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As Jewish Agency gets set to reform, Steinhardt and Nevzlin speak out

The public politicking over the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency has picked up today, as the organization’s board of governors meetings get underway.

The agency has been caught in the crossfire between Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who essentially wants to appoint his political ally Natan Sharansky as its head, and U.S. Jewish philanthropists who want to see the organization de-politicized and be able to appoint its own leadership.

The two sides have gone head to head in recent days as the agency’s board is set to vote on a new set of governance rules this week that would go towards placing the right to pick its own leaders squarely in the hands of its funders.

Leaders of the federation system who ply the agency with more than $140 million per year have quietly been pushing for the organization to reform, less the system face increasing pressure to end its exclusive funding relationship with the organization; meanwhile, high-ranking Knesset members have been trying to push Sharansky into the post that Ze’ev Bielsky vacated when he was elected to the Knesset this winter.

American philanthropists say that the legitimacy of Sharansky is not the issue.

With all this as backdrop … two mega-wealthy philanthropists are speaking out about the agency. Michael Steinhardt, who told the Fundermentalist on Friday that he was approached by Sharansky in recent weeks looking for support, has a piece in the Jerusalem Post favoring the former Soviet dissident. And Leonid Nevzlin, the Russian oligarch who is now an ex-pat living in Israel, has a piece in Ha’aretz calling for reform of the agency.

From Steinhardt’s piece:

In just a day or two, the Jewish Agency will hold elections to determine its new chairman. It has the opportunity to elect an eminent statesman of the Jewish people, Natan Sharansky, who has been nominated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In more ways than we can count, he is the perfect man for the job. Sharansky would bring a level of integrity, expertise and gravitas to this position that has been all but unseen in the annals of the Jewish Agency.

Sharansky cut his Jewish organizational teeth in the stone dungeons of the Gulag. He later made aliya, and eventually became deputy prime minister of the State of Israel. He is a man of bold vision and extraordinary leadership ability. He, perhaps more than any other man alive, symbolizes the link between Israel and the Diaspora, which the Jewish Agency itself aspires to represent at the institutional level. It is a link that, I fear, is in danger of fading over time.

Unfortunately, the Jewish Agency seems to be on the verge of squandering the historic opportunity represented by Sharansky’s chairmanship. In a short-sighted attempt to demonstrate independence from the State of Israel, large donors to the agency are seeking to thumb their nose at the prime minister and reject the candidate he has nominated. It seems that petty squabbles and turf wars are getting in the way of selecting the right man for the job. It is a bonfire of the vanities – and the odor of burning grain, stretching over the centuries, is unmistakable. …

Nevzlin doesn’t touch on the governance issue, but he does say it is time for the agency to reposition itself — and perhaps to change its name:

No other body unites the representatives of all Jewish communities and groups in collective thinking and activity. The Jewish Agency’s major mission and the key to its future success is the realizing of "Jewish Peoplehood."

To achieve this, the Jewish Agency needs to change its structure and relinquish its current functional divisions (education, aliyah, partnerships) – a vestige of past assignments or political considerations. It must establish two main operational frameworks: the first for the Jewish communities around the world, the second for Israel.

The first of these will include cultivating ties between Jewish communities, advancing Jewish education in communities around the world, developing a new generation of Jewish leaders, strengthening ties with Israel and encouraging aliyah. The second will deal with Israel’s specific needs, which Jewish people around the world are interested in supporting, in full coordination with the Israeli government.

Within both these frameworks, the Jewish Agency must minimize its direct activities and become an initiator, catalyst, planner and facilitator, while professional organizations and nonprofit associations implement the activities on the ground.

This proposed structure will let the Jewish Agency focus on true needs to become more professional in strategic planning, and to adapt its activities to today’s and tomorrow’s needs, not yesterday’s. It will also enhance cooperation between Israel and Jews around the world and prevent an unnecessary and costly duplication of the Jewish Agency’s activities.

Modifying the Jewish Agency’s structure to suit the new era is a challenge worth addressing for the upcoming chairman and leadership as we enter the 10th decade of its glorious history. And, maybe it is also the right time to consider updating the organization’s name to suit the current realities. …

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