The Israeli government office charged with overseeing the country’s relations with the Jewish Diaspora dwindled from an office overseen by a Cabinet minister to an office without a minister — or even any workers.
Opened seven years ago, the Diaspora Affairs Department was shut down last month after no minister was appointed to lead it and its efforts to fight international anti-Semitism, facilitate visits to Israel by Diaspora youth and oversee efforts to restore Jewish property confiscated during the Holocaust.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert since has promised that he would appoint a minister to take over those responsibilities, which once were considered enough to justify a separate portfolio.
The two officials who formerly held the Diaspora affairs job are miffed.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, who held the post twice — under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon — said the lack of a minister showed that the Israeli political establishment is not that concerned with Diaspora issues.
"When you don’t have a person in the Cabinet who has this as part of his job, it falls away as a priority, especially as there are less people in the present Cabinet who have a passion for developing a relationship" with the Diaspora, Melchior told JTA.
It also harms progress that had been made on Diaspora-related issues at a critical time, he said.
"World Jewry and Israel are drifting apart in many, many ways. If we don’t undertake major action to change that tide we will have lost Jewish peoplehood, and the feeling of connection will only exist for professional Jews," Melchior warned.
Natan Sharansky, who held the position under Sharon from 2003 to 2005, said Israel’s standing was damaged in part internationally during last summer’s war against Hezbollah because there was no one in the Cabinet with a direct relationship to the Diaspora.
In addition, Jewish spokespeople abroad have no address to turn to in the Cabinet, he told the Ha’aretz newspaper.
Some American Jewish leaders downplayed the significance of the closure, noting that what counts most is the Israeli government’s disposition toward Diaspora Jewry, not whether the role is formalized in a particular office.
"In the past, in some instances, the individual in the office has been very important," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "In other instances it has been less important. I don’t attach great importance to the specific office, though I do attach great importance to the broader concern."
With the government beset by investigations into alleged financial and sexual wrongdoing, and with the moment of truth on Iran’s nuclear program fast approaching, several American observers note that Israel has higher priorities right now than relations with Diaspora Jewry.
But for some, merely expressing goodwill toward the Diaspora isn’t enough when issues like respect for conversions performed abroad remain central concerns of American Jews.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA that the Diaspora Affairs Department has been productive in the past and that the government is making a "significant error" by letting it collapse.
"Having a positive disposition is not sufficient," Epstein said. "I think you need someone whose responsibility is to make sure that the relationships are as positive as possible."
But Rachael Risby-Raz, Olmert’s Diaspora Affairs adviser, counters that having an office devoted to the topic isn’t the only way to maintain a thriving relationship between Jews abroad and the Jewish state.
The Foreign Ministry, for example, recently has taken responsibility for the Global Forum Against Anti-Semitism, a body created by the former Diaspora Affairs office. Conversion, the immigration of Falash Mura from Ethiopia and other aliyah issues are being handled by the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, and another office oversees Diaspora youth programs to Israel such as birthright israel and Masa.
"It’s such a big field in terms of making sure things are getting done, so it does require a number of people working on it," she said. "It’s a coordinated effort."
Arik Kaplan, who worked as a staffer in the former Diaspora Affairs Department, said he had been told the office would remain open.
"I’m surprised, as a worker and citizen, that they did not appoint a minister," he said.
Without a minister, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said, there’s no legal way to retain the office’s workers.
JTA Staff Writer Ben Harris in New York contributed to this story.