Meet the Reason That Big Israel-Diaspora Initiatives Are Going Nowhere

Ever since Naftali Bennett put his man Dvir Kahana at the helm of the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, major world Jewry efforts have lost all momentum.

Haim Tsah

He’s the highest-ranking civil servant in Israel engaged in Diaspora affairs, but most world Jewish leaders have probably never heard of him.

They are sure to be familiar, though, with some of the big Jewish world initiatives that seem to have lost all momentum, coincidentally or not, since he came on board a year and a half ago.

Meet Dvir Kahana, the director-general of the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. Thirty-eight years old, he grew up on the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, the son of Menachem Kahana, a retired professor of Talmudic studies from the Hebrew University. Like his boss, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, Kahana’s a great believer in the rights of the Jewish people to control and settle all parts of the so-called Greater Land of Israel. As one who acts on his beliefs, he lives today with his family in the Arab East Jerusalem village of Silwan, a major flashpoint of Jewish-Palestinian tensions in recent months. Prior to assuming his government job, he held various senior positions in Elad, the right-wing organization that encourages Jewish settlers to move into Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Most recently, he was Elad’s director of development.

Kahana’s fans describe him as an affable, bright, level-headed and attentive young chap who knows how to get things done. His detractors, for their part, say his inexperience in Jewish world affairs combined with a tendency to barge in and take over goes a long way to explain why recent government projects aimed at strengthening ties with the Diaspora appear to have fallen by the wayside. In particular, they point to the World Jewry Initiative – a huge project aimed at creating dozens of new programs that could potentially succeed Taglit-Birthright as the next big Jewish idea.

Effectively, Kahana has been given an almost free rein to run the ministry, since his boss tends to be far more interested in his other portfolios – namely, economy and religious services. Not only are Bennett and Kahana like-minded, as many who have observed them together point out and which may explain his boss’ heavy reliance on him, but they also happen to bear a striking a resemblance to one another – both sporting the tiny-knitted-yarmulke-perched-on-shaved-head look.

Kahana declined to be interviewed for this piece, and through his spokesman, issued the following response to a long list of questions submitted in writing regarding his credentials, his background, his objectives as well as specific questions about the World Jewry Initiative and other projects in which his office has been involved: “The Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry will continue to serve as the government’s arm to advance the city of Jerusalem as well as Israel’s ties with Jewish communities around the world despite efforts by parties with blatant political interests.”

Major initiative on hold

The World Jewry Initiative was first conceived in the Jewish Agency, before the latest government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formed and before Bennett was given the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs portfolio as part of the deal to bring his right-wing Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi Party into the coalition. The idea behind it was to have the State of Israel invest in projects aimed at strengthening Jewish identity abroad, with a special focus on teens and college-age students, and based on the Taglit-Birthright financing model: For every dollar spent by the State of Israel, world Jewry, through private philanthropists and Jewish organizations, would throw in two.

A year ago, the Prime Minister’s Office and Jewish Agency convened a five-day brainstorming session in Jerusalem and online with 1,500 participants to get the ball rolling, and this past June, the Israeli government approved a three-year budget of NIS 190 million to help finance the initiative.

But Kahana, it seems, had other ideas, according to sources involved in the initiative from the beginning. He objected to proposals for pilot projects raised by the Jewish Agency that would have been implemented already this past summer. Neither did he want to involve any organizations that were not willing invest money, insisting on a “pay-to-play” rule. That would have effectively disqualified many of the cash-strapped Jewish federations of North America from participating in the planning process.

A letter Kahana sent out to all the potential partners last August also indicated his intention to strip the Jewish Agency of its central role in the initiative. “We are continuing our dialogue with the Agency with the aim of finding the best way for it to fit into a role within the initiative,” he wrote. So after months of turf wars, the World Jewry Initiative has effectively been put on hold. (Sources in the know, however, say that in recent weeks, Kahana has exhibited signs of capitulation, apparently in response to pressure from the prime minister’s office.)

As one senior Jewish world official involved in the recent discussions lamented: “This was the first time there was ever a serious dialogue taking place between Israel and the Diaspora, and then Dvir walked in and said he wanted to start everything from scratch, with no collaboration from anyone.

"Basically, what he sought was to hand over control to a bunch of very rich philanthropists and oligarchs. It’s a shame because relations between the Jewish world and Israel are too strategic an asset to fall victim to this sort of petty infighting.”

For Jay Ruderman, an American-born philanthropist who has played an active role in fostering Israeli-Diaspora ties in recent years, it was further proof that Kahana was perhaps not the ideal candidate for the job. “He’s a bright young man, ambitious and with lofty goals,” he says, “but he doesn’t come from the world of Diaspora like so many others who know it like the back of their hand.

“The relationship with the Diaspora is very complex. Wouldn’t it have been better to have taken someone for this position who did understand it?” he asks.

As a major player in the world of Jewish philanthropy, Ruderman says he would refuse to write out a check to a ministry or government that’s here one day and gone the next – what he suggests Kahana was proposing. “The way I look at it is if you’re a philanthropist, it’s better to fund through an organization you know and have a history with than through a political office,” he says. “I would never invest in a long-term initiative directly with the government.”

To his credit, says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, Kahana has made an effort since taking office to acquaint himself with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that are so much more dominant in the Diaspora. “Right from the start, he acknowledged that he didn’t know much about the other movements and wanted to learn more,” recalls Kariv, “and he makes a point every time he travels to the States to meet with Rabbi Rick Jacobs [the president of the Reform movement in North America]. “

Controversial egalitarian prayer space

Kahana’s ministry first drew public attention last year, just before the High Holy Days, when it decided to take matters into its own hands to resolve the ongoing conflict over prayer at the Western Wall – a matter of great concern to the non-Orthodox movements abroad. At the time, a special government committee was at work fleshing out details of the so-called “Sharansky plan,” which would have created a new egalitarian prayer space near the Jewish holy site. But like his boss, Kahana had no patience for long deliberations and negotiations, and so, together with Bennett, in a swift overnight coup, he constructed a new platform for mixed prayer services adjacent to the nearby archeological excavation known as Robinson’s Arch.

“Only a settler from Silwan would have what it takes to pull off something like that,” remarks Kariv, tipping his hat. “That’s part of what he learned to do while working at Elad – creating facts on the ground.”

Except that things didn’t turn out exactly as Kahana and his boss had planned. Referring to the new structure disparagingly as “the sundeck,” Women of the Wall, the multi-denomination feminist prayer group that had been fighting to pray as it saw fit at the holy site and was a central player in the negotiations, refused to move its monthly service there.

Neither were the Conservative and Reform movements thrilled with the way it looked, insisting that to have them on board, the new space would have to be just as big, open and accessible as the existing segregated areas.

“For Bennett and Dvir, it was important to be perceived as doing things,” reflects Kariv. “They had hoped that we would all begin dancing the hora out there on the new platform and were rather disappointed when we didn’t.”

To this day, more than a-year-and-a-half after Sharansky unveiled his plan for an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall, the controversy over how it will look has still not been resolved. Kahana and his boss have meanwhile moved onto other things. But the question remains: What was their motivation, as Orthodox Jews, to try so hard to accommodate the non-Orthodox movements? Kariv can only speculate. “I once said to Dvir as a joke that this whole story with the egalitarian space was a way for them to surround the Temple Mount with Jews, and if they happen to be Reform Jews, so be it,” he laughs.

The Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry is a pretty small operation with an annual budget of about NIS 10 million. Few would argue, though, that it fills any real need beyond serving as a bargaining chip in coalition deals. No other city in Israel besides Jerusalem has its own designated government ministry, and Israel’s relations with the Diaspora are not only the primary brief of the Jewish Agency today but also handled by a special desk at the Foreign Ministry.

Kahane’s No. 2 in command at the ministry is Hagay Elitzur, the senior director for Diaspora affairs, who happens to be the son of the late Uri Elitzur, one of the founders and leaders of the settler movement and a close adviser to Netanyahu.

What else has it been up to in the way of nurturing Israel-Diaspora relation in the past year-and-a-half? Not a whole lot, if to judge by its 2014 working program. One of the highlights listed in this document is a program called “Saying Shana Tova” – an initiative designed to connect Israelis to Jews overseas by having them email holiday greetings to members of Diaspora communities abroad on the Jewish New Year. Not a very new idea, this initiative was the brainchild of Yuli Edelstein, the former minister for public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs (the name of the ministry in its previous incarnation), who came up with the idea more than three years ago.

A more substantial project the ministry has recently put funding into is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an Orthodox outreach program that brings young mothers from secular backgrounds to Israel on subsidized trips aimed at providing them with a meaningful religious experience very much in the style of Chabad. “After much research and investigation,” the ministry wrote in a letter to the program organizers, “we concluded that the JWRP was the organization we have been looking for.”