Will Jewish Agency Cut Ties With Christian Evangelicals?

Yehiel Eckstein, who announced plans to stop millions of dollars in funding for the Jewish Agency, told Haaretz he has ‘no desire one way or another’ to sit on the executive board

Tomer Appelbaum

Should the director of a large Christian evangelical-funded philanthropy, who has withdrawn millions of dollars in funding from the Jewish Agency to set up a competing operation, continue to sit on the Jewish Agency’s key decision-making panel?

When the Jewish Agency Board of Governors convenes in Jerusalem next week, among the hot topics of conversation will be the organization’s future relationship with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Eckstein, an American-Israeli, last week announced plans to stop funding Jewish immigration activities through the Jewish Agency and instead to set up his own independent operation for that purpose.

Eckstein, who sits on the Jewish Agency's executive board, has over the past 15 years contributed millions of dollars each year in IFCJ funds to the organization’s aliyah activities. He has been particularly active in assisting members of Jewish communities in distress, in recent years financing numerous flights of immigrants from both Ethiopia and Ukraine to Israel.

Jewish Agency officials were furious when Eckstein said he'd go solo, after hiring several of their own senior staffers for his new operation. Questions about Eckstein’s continued role in Jewish Agency bodies, Haaretz has learned, will be broached during a meeting of the organization’s aliyah and rescue committee, scheduled for next Tuesday morning, on the final day of the three-day session.

Eckstein said by phone that he planned to attend the Board of Governors meeting and that he hoped to continue working together with the Jewish Agency. “This is not an attempt to usurp anyone’s territory,” he said, referring to the IFCJ decision to set up its own aliyah operation. “We’re just trying to increase aliyah.” 

He said his decision to set up an independent operation was prompted by a recent trip to Ukraine, where he discovered that the Jewish Agency had only one emissary serving a very large community interested in making aliyah. “We discovered a void that needed to be filled and a need for a much more aggressive aliyah presence in the country,” he said.

Asked if he intended to step down from his position on the Jewish Agency executive board, Eckstein said, “I have a seat on the executive board because Keren Hayesod believes in us and gave us one of their five seats. I have no great desire one way or another to be on the executive board, and I have already told Keren Hayesod that I serve at their discretion, and it would be fine if they wanted to replace me.”

A Jewish Agency spokesman said the question of Eckstein’s future in the organization was not on the official agenda. “The board meetings will be focusing on the Jewish Agency’s central role in helping the residents of southern Israel rebuild in the aftermath of this summer’s hostilities, as well as on the organization’s efforts to increase aliyah, strengthen Jewish identity, and reinforce the bonds between Jews around the world and Israel,” he said.

Asked specifically what Jewish Agency Chairman’s Natan Sharansky’s position was on Eckstein continuing to sit on the executive, the spokesman referred to his previous response saying: “That is the Jewish Agency’s statement on the subject.”

The Jewish Agency several years ago took a strategic decision to place less emphasis on immigration activities and more on strengthening Jewish identity. Eckstein had opposed that decision.

Eckstein has served on the Jewish Agency Board of Governors since 2001, as a representative of Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal), and has sat on the executive board since 2008. Until recently, he also chaired the aliyah and rescue committee, which is now run by Danny Lamm, a leader of the Australian Jewish community.

The logo of the IFCJ still appears on all official Jewish Agency publications and promotional material, alongside those of its other key funders and partners – the World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Among those who have joined Eckstein’s new aliyah agency are Eli Cohen, the former head of the aliyah and absorption department at the Jewish Agency, and Jeff Kaye, the former Jewish Agency coordinator for financial resource development. Cohen heads Eckstein’s new operation, which will be focused primarily on immigration from the former Soviet Union.

The IFCJ has contributed an estimated $150 million to aliyah activities over the years. It also contributes heavily to social-welfare projects in Israel. But because of its connections to Christian evangelical organizations and activists, the IFCJ and its donations are not always welcome by Israeli organizations and institutions.

This summer, for example, the Ministry of Education turned down NIS 40 million shekels ($10.7 million) of funding from the IFCJ designated for its summer-camp program. The decision was in response to a protest campaign launched by Orthodox Jewish parents that reached the High Court of Justice. The IFCJ was initially involved in funding Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that oversees immigration from English-speaking countries on behalf of the government. After some of the beneficiaries expressed reservations about accepting contributions from Christian evangelicals, Nefesh b’Nefesh cut ties with the IFCJ as well.

The Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which convenes three times a year, will hold its opening session next week in Ashkelon, as a sign of solidarity with Israeli residents of the south, who came under constant rocket fire during the latest war in Gaza this summer.