The chairmanship of the Jewish Agency is an important position, at least it was 70 years ago, when David Ben-Gurion held it.
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Of course, then the Jewish Agency was the de facto government of the Jewish community in Palestine and the government-in-waiting of the Jewish state. When that state became a reality in 1948, Ben-Gurion became its prime minister and there was no longer a need for the Jewish Agency. Apart, that is, from the fact that bureaucracies are self-perpetuating organisms and rarely shut down, even if the purpose for which they were founded no longer exists.
Along with the two other “national institutions,” Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal and the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency was kept on to carry out various “national” tasks that the government preferred ostensibly nongovernmental agencies to carry out. Keren Hayesod continued raising money from Diaspora Jews, funding the JNF’s land purchases and the Jewish Agency’s activities to encourage Jewish immigration.
Perhaps in the early and less confident years of the state, there was some justification to continue carrying out these tasks at arm’s length, but not in later decades. As Israel became a stronger, better-organized state, these organizations’ raisons d’etre became less and less clear.
Today, Keren Hayesod is nothing more than an opaque and glorified schnorer outfit, soliciting funds from oligarchs for causes close to the hearts of Israeli politicians and, at least in one case, their wives. Its chairman, Modi Zandberg was recently questioned as a suspect in the “submarines” corruption case. The JNF has become a bloated old-boys’ network, squabbling with the government over its cut from the proceeds of the sale of what is actually state land.
And what does the Jewish Agency do? It’s not really clear.
Its function in immigration to Israel is superfluous, as the technical side of aliyah can, and in recent years largely has been, assumed by government bodies and nonprofit organizations. With nearly all of the world’s Jews now living in relatively open societies and capable of visiting Israel, learning about life here and making their own choices as to whether to move to Zion, there is no need for the Jewish Agency to “educate” them about Israel. The agency has reverted to the even more amorphous role of facilitating the “relationship” between Israel and the Diaspora, but in that area as well it is losing ground to government ministries and to nonprofits.
Ask a senior Jewish Agency official to outline his or her mission and all you get is a list of cliches. There are, of course, hundreds of staffers doing valuable work in Jewish education in dozens of countries across the globe, but there is nothing unique about that. The only real justification for the Jewish Agency’s existence today is the paycheck it provides to thousands of employees — and of course the top jobs, which offer the government an additional source of patronage and a repository for failed politicians.
Check out the list of individuals who followed Ben-Gurion as chairman; most were at the end of their political careers and few aspired to higher office after leaving the Jewish Agency. Zalman Shazar went on to fill the mainly ceremonial role of Israeli president. Avraham Burg had a short and rather inglorious stint as Knesset speaker, but most of the ex-chairmen languished in obscurity upon leaving the post. The previous chairman, Zeev Bielsky, seems to have been so disappointed with his lack of real influence that he went back to his old job as mayor of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana.
The incumbent, Natan Sharansky, is a case in point. The Soviet freedom fighter and gulag prisoner, who in Israel became just another failed politician, has held the job for eight years. Appointed mainly for his loyalty to the prime minister, he has proved powerless to reverse the erosion in the Jewish Agency’s influence and the deterioration in the relationship between mainstream American Jewry and the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But there’s no point blaming Sharansky for lacking the will or the skill to tackle these problems; he’s only the chairman of the Jewish Agency, a grand title for an empty job.
Sharansky is finally on his way out; the names of possible successors have been circulating for a few months. All of the potential candidates are depressingly similar: political hacks, bland and subservient enough to be acceptable to Netanyahu and to the leaders of the main Jewish federations in North America, who fund the Jewish Agency and therefore have a de facto veto on the prime minister’s choice.
The one thing they all share is slim prospects of anything better in their future than a comfortable job, with a good salary, lots of travel and no real influence.
Two interesting points about the lists. All the potential candidates are men: There are no women in Netanyahu’s inner circle whom he seeks to reward (one assumes Miri Regev or Tzipi Hotovely would be too much for the leaders of American Jewry to stomach). In addition, they are all Israeli. While being an Israeli citizen is not a legal prerequisite of the position, it was an obvious one back in the day when the Jewish Agency’s main function was actually immigration to Israel.
But in this day and age, when the main issue the agency is supposed to be tackling is the fraught relationship with the Diaspora, what would be better than having a Diaspora candidate?
It so happens, there is a perfect man (sorry, he isn’t a woman) for the job. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has shown a devotion to the “shared values” of America and Israel, and to Jewish tradition and culture, like no other.
Despite the stormy personal relations between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, as ambassador Shapiro succeeded, almost single-handedly, in keeping the strategic ties between Israel and the United States in healthy condition. Nearly a year after ending his term he is still in Israel, mainly because his older children want to complete high school here. He has good Hebrew, an insider’s understanding of Israeli politics and a deep affinity with the Jewish-American community. Who could be better to mend the fraying ties between the largest and most successful Jewish communities in history?
There’s one snag. Netanyahu identifies Shapiro with the traumatic years of the Obama administration he would so dearly love to forget. Why would he appoint Obama’s representative to Israel? But Netanyahu can’t steamroller his own candidate against the will of Diaspora leaders, and anyway he might not be around for much longer.
The Jewish Federations of North America provides the lion’s share of the Jewish Agency’s budget; it’s time its leaders demand a chairman more to their liking. Someone who really understands the Diaspora and its concerns. Who knows, perhaps even a chairman who can make the Jewish Agency relevant again.