Jewish Agency pulling out of Israel-world Jewry initiative

Ben Sales

(JTA) — The Jewish Agency for Israel will pull out of a large-scale initiative launched two years ago to connect Diaspora Jewry with Israel.

In a letter Thursday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained by JTA, Natan Sharansky and Charles Ratner — the chairman and board chairman, respectively, of the Jewish Agency — wrote that their organization would stop cooperating in the project known as the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry.

The initiative’s goal was to create programming, jointly funded by the Israeli government and major Jewish organizations, to draw Diaspora Jews closer to Israel. Alongside the Jewish Agency, the initiative’s major partners include the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization.

The letter said those organizations had been shut out of “any and all meaningful dialogue” about the initiative.

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“We feel obliged to inform you that we cannot continue to participate in the Initiative as currently formulated,” Sharansky and Ratner wrote, added that “until the program is returned to its original conception and direction, we no longer see this as the joint initiative between the Government of Israel and World Jewry and therefore can no longer see ourselves part of it.”

They added that “this undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework, for programs to be conducted by a single government Ministry.”

While the letter did not name the ministry, JTA has learned that Sharansky and Ratner were referring to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which along with the Prime Minister’s Office was responsible for managing the initiative within the Israeli government. The ministry has allocated some of the funding to programs not approved by the initiative’s other partners.

One of the programs funded by the ministry without the Diaspora organizations’ input is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which organizes group trips to Israel and other programs for Jewish mothers.

Planning for the initiative began in 2013, and in June 2014, the Israeli government voted to allocate more than $50 million to the project by 2017, to be increased to more than $100 million by 2022. The goal was to have major Jewish organizations and individual donors double that amount for a total of $300 million.

However, the major Jewish organizations have yet to provide their matching funds, and may not do so following the Jewish Agency’s withdrawal. Planning for the initiative has been slow and it has yet to launch specific programs.

In the letter, Sharansky and Ratner wrote that they hope to pursue the initiative’s goals within a different framework in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office.

“We hope that you will agree to meet at your earliest convenience with our senior leadership to explore together both how to maximize the opportunities created by your initial vision, and the ways to implement this vision jointly and in full cooperation,” they wrote.

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