Nearly five years after an angry, high-profile breakup, the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews – the two largest philanthropic organizations active in Israel – are set to resume their longstanding partnership.
The leaders of both organizations have confirmed to Haaretz that they recently met and discussed ways to collaborate again. The fellowship, which raises about $140 million a year, mainly from Christian evangelicals, was once a major benefactor of the Jewish Agency.
In 2014, the fellowship announced its decision to withdraw funding from the Jewish Agency and to create its own competing operation for promoting immigration to Israel. At the time, the fellowship said it had decided to go solo because it was disappointed with what it perceived to be the Jewish Agency’s lackluster efforts to bring immigrants to Israel, especially from the former Soviet Union. The Jewish Agency, however, said that the partnership collapsed because it refused to accept a long list of ultimatums for continued support from the fellowship, which were meant to provide the evangelical-funded organization with much greater visibility.
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These conditions had been presented by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and leader of the fellowship, who died suddenly this past February. His daughter Yael Eckstein has since taken over the helm at the organization. At the time, Natan Sharansky was head of the Jewish Agency. He has since been replaced by former Labor party leader Isaac Herzog.
For a period of 15 years prior to the split, the fellowship had contributed between $10 million and $12 million a year to the Jewish Agency to support its aliyah activities. The fellowship had offered to increase its annual contributions to $15 million in exchange for becoming a full partner in the organization – equivalent in status to Keren Hayesod (the United Israel Appeal), the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federations of North America – with its name appearing on the Jewish Agency letterhead. After this request was rejected, the fellowship agreed to maintain its existing level of annual contributions if in exchange the Jewish Agency would accept its list of conditions.
Among other conditions, the fellowship had demanded that all the special flights it was chartering to bring immigrants to Israel have the words “Friendship Flight” displayed on the aircraft. In Israel, the fellowship is known as “Hakeren Leyedidut” (“Friendship Fund” in English).
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Speaking with Haaretz, Yael Eckstein said that the fellowship had no intention of closing down its aliyah operation as part of the proposed new partnership deal with the Jewish Agency. “But we’re going to work in cooperation in areas that are strategic and good for both of us,” she said. “So we have many different ideas, and there are also a lot of places regarding aliyah where the Fellowship isn’t active and we’re happy to partner with the Jewish Agency on that.”
“I’m excited for this new road ahead that I think it will be productive. Ultimately, my only goal is making sure more people get the help they need in the most effective way," Eckstein added.
Asked if any agreement had been reached on resuming a set level of annual contributions to the Jewish Agency, she said: “We haven’t laid out what it would look like yet, but we definitely wouldn’t be making significant annual contributions to the Jewish Agency. It would be more of a strategic partnership on specific projects.”
Herzog confirmed to Haaretz that he met with Eckstein a few weeks ago to discuss the new partnership. “We’ve instructed our team to work with their team to see where there is common ground,” he said.
Last summer, after assuming his position as head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog said, he held a meeting with Yechiel Eckstein. “I have a philosophy – I don’t fight with anyone. I’m working in partnership with whoever wants. But nothing moved further at that point because he still had a grudge against the Jewish Agency.”
Last week, Haaretz reported that George Mamo, the CEO of the fellowship, had quit unexpectedly. His resignation came on the heels of a U.S. court decision to move ahead with a lawsuit in which two former employees accused him of sexual harassment. Mamo, who had served for close to 20 years as chief operating officer and was the most prominent Christian face of the organization, assumed the position of CEO shortly after Yechiel Eckstein’s death.