A Jewish Agency for Israel plan currently in development would combine donor dollars from the United States with Israeli government funds to create what is likely the most expensive pro-Israel campaign ever.
If brought to fruition, the initiative would eventually spend $300 million a year on pro-Israel efforts in the United States and other parts of the Diaspora.
That’s more than three times the annual budget of Taglit-Birthright Israel, more than three times the annual expenditures of all Hillel chapters put together and more than 150 times the annual budget of the Israel Action Network, the much vaunted Jewish communal group founded in 2010 to promote Israel’s image on college campuses.
Yet far greater uncertainty surrounds the plan than previously reported. Despite being dubbed The Prime Minister’s Initiative by the Jewish Agency, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to back the plan in a statement to the Forward.
“[A]t the present, various ways are being examined to bolster the ties between Israel and the Diaspora communities,” Netanyahu’s office wrote in a statement released August 14.
The Jewish Agency’s United States-based fundraising chief, Misha Galperin, said that Netanyahu supported the plan. “This is the interest and the direction the prime minister wants to move in,” Galperin insisted. He asserted that Netanyahu’s office would not speak publicly about it before the government was ready to make a commitment, but that Netanyahu had directed Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to investigate the plan’s feasibility. Galperin said that the Jewish Agency did not have specific authorization to call the project the Prime Minister’s Initiative, and that the agency was only speaking publicly about the plan after a leaked internal planning document was posted by the website eJewishPhilanthropy.
As described by Galperin, the plan would take a portion of the contributions made by American Jews to Jewish federations and send the funds to an as-yet-to-be-determined entity, the identity of which is the subject of meetings being convened by the Jewish Agency. Those funds would be combined with government funds and sent back to the Diaspora for pro-Israel programming.
The program would dwarf earlier pro-Israel efforts like the Israel Action Network, created by major Jewish institutions based in the United States with a $6 million commitment over three years.
The managing director of that effort had not yet heard of the Prime Minister’s Initiative when contacted by the Forward. Yet other Jewish officials in the United States say they are not concerned about their organizations being pushed aside by the Jewish Agency plan.
“We’re going to be at the table together, working arm in arm,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. Silverman’s group had a budget of $47 million in 2010, a sixth of the budget of the proposed Prime Minister’s Initiative.
Under the proposed plan, some funds would be spent on Birthright and other Israel trips for Diaspora Jews. Another pool of funds would be used to bolster immigration to Israel among young Jewish professionals. Other money would be used to support Israel education in Diaspora Jewish communities and to send Israelis to Jewish institutions outside Israel. Finally, some funds would be used for pro-Israel programming on campuses.
“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.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.