The Agency’s New Agenda


Published March 03, 2010, issue of March 12, 2010.
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The Jewish Agency for Israel is embarking on a bold and necessary attempt to create a new mission for itself, downplaying its historic role in promoting immigration to Israel and emphasizing instead an intriguing but still amorphous notion of Jewish “peoplehood.”

Applause is warranted anytime a sprawling, calcified bureaucracy seeks new direction and energy, and never more so than in this case. The agency that once effectively acted as a governing body in pre-state Israel, and since 1948 promoted aliyah worldwide, has lost its way. Immigration is no longer as much of a pressing task, and other groups handle it far more efficiently. The pipeline of funding from the American Jewish community has shrunk, both in real dollars and in the percentage of donations sent to Israel, a not-so-subtle message that the Jewish Agency had lost the confidence of its largest flock.

And so the Jewish Agency’s new chairman, Natan Sharansky, and a leadership cadre made up mostly of Russian-speaking Jews, are embracing “peoplehood” as their rallying cry and organizational mission. As reported by our Gal Beckerman, this approach is informed by their experiences in the former Soviet Union, where they nurtured a defiant attachment to other Jews in a society that smothered religion and ethnic identity.

“Peoplehood” is an appealing notion. Most Jews want to belong, to see themselves as part of a historic narrative, a sturdy sub-group with a distinct culture and perspective that comes with certain obligations and a kind of built-in safety net. Jews take care of other Jews. That’s what we’re supposed to do.

That, indeed, was what Zionism was supposed to do, by positioning Israel as the bulwark against genocide and any other hurts against the Jewish people. And herein lies one of the great challenges in defining this alternative direction for the Jewish Agency. Where is Zionism in the new “peoplehood” mission? How does an organization representing the state of Israel promote Jewish identity in the Diaspora without diluting or perhaps even erasing the central message that Jewish historical aspirations lead to Zion?

The second challenge to this embryonic notion of “peoplehood” goes even deeper: Can the Jewish people be sustained without God, without religion? Can a lasting Jewish identity be stitched together without the binding of a traditional faith? It is difficult to imagine how a sense of community and belonging and responsibility alone will be compelling enough for young people for whom being Jewish is one option among many.

But the truth is, both of these deep challenges already face the Jewish people. The initial expectations of Zionism have been tempered by time, as the great ingathering has proven to be more hoped-for than real. And as for God, well, His role has been a source of Jewish debate since that first argument with Abraham.

Now it is up to the Jewish Agency to take this bold idea, translate it into a clear, understandable mission and reorganize a famously lackluster bureaucracy into a fighting force for Jewish identity.

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