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Dennis Ross at Center Stage As New Institute Plans Jewish Future

Dennis Ross, who served as Middle East envoy for the Clinton administration, is now handling an entirely different role with a think tank created by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Ross was front and center when the Policy Planning Institute for the Jewish People opened its doors Tuesday in Jerusalem.

The institute “will examine the challenges, threats, needs and opportunities” confronting Jews worldwide, the Jewish Agency said.

It also will “deal with formulating policy for the Jewish people by promoting professional studies” and fostering “long-term strategic thinking.”

According to Ross, the newly appointed chairman of the institute’s board of directors, “We need to be thinking about the problems emerging down the road.

“We’re creating a group to think about these problems, putting policy and research together,” said Ross, who also is director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A group that includes Ross, Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor and Hebrew University political science professor Yehezkel Dror has been planning the institute for more than a year.

The group of 15 to 20 people — half from Israel, the rest from around the world — first gathered several times to talk about major issues facing the Jewish people, including Israel’s changing demographics and issues of Jewish identity.

The institute was first discussed before the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

At the time, Jewish communal leaders were concerned with Israel’s lack of long-term tools to plan strategically for the future.

“We’re a nation that excels in responding minute to minute,” Meridor said. “But we need to also think and plan for the future.”

Dror, a well-known Israeli policy planner who helped create the institute, quoted the great thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who wrote about the need to choose between being carried along by fate or taking deliberate action to shape the future.

“That’s our goal, to take a long-term look at the alternative futures of the Jewish people and Israel,” Dror said this week.

What emerged from the deliberations was a collective decision to create the institute, which will be funded with $1 million annually from the Jewish Agency, with additional funds expected from Jewish philanthropists.

The institute’s research projects will be carried out by several paid research professionals, gathered into policy papers and eventually presented to government officials.

The think tank is being structured as a public, not-for-profit company, with 50 percent held by the Jewish Agency and the other half by Jewish bodies and foundations.

It will be small, with a core of Jewish thinkers and practitioners guided by a board of directors.

Issues expected to be researched first include Israel’s demography, as the Arab sector grows faster than the Jewish sector; the cohesion of the Jewish people; collective action and its financing; information technology in Jewish affairs; and the Jewish nation’s global standing.

Ross said he decided to work for the institute because it was the least he could do “as a member of the Jewish people.”

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was important,” he said. “I think it will prove itself.”

According to the institute’s founders, policy papers won’t emerge immediately.

Once there are position papers that identify the problems and make recommendations, it will be up to the institute’s board of directors — as well as its partners, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Agency — to talk to various governments and transform stances into policy.

The institute is not the first quasi-government think tank to emerge this year.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, recently created the International Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism after a series of anti-Semitic attacks spread across Europe in reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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