Jewish Agency's New Plan for the Diaspora Proves Its Irrelevance

The Jewish Agency is obsolete and its new strategic plan lacks a credible alternative vision.

The Jewish Agency's new strategic plan is a formidable document. The breathtaking result of a year's joint labor by dozens of Agency officials, lay leaders and experts is over 3,600 words that succeed in saying almost nothing.

There were two significant messages of change in the Agency's goals: that it is effectively getting out of the aliyah business and it wouldn't continue funneling huge funds into educational programs in Israel. But these changes were obfuscated by weasel words and hackneyed explanations.

Take this paragraph, for example: "Aliyah will be a choice that grows from Jewish identity and from spending extended periods of time in Israel, and therefore predominantly the pool of potential olim is among the Jewishly engaged. We will focus our efforts on this pool." In other words, the only real candidates for aliyah are those who have the knowledge, awareness and motivation to do it on their own accord. So why doesn't the strategic plan simply spell it out in plain English? Instead they offer amorphous ideas such as "tailored aliyah tracks" and an "aliyah service center." These are already on offer by private organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Absorption Ministry, so why does the Agency even bother trying to compete?

Here's another example of Agencyspeak: "Israel today is physically developed and economically robust, yet there are numerous vulnerable populations that are under-served," which actually means that American Jews no longer understand why they have to finance the educational and social services of an OECD member.

Jewish Agency
Tess Scheflan

There is much talk of "identity," "belonging," "connection" and "Jewishness" and "Jewish values" and the weakening of all these, especially among the younger generation, and there is even a valiant attempt to describe what Jewish identity is and what Jewish values stand for. One quaintly new-ageish section explains how to "know, feel and do" one's Jewish identity, and another section describes "four Jewish-Zionist values that create our unique content DNA [my italics]." This is apparently connect a Jew to his (or her ) people, heritage, land and community.

But all the talk of weak Jewish identity is a distraction from the real issue confronting Jewish educators around the world. To part of the younger generation, Jewish identity and belonging are not in question. This is the part that is born into religious families and educated in religious schools - Jewishness, at least its Orthodox version, is simply a way of life.

But they are the minority. What about the majority of young secular Jews, most of whom are not educated in Jewish schools? The strategic plan does not address any form of secular Judaism, save for vague descriptions of unclear ideals. Are you young, Jewish and have no interest in keeping mitzvot? Well the Agency has only one option for you - connecting with Israel. That is the first of the new Agency goals.

"Expand the multi-faceted significance of Israel in the identity of young Jews around the world," reads the document. What is a multi-faceted significance exactly, and is the largest Jewish organization in the world not willing to contemplate a Jewish identity that is not connected by so many facets to the Jewish state? What if a young Jew just doesn't like Israel very much? Is he or she doomed to assimilate? But how could that be - a Jew not liking Israel?

Actually, the strategic plan does not totally avoid that possibility. It concedes we are living during a "time when Israel inspires, alienates and compels." And why does Israel alienate, you may ask. The only possible answer offered in the plan is "growing social gaps in Israel which weaken the Zionist ideal of building the state as a light unto the nations."

Yes, well that is certainly a problem, but perhaps many young Jews in the West feel that it's a bit difficult to identify with a country that from their perspective has been carrying out immoral policies for decades. Nobody of course is expecting a right-winger such as Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to criticize the occupation of the West Bank, but as the head of an organization that claims (twice ) in its strategic plan to be the "global Jewish table," surely it should also set a place for those who feel disillusioned with Israel's actions.

Another issue completely evaded in the document, despite all the talk of identity, is the increasingly fluid definition of "who is a Jew." How can an organization that presumes to represent millions of Jews worldwide fail to address in any way the future of millions of children of mixed marriages? Has Sharansky given up on them? And how can a Russian-born chairman have appended his name to a strategic plan that fails to mention even once the ongoing scandal of giyur? The stranglehold a small minority of ultra-Orthodox rabbis has achieved over the conversion courts in Israel is the single greatest obstacle to the integration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who may have received Israeli citizenship, but do not have the basic human right of getting married in the only democracy in the Middle East.

The new strategic plan was, not surprisingly, endorsed on Wednesday by the Agency's board of governors - and what is there not to support in this bland, uncontroversial and irrelevant document?

The Jewish Agency was the government-in-waiting before independence. The only reason it continued to exist after 1948 was that it was a convenient vehicle for bringing in new immigrants and donations from rich Jews overseas. It is now obsolete in both roles. The strategic plan has offered no credible alternative vision, and the Jewish Agency has lost any reason for its existence.