were to be kept around as a useful parking space for washed-out politicians and their second-rate children (Shas Leader Arye Dery’s son has just been appointed a WZO department chairman).
Of course, some of them have other uses. The Agency is still involved in the emigration process to Israel and actually does run some useful Jewish education and social programs. As does the JNF, which continues to be a major landowner and land-management agency, providing important forestry and environmental services. Its other, unpalatable role is to ensure that only Jewish citizens can build on huge swathes of state land. Keren Hayesod, as fundraisers, present Israeli politicians with a convenient slush-fund for off-budget purposes, some of whom are worthy.
But whatever good these organizations do can should be done by either the relevant government ministries, which are fully accountable to the state comptroller and the courts, with a lot more transparency and a lot less cronyism, or by private philanthropy. Not by moribund agencies that give shtetl and shnorr a bad name. They certainly do nothing good for Israel’s relationship with the Jews of the world who have no need for go-betweens.
If this is to be a “government of change,” as Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid call it, here’s some real change it can actually deliver.