Sharansky, In NY Visit, Downplays Shift In Jewish Agency’s Role

Sharansky, In NY Visit, Downplays Shift In Jewish Agency’s Role

A day after the Jewish Federations of North America voted to stop automatically channeling funds for Israel through the Jewish Agency, its chairman downplayed the major shift in diaspora relations as “technical disagreements” during an appearance in New York.

“The relationship between different Jewish organizations is always a very exciting story for a day, but it has no meaning for tomorrow,” the former refusenik and former deputy prime minister of Israel said. “During the time of the struggle for Soviet Jewry there were times when it looked like a civil war, but it had absolutely no meaning for history.”

Sharansky, who was elected chairman of JAFI in June 2009, was in Manhattan to deliver a keynote address at a conference commemorating the Soviet Jewry movement and the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The event at the American Jewish Committee’s headquarters was sponsored by AJC, the Jewish Agency and the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union.

Speaking to reporters before the conference, Sharansky said that just as all Jewish organizations were united in advocating for the freedom of Soviet Jews to immigrate they continue to rally behind Israel and its connection to the Jewish people today.

“The federations in America, the Jewish Agency, the Joint [Distribution Committee] and the American Jewish Committee are devoting all their efforts to guarantee the future of the Jewish people,” Sharansky said in response to a question from The Jewish Week. “Whenever there are technical disagreements today, believe me, it will have no meaning in the history, in the newspapers in two months from now.”

On Tuesday afternoon, at the conclusion of the General Assembly of the JFNA in Denver, the umbrella organization’s board overwhelmingly approved a plan that will dramatically transform the historic commitment of the federations to fund the Jewish Agency, which was founded in 1929 as the Jewish Agency for Palestine at the 16th Zionist Congress in Zurich.

JFNA maintains that the change re-establishes the collective power of the federations at a time when collective action by Diaspora Jewry is harder and harder to muster. Under the new model, representatives of North America’s 157 federations on a so-called Global Planning Table will make spending decisions for overseas allocations, deciding together how the money they raise will be doled out to various organizations and programs.

For decades, the federations’ overseas allocations had gone automatically to the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in a 75-25 percent split. Under the new arrangement, the Jewish Agency and JDC still will get a share, but they will have to compete for it with other groups. They also will have less discretion than they do now about how to spend their allocations; the federations will be dictating more of the spending program to them.

The change means a substantial hit to the Jewish Agency's $270 million annual budget, about half of which comes from federations.

When asked by a reporter why he felt the Jewish Agency was still needed today, Sharansky cited its work in the past as a liaison between the Israeli government and world Jewry on contentious issues like the “Who is a Jew” conversion debate, and facilitating the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews.

“I would say there is no other Jewish table in he world where the Israeli government is in a position [to talk to] all the religious streams, and every representative of a Jewish organization can sit together and made decisions together,” said Sharansky. “If today the Jewish Agency would be closed, tomorrow they would be working very hard to recreate an organization which can do all this.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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