December 6, 2002
EETTA PRINCE GIBSON
The idea that Israel is the only place for Jews, and that the Jewish Agency should focus on promoting aliya has given way to harsh reality and some new thinking.
On a cold, dreary weekend in Moscow last month, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) sponsored four major events throughout the city.
In a convention hall in central Moscow, Israeli colleges and universities advertised their wares. JAFI officials had hung a few, seemingly-obligatory posters of Jaffa oranges, pristine beaches, and fields of anemones and wild poppies. But most of the posters advertised opportunities for scholarships or described innovative graduate programs, credit awards, and exam schedules - designed for students from the FSU - to potential graduate students with parents in tow, who, like their international counterparts, shopped about for the best opportunities for their future.
An outdated, over-sized Soviet-style mosaic of a cosmonaut, with hammer and sickle insignia and the CCP emblem on his sleeve, floated over the large hall, but Shlomo Artzi and ETHNIX tapes blared in the background.
In a distant corner of the city, young adults were participating in a JAFI-run Jewish identity course, while, in a nearby convention center, nearly 200 teenagers who had participated in "birthright" trips to Israel debated the meaning of Israel in their lives.
Nearly two hours away, in a once-elegant retreat and resort complex, 35 Israel businesswomen were meeting with more than 70 businesswomen from the FSU as part of JAFI's People-to-People program - commonly known as P2P. (see box)
Not one of these programs even attempted to "pitch" or sell aliya. The programs, and the many dozens like them throughout the FSU and the world, reveal much about the new realities of the Jewish people and the ways in which JAFI is attempting to cope with them.
THE JEWISH Agency for Israel is rooted in the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. By 1922, the League of Nations Mandate provided for "a Jewish agency" that would act as a "public body under international law".
JAFI's relationship with the State of Israel is spelled out in the "Special Status Law," by which the Government of Israel recognizes the agency as an entity with the authority to act for Israel in a number of fields and to coordinate the activity of Jewish organizations and institutions that also work in these fields in Israel.
Throughout the first 60 years of JAFI's existence, ideological tensions raged between Israeli Zionists, such as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, and some Diaspora Zionists, such as Nachum Goldman and Mordechai Kaplan. While Goldman and Kaplan emphasized global Jewish peoplehood, Ben-Gurion and Meir denied the viability of Jewish life in the Diaspora, insisting that the combination of assimilation and anti-Semitism would make Judaism extinct within a century.
The State of Israel is the only place for Jews, and all efforts by the Jewish people, and all of the fundraising by organizations such as JAFI, should be directed towards the Jewish State.
"History and current reality proved the Diaspora-deniers wrong," says Professor Gideon Shimony, head of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Today, almost no one would deny the viability of the Diaspora - certainly not JAFI."
Over the decades, JAFI has been reconstituted several times. With the establishment of the state in 1948, most of its functions were transferred to governmental bodies. Gradually, other functions were transferred to the state or "outsourced" to Israel's rapidly growing Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) sector. In 1996, one of the last areas of JAFI work, Youth Aliya, was transferred to the Ministry of Education.
By 1997, JAFI had embarked on a complex, comprehensive "Strategic Planning Process," involving nearly 400 Jewish leaders from Israel and abroad. The process resulted in the "Strategy for Implementing JAFI's Shared Vision and Mission Statement," which was formally adopted in the summer of 2000.
"Our vision is to strengthen Israel, secure the future of Klal Yisrael, and enhance Am Ehad based on the centrality of Israel," the Mission Statement reads.
"We will bring the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the rest of the world together to form a closer and more meaningful partnership, with Israel at its center. Since all parties have much to offer in this redefined partnership, the relationship will flow both ways in the spirit of mutual support and mutual respect. While recognizing diversity, we will work to enhance a Global Jewish Community."
The strategic process delineated five areas of concentration: Aliya and Rescue; Strengthening the Relationship with Israel; Enhancing Jewish Unity; Enhancing Jewish Identity; and Strengthening the State of Israel as the State for all Jews.
There are many reasons that official statements such as these relate to the centrality of Israel, but, no less so, emphasize Jewish unity and peoplehood, and make no reference to aliya.
The first reason, of course, is the simple fact that most Jews didn't, and won't, make aliya. In the early to mid 1990s, tens of thousands of Russian immigrants arrived each month. But Russian Jews are more optimistic now, and the Russian economy seems to be on the upswing. In 2001, 43,580 immigrants came to Israel and only 33,601 of them came from the FSU, according to the Jewish Agency's spokesman's department. By the end of November 2002, 29,349 immigrants had come to Israel, only 16,748 of them from the FSU. These are still significant numbers, but they clearly point to declining aliya rates.
And far from dying, many Diaspora communities are growing increasingly vibrant and viable. No longer feeling inferior to their pioneering Israeli cousin, they have become more demanding and assertive. Funding processes have become tighter and more demanding, and Israeli causes compete for money with overseas projects in Diaspora communities as well, overseen by the Overseas Needs Assessment Distribution (ONAD).
Increased assertiveness in the Diaspora has met with increased humility in Israel. The assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the failed peace process and the ongoing conflict, growing social gaps and the failing economy - all these, says Shimony, have made Israelis less sure that Israel is the only place, or even the best place, to be a Jew.
"Israel simply isn't the Or Lagoyim ("Light Unto The Nations") that we had hoped it to be," Shimony says.
In crisis areas, such as Ethiopia or Argentina, JAFI continues to function primarily as an aliya-oriented institution. Aliya is still the largest department in the agency, and the biggest draw for funding, says Paula Edelstein, chairwoman of JAFI's Israel Committee.
But even the settlement arm of JAFI, Edelstein reveals, has decreased. Throughout Israel, the familiar green and white signs point to the fact that almost all Israel's kibbutzim and moshavim were founded through JAFI.
Fifteen years ago, JAFI employed in Israel more than 4,000 employees, and 3,000 of them worked in the settlement department. But today, JAFI employs fewer than 1,500 people and fewer than 30 of them are in the settlement department. JAFI's settlement budget extends only until 2004, and its future is unclear, says Edelstein.
LESS than two years ago, JAFI established the "Jewish Agency's Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning," which, according to its promotional materials, "aims to influence decision-makers on policy planning that will impact the Jewish future, both as a global people and as a Jewish nation."
The institute convened in Jerusalem earlier this week in an emergency session on what called the "demographic crisis."
Building on the successful Partnership 2000 program, in which Jewish communities abroad "partner" with a geographic area in Israel, the People to People Center was established less than two years ago P2P programs focus on Jewish identity, Professional Networking, Geographic Partnerships that include the US communities, Israel, and the FSU, Students and Young Adults, and an Internet site, billed as a "virtual Jewish world of dynamic dialogue."
"We know that the way that our parents and grandparents connected to Israel simply won't work for us or our children," explains Lisa Gann-Perkal, associate director of P2P, with primary responsibility for its Professional Networking Program. "We have to create new ways to unite our people. P2P isn't just a way to do things differently, it's a way to do different things." The budget is small - $600,000 this year, expected to grow to about $900,000 next year - and the program only has 3.5 personnel slots.
Gann-Perkal talks about "interest-matching" and "personal relevance" and "networking."
"In today's Jewish world, we have to involve people through the activities that interest them. We create affinity groups, based on common interests, among Jews in Israel and abroad.
Some of P2P's "affinity groups" have included a global Jewish theater initiative, a conference of Jewish museum directors (to be held later this month), and a newly-established trauma Web site, meant to act as a meeting point and forum for the exchange of professional ideas and know how on the treatment of trauma for Jewish community professionals and trauma experts in the United States and Israel.
In August, 2002, Gann-Perkal organized more than 40 leading Jewish environmentalists from Israel and the Diaspora, who attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and laid the foundations for a future "World Jewish Environmental Forum."
A new program, focusing on human dignity in hospitals, will twin Israeli and Diaspora medical and para-medical professionals.
"We're not handing out free plane tickets to Israel," says Gann-Perkal. "We are providing a way for people to connect to Israel and the Jewish people through their interests and passions."
OVER the decades, JAFI has been tarnished by politicization and reputed misuse of funds. Most Israelis know little of its activities, and, if they recognize the large, impressive building on King George Avenue in Jerusalem, they hardly know what it really does.
But Gann-Perkal and Edelstein are proud of their work and of their institution.
"I believe in what we do," says Gann-Perkal simply. "I think that P2P is one of the most important developments in JAFI, and I am proud that JAFI has been flexible and adapted to the changing needs of the Jewish people."
Edelstein concurs. "It saddens me that the Israeli public doesn't really know or appreciate the wonderful work that the Jewish Agency has done, and continues to do, for Israel and for the Jewish people everywhere. I am proud that we are grappling with some of the most crucial issues facing the Jewish people today - democracy, pluralism, and equality in the State of Israel for all of Israel's citizens, the continuity of the Jewish people and the meaning of Jewish identity in the 21st century."
On a cold weekend in late October, 35 Israeli women and 70 women from the FSU and the FSU emigre community in Germany, all owners of small businesses, met together at a retreat nearly two hours outside of Moscow to found and launch the International Forum for Jewish Businesswomen.
A People to People (P2P) activity, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the meeting was part of JAFI's newer efforts to foster ongoing ties between groups of Jewish professionals in an atmosphere of Jewish and professional community-building.
Like all P2P programs, the meeting did not provide a podium for Israeli shlichim (emissaries) to pitch the virtues of aliya. It was a carefully-crafted meeting with lectures on the status of women in Israel and the FSU, marketing techniques, new-found power leveraging, small businesses as the link between micro-and macro economies, and business management.
The sessions were held in Russian and Hebrew, with simultaneous translation. The women found additional ways to network, including English and exchanging business cards. Some, like Ghishra Schwartz, owner of Schwartz Cosmetics, Ltd., a successful natural cosmetics company in Beersheba, handed out small samples, and smoothing on the natural-based moisturizer was another way of communicating. Others shared early-morning exercise sessions and mid-lecture stretching, led by women who own gyms and sports companies in Israel and the FSU.
Like businesswomen everywhere, they talked about balancing family and career - but with differences. The Russian women, many of whom are single mothers, emphasized the "role of the Jewish mother who should sacrifice for her children," while the Israeli women, more feminist and more assertive, demanded that men and social institutions take a greater role in child-care.
Many of the Israeli women admired their Russian counterparts - women like Natalie Chkhikvadze, who owns the Hotel Villa Berika in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Chkhikvadze, in her mid-60s ("I'm a woman - I will certainly not tell you my age," she said), holds a PhD in metallurgy, and had worked almost all her adult life in one of the Soviet Union's ubiquitous "research institutes."
"But when the Soviet society collapsed," recalls Chkhikvadze, "I knew I had to find some way to support my family."
As the economy around her crumbled, with no credit, no functioning financial systems, in a region almost crippled by a vicious civil war, she managed to purchase a building and renovate it into what in her stylish brochures seems to be a well-equipped, modern, elegant, and highly successful hotel.
Dressed in a carefully-tailored suit and silk blouse, she spoke proudly of her business and of her Jewishness.
"I feel part of the Jewish people.
"It's not simple to be a Jew in Georgia today, but I am. Especially in my heart. Judaism is coming back to life in the FSU. We have national pride now, and I am proud, too."
Their experiences have led the Israeli and FSU women to radically different views of government intervention. Says Chkhikvadze, "The most important thing is to be free of the government. Anything that has succeeded here has succeeded despite the government."
In contrast, Ronit Lev-Ari, director-general of the Authority for the Status of Women, who, together with Paula Edelstein, chairperson of JAFI's Israel Department and a member of the Zionist executive, headed the Israeli delegation, promised to advocate for government funding and aid to small businesses, especially those headed by women.
Mulu Talah, 29, a diminutive immigrant to Israel from Ethiopia, was part of the Israeli delegation. After coming to Israel, Talah had worked on an assembly line in a factory in southern Israel for seven years.
"But I was tired of being frightened that the boss would fire me," she said. "I wanted to be my own boss."
Talah learned to be a hairdresser, and today she owns her own salon and employs three other women. During her years working in the factory, she learned fluent Russian - and so, in fluent Russian, she, too, served as a bridge between the Jewish people throughout the world.
The women formed a steering committee, with Israeli and FSU co-chairs and a six-person steering committee. They are planning future conferences, that may include businesswomen from North and South America, as well as Europe. Some, especially those in the tourist businesses, formed business connections that will serve them in the future.
© 1995-2002, The Jerusalem Post - All rights reserved.