Jewish Agency Plans $300M-a-Year Push for Israel

Most Expensive Plan Ever Would Dwarf Birthright and Hillel

Biggest Ever: A massive new Jewish Agency pro-Israel push is dubbed the Prime Minister’s Initiative. Still, Benjamin Netanyahu has not publicly spoken about the $300 million-a-year plan.
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Biggest Ever: A massive new Jewish Agency pro-Israel push is dubbed the Prime Minister’s Initiative. Still, Benjamin Netanyahu has not publicly spoken about the $300 million-a-year plan.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published August 15, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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“What we do see is enormous interest and enormous excitement from all sources, because this can be very much a game changer,” said Galperin. A third of the funding would come from the Israeli government, with contributions ramping up to $100 million per year. That funding, though not yet committed, would be double the government’s current spending on Diaspora programming.

The remaining $200 million would come from philanthropists, including the U.S.-based Federation movement.

The plan comes at a moment of transition for the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental institution historically tasked with promoting development and immigration in Israel. That role has decreased in recent years, as the organization has shifted its mission to supporting Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

The Prime Minister’s Initiative would give the Jewish Agency a major role in driving Jewish programming throughout America.

The JFNA’s Silverman said the relatively indirect funding route for the initiative was necessitated, in part, by an Israeli law that requires government grants to go to Israeli organizations. Yet he insisted that the structure was not determined simply by the promise of Israeli government money.

“It’s about having a table where the government of Israel and a strong, upstanding agency and Diaspora Jewry… can sit to really have a discussion about the Jewish future,” Silverman said.

Neither Silverman nor Galperin was willing to say whether the initiative would create new programs in the United States or send additional funding to existing programs. An article on the website eJewishPhilanthropy reported that the initiative would create a network of “150 Israel Engaged Campuses.” It’s not clear how that would intersect with the campus programming already provided by Hillel, among scores of other Jewish groups.

Galperin believes that current Jewish organizational activities on U.S. campuses are failing. “The bottom line is, it’s clear it hasn’t worked,” Galperin said. “It hasn’t gotten us over the hump…. The issue is the scope, the scale, and to make sure whatever is being done really has measurable impact.”

Hillel’s new president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, who was hired in July, has been invited to an upcoming planning meeting for the initiative, according to Hillel’s vice president for marketing and communications, Ellen Goldstein.

“We’re really excited about it,” Goldstein said of the initiative.

Goldstein said that she is not concerned about potential objections to pro-Israel programming on campuses in the United States being funded directly by the Israeli government.

“The student who goes on Birthright doesn’t care where their free trip is coming from,” Goldstein said. “I imagine it would be similar to that.”

Goldstein said it was premature to speculate on how the program will be received, given that the initiative is still in the early planning stages.

A large Prime Minister’s Initiative planning meeting originally set for October in Israel was postponed, according to Galperin. A new date has not been set. Galperin said that he hopes some funding will be ready to begin programming by 2014.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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