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The Highest Bidder

A flurry of protest is rippling through the Jewish community over last month’s decision by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the venerable, Diaspora-funded social-service agency, to appoint a spokesman for evangelical Christian donors to its executive committee.

Some of the opposition arises from a bigoted, anti-gentile impulse that too often lurks somewhere inside even the best of us. There’s a big piece of the emerging protest, though, that comes from a finer impulse.

It represents a rear-guard effort to preserve a disappearing chapter in Jewish history: the institution of worldwide, democratic Jewish community decision-making. It’s a losing battle and it may be time to give up, but it’s worth stopping first to acknowledge what’s at stake.

The evangelical group in question, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, first began offering large-scale donations to the Jewish Agency just over a decade ago. The fellowship’s founder, a savvy young Orthodox rabbi named Yechiel Eckstein, wanted to find a way of encouraging material support for Israel in the Bible Belt. His plan was to give his donations to the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency’s main American funder.

But the UJA and its subsidiary philanthropies turned him away. Too many of their top leaders shared the widespread American Jewish suspicion of Evangelical Christians. We’re commonly prone to mistrust evangelicals’ support for Israel, fearing that they’re trying to bolster the Jewish state in order to bring about their prophecies of Armageddon. What, we worry, if it works?

Eckstein, undeterred, approached a European-based Jewish philanthropy, Keren Hayesod, which duly forwarded his money to Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem. The agency’s Israeli leadership accepted the money happily, and even gave Eckstein a seat on the agency’s board of governors, honoring his and his Christian flock’s devotion. Few Israelis are troubled by the evangelicals’ post-millennial dreams. That’s generally considered an American Jewish neurosis.

The money has been flowing ever since, to the tune of millions of dollars per year. It is now part of the landscape. Eckstein’s presence on the board hardly raised an eyebrow, even when he was upgraded to voting status. After all, he had paid for the seat. It was his.

The protests arose a month ago, when the agency signed a new agreement with Eckstein in which he promised to double his group’s annual donations. In return, he was promoted to the 26-member executive committee from the 120-member governing board.

This is where the history comes in. The Jewish Agency has served historically as a worldwide Jewish representative body, making decisions on the Jewish future in the name of Jews everywhere. It is designated in Israeli law as the official voice of the worldwide Jewish community. Its leadership bodies are supposed to represent the diverse views of the Jewish people. Traditionally, leaders were chosen every four years through elections held in Jewish neighborhoods around the world.

The executive committee operates like a Cabinet of ministers, overseeing the agency’s day-to-day operations in Israel and across the globe. Even today, after multiple reorganizations and steady decline, members of the executive committee still meet regularly with Israel’s prime minister and Cabinet to discuss Israel-Diaspora relations and agency business. Eckstein now serves on that liaison subcommittee.

Seen through that prism, the idea of putting a representative of Christian donors on the executive committee looks a bit like giving the Central Bank of China a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The truth is, the agency hasn’t really functioned as a representative body in years. Its main governing bodies have been dominated for decades by the Diaspora fund-raising organizations that pay the bills. The funders tend to view the agency not as a global Jewish parliament but as a casework bureau. They usually speak not of representation but of “ownership,” the popular buzzword in those circles.

In their view, they’re on the board to represent the major shareholders. As for Israelis, they learned long ago to view the Jewish Agency as an overblown, do-little bureaucracy. When they recognize its effectiveness as an Israeli service provider, as they do increasingly of late, they can’t see why Diaspora Jews should be setting Israeli social policy.

The handful on either side of the ocean who still speak of the agency’s historic mission have become all but inaudible. The very notion of democratic Jewish decision-making sounds quaint to most ears.

Critics of Eckstein’s new post claim it’s a warning of what might be. Actually, it’s a mile-marker of what is. The major institutions of Jewish life are no longer public trusts, but private property. Shares are available to the highest bidder. If it wasn’t clear before just what that meant, it is quite clear now.

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