Memo To Israel’s Leaders: Reinvent The Jewish Agency
Tue, 02/02/2010

To: Prime Minister Netanyahu, Chairman Sharansky

From: Prof. Yoav Shoham, Stanford University

1. Background:

a. Re-conceptualizing and re-establishing the connection between Israel and Jewish communities worldwide is a matter of national security for Israel no less important than Iran;

b. Reforming the Jewish Agency For Israel (JAFI) is a key component of such a move.

2. JAFI today:

a. Increasingly is viewed (especially by U.S. donors) as bloated, nontransparent, potentially corrupt, often ineffective;

b. In reality it has some wonderful people doing great work, but:

i. There is not a compelling vision from the top that is inspiring the people and making them feel part of a coherent, larger mission;

ii. There are major sources of inefficiency and bureaucracy;

iii. It is not oriented around the most pressing issues today.

3. Why the PM should care:

a. World Jewry is Israel’s one unique advantage in its struggle;

b. For a better or worse, JAFI has been one of Israel’s primary connections to world Jewry, especially the institutionalized Jewish world.

4. JAFI can remain relevant:

a. Because of its history, brand and excellent people, JAFI has the potential to continue to play a pivotal role in nurturing the connection between Israel and the Jewish people, but to do so it must be reinvented;

b. This will not happen without bold leadership and will not be painless, but the timing for this is right:

i. A growing unrest in the donor base has recently culminated in certain public showdowns, and all sides would welcome greater harmony;

ii. The current challenging economic climate is an opportune time to make some painful changes. Forest fires have (also) a positive role.

 c. If JAFI is not reinvented it will become increasingly marginalized.

5. A vision of the new JAFI:

a. The old contract between world Jewry and Israel has all but expired. For many, 1948 and 1967 are at best a dim memory. Israel’s military, economic, demographic and political situation has changed dramatically in the past 60 years so as to completely change the equation. Needed is a new contract;

b. This contract is much more symmetrical than in the past; Israel has to contribute to Jewish identity and Jewish life everywhere no less than world Jewry has to contribute towards a thriving Israel. Israel continues to hold a special status — it is a first among equals — but with a stress on both the “first” and the “equals”;

c. JAFI is the body in which this new contract will be articulated, monitored and reinforced;

d. The goal of the contract is to strengthen the ties among all Jewish communities, and in particular between Israel and world Jewry. The mission of the new JAFI is to nurture these ties, which come in many flavors. Every activity of the new JAFI should be judged against this question: How does it enhance ties among Jewish communities?

6. Some of the practical ramifications:

a. The name is anachronistic. The “Jewish Agency” is more appropriate than the Jewish Agency for Israel;

b. It should no longer be viewed as part of the internal political landscape, or at least its leadership positions should not be viewed as part of Israel’s internal political currency. The Agency should be led by people who can carry the vision. They might come from any of the three sectors. The chairmanship of Natan Sharansky is very opportune in this regard; as someone who is both a Jewish icon and a politician he can be the perfect bridge to the future;

c. The Agency must refrain from off-mission activities. For example, support for the poor and general education in Israel, critical as they are, are off mission (JAFI is currently doing wonderful things in those areas, and those should continue; but not as part of JAFI). Aliyah remains an important component, but must receive fewer resources than it currently does, given the relatively small fraction of the inter-community activities it currently occupies;

d. The Agency must meet the highest operational standards of bodies serving the public, as these are emerging today. This includes:

i. Far greater transparency;

ii. A governance structure that allows for strategic planning as well as effective and accountable execution;

iii. There is a question of whether, long term, the Agency should be an operating body in addition to being a policy and funding body. This combination is usually problematic.

7. What needs to happen:

a. The Chairman should initiate a process, involving the main stakeholders, to synthesize a vision. The PM should sanction this process;

b. The PM and the Chairman should announce the vision at appropriate forums. The forums should not be internal to JAFI, although of course the Chairman should communicate it there as well. One option is Israel’s President’s Conference. Another is the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. It is important that the message reach not only “diaspora” Jews, and not only “professional Jews”;

c. The Chairman and PM should establish a task force to implement the vision within a reasonable time frame.

Yoav Shoham is a professor of computer science at Stanford University and co-founder of The Jewish Peoplehood Project Index.

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