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Jewish Agency Preps Envoys Abroad How to Deal With Boycotts by Jewish Communities Amid Western Wall Crisis

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Jewish women pray at the Western Wall, the most holy site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on June 27, 2017.
Jewish women pray at the Western Wall, the most holy site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on June 27, 2017.Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP

How should Jewish Agency envoys respond to Diaspora Jews threatening action against Israel for decisions taken this week viewed as hostile to their communities?

In a memo distributed Wednesday to hundreds of Jewish Agency shlichim, or envoys, stationed around the world, a senior official of the organization provided practical advice for handling difficult situations that have arisen in recent days.

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet voted to suspend plans to create a new and permanent space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Later in the day, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance a bill that would deny recognition to any conversions performed in Israel outside the state-sanctioned Orthodox system. The two decisions have sparked outrage in large parts of the Jewish world.

Jewish Agency envoys serve as Israeli liaisons to Jewish communities and college campuses around the world.  In the past, their primary responsibility was encouraging immigration to Israel, but more recently, it has become promoting engagement with Israel and building bridges between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The memo, written by Yehuda Setton, the director of the department of emissaries at the Jewish Agency, addressed the following scenarios:

1. A community that wants to withdraw its financial donations from Israel. Setton advises emissaries confronted by such a threat to propose that the community focus its contributions on Israeli organizations devoted to causes in line with its agenda, whether that be strengthening ties between Israel and the Diaspora or promoting Jewish pluralism.

2. Community members who decides they are not interested in participating in Birthright, which provides free 10-day trips to young Jewish adults, or in any other delegations to Israel. Setton advises the emissaries to meet personally with such individuals, allow them to vent their frustrations and anger, and then go over a sample trip itinerary with them so that they can see where they might be able to make a difference on a trip to Israel.  “Explain that it is important to go on a trip like this in order to voice criticism from inside,” Setton writes. “A boycott won’t do any good and won’t allow people in Israel to understand their frustration.”

3. A community that cancels a delegation trip to Israel. Setton advises the emissaries in this case to meet with the organizers in order to try to turn the trip into “an opportunity to influence and do something active.” He also recommends discussing how the trip can be used “for creating influence in Israel” and showing that “I’m here, I care and I want to influence from the inside.”

4. A community that does not want to host Israeli politicians who supported the controversial government decisions. Instead of boycotting individuals, Setton advises “working on the positive” and sending letters of encouragement to Knesset members who voted in line with their views in order to “help create a lobby of relevant Knesset members.”

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