The Israeli government has shut down the office of the Minister of Diaspora Affairs, raising concerns that the government may be giving less attention to the already weakening bonds between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.
Last week, according to a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the contracts of the last two employees in the office were allowed to expire, after a year and a half during which the top post there had been vacant.
Some government insiders described the move as an act of bureaucratic house cleaning with no political significance. But Israeli politicians who have been involved in Diaspora affairs said the closure is a sign of a declining interest among Israeli leaders in Jewish communities in other parts of the world.
“There’s been a shying away from it,” said Bobby Brown, who was the adviser on Diaspora affairs for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The leaders of Israel don’t understand the Diaspora,” Brown said. “They don’t have a feeling that there is a need for at least an address for people in the Diaspora to go.”
Some observers point to what they describe as increasing evidence that the connections between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora are fraying. A recent article in The Economist detailed the declining interest in Israel among American Jews. Last December, a Knesset committee heard about the dearth of opportunities that Israeli students have to learn about global Jewry.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, the most recent person to be given the Diaspora portfolio, said, “Israelis are becoming estranged from the Jews , and young Jews are estranged from Israel — and this is the answer of the government.”
A spokesman for Olmert said that with the closure of the office, oversight for Diaspora programs is being transferred to the division of policy implementation, which is a part of the prime minister’s office. The spokesman said that though the post is being eliminated, Olmert will assign the Diaspora portfolio to another minister
The responsibility for dealing with the far-flung Diaspora has always been divided between a number of bodies. These include the foreign ministry and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental body. Olmert also has an adviser for Diaspora affairs, Rachel Risby-Raz, who said the recent closing is only a matter of “Israeli politics and bureaucracy.”
The Diaspora ministry closing comes amid a jumble of high-level political moves as a growing number of Israeli leaders are being forced to step down due to scandal.
Melchior said that the internal problems in Israel have meant that “the pressures for many other issues are much greater than the issues of world Jewry, and therefore no one presses and it falls through.”
But Risby-Raz, Olmert’s adviser, said that the prime minister still “knows the Diaspora, inside and out.”
“The closeness he has to the Diaspora is something very special about this prime minister,” she said.
Just this week, Olmert spoke in front of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations.
Steven Bayme, a specialist on Israel-Diaspora relations at the American Jewish Committee, said that Israelis and Americans are “increasingly far apart.” But Bayme said that in America, “there is a lot of confidence that Israeli leadership continues to value Diaspora matters. This move seems to be more of an administrative matter.”
Prime Minister Ehud Barak created the Diaspora ministry relatively recently, in 2000. During the 1990s, prime ministers had high-level Diaspora advisers. Melchior said that it was only because the job existed that the highly popular Birthright Israel program was able to be born.
“To tell me that some adviser to the prime minister, who will probably never get to him — that that’s the same — it’s just a bad joke,” Melchior said.
Another critic of the move was Melchior’s successor, former Soviet dissident and Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, who told Ha’aretz that the Diaspora ministry was necessary for providing a public forum for speaking about antisemitism. Every year, when he was at the ministry, Sharansky hosted the Global Forum on Anti-Semitism. For the past two years the forum did not take place, but it is being reborn this month under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry.
Brown, who served under Netanyahu, said that “there was never a lack of important things to do — there was always a lack of personnel and money.”