By 5TJT Staff
Former Soviet dissident, Knesset Member, and author Natan Sharansky just won a second term as head of the Jewish Agency at the organization’s recent board of governors meeting in Jerusalem. Even though Sharansky’s term does not end until June, the members of that body chose Sharansky for a second term within one day of Prime Minister Netanyahu telling them that he endorses Sharansky for four more years. When it comes to choosing the JAFI chief executive, the Prime Minister’s word holds a lot of weight. Sharansky first began his tenure at the Jewish Agency in 2009.
Members of the BOG, representing various Jewish organizations around the world, meet several times a year to discuss and vote on issues, with the next meeting coming up in Kiev in June.
Speaking to the board of governors at the plush David’s Citadel Hotel, Netanyahu said that Sharansky was a “symbol of Jewish unity and the triumph of the Jewish people over adversity.”
“You’ve earned the respect not only of the Jewish people in Israel, but of non-Jews worldwide, and in all the years I’ve known you, you’ve been much more than a symbol,” Netanyahu told Sharansky. “You’ve also worked tirelessly to promote Jewish unity and to secure the Jewish future. I think this is the source of the bond between us; it was instantaneous exactly on this point. It took us about five minutes to sniff each other and figure that out.”
“You have always worked tirelessly to secure the Jewish future. When my generation earned their scars on the battlefield, you earned yours in Soviet dungeons.”
The prime minister told the members that we look “forward to working together with you to help secure the Jewish people with Natan at the helm.”
While Jewish Agency officials told Israeli media outlets that the selection committee would decide on its recommendation in June, the very next day after Netanyahu’s speech, the full board selected Sharansky unanimously to continue, even before his term was fully up.
The Jewish Agency has gone through some significant changes during Sharansky’s tenure, and he has, according to JAFI spokespeople, overseen “major restructuring of the Jewish Agency to enhance efficiency and meet current requirements.”
In other words, with the upcoming end of Ethiopian aliyah and the subsequent end of the era of mass immigration to Israel, the Jewish Agency is looking for a new raison d’etre.
Among other achievements, his spokespeople noted that Sharansky established the Jewish Agency International Development, a fundraising body operating in North America aimed at making up the shortfall in revenue caused by a reduction in funds allocated to the Jewish Agency by the Jewish Federations of North America.
“The Jewish Agency has many problems,” one Israeli academic who studies Diaspora-Israel relations noted to the Jerusalem Post. “One of the problems is that it has no money. The money that the Jewish Agency used to get from abroad has declined tremendously, so this influences the ability of the Jewish Agency to perform their various tasks.”
Since the Jewish Agency has moved away from mass aliyah, its quest to remain relevant has led the organization to restructure around the preservation of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, which it hopes will one day lead to renewed aliyah. However, aliyah has become less of an issue for an agency whose remaining Western Diaspora audience isn’t clamoring to emigrate like Russian or Yemenite Jewry.
In 2012, JAFI increased the number of emissaries it sends abroad by 20 percent. Most of these new shlichim are meant to partake in community building and campus activities.
Some in the agency believe the organization’s traditional role as a facilitator of mass aliyah is coming to an end, and while JAFI continues to increase the number of its emissaries abroad, the changing roles of these representatives indicates a sea change in how the longstanding Zionist institution views itself.
JAFI maintains around 1,500 emissaries worldwide, a number which is higher than ever before, but gone are the emissaries whose exclusive job was to convince Diaspora Jews to migrate. There remain, however, agency employees whose job is to help facilitate aliyah for those who choose to move, but they are in the minority.
Or, as one JAFI functionary put it in the Israeli press, “All of emissaries are [still] talking about the issue of aliyah . . . but we are more focused on education about [the country] and Jewish identity, so this is the change about aliyah. The focus is more about the young people.”
JAFI will most likely see more activity in this vein over the next four years. v