After publishing an article yesterday entitled “Jewish Agency to approve convert’s eligibility to immigrate to Israel,” I received the following email from Haviv Rettig Gur, director of communications for the Jewish Agency, which was also posted as a comment on my blog by “Yoav.” Leaving aside the personal insults and tone of the email, it did make an important correction regarding the Jewish Agency’s source of funding and a few other arguments I am happy to share and to address, in the spirit of open dialogue and transparency. It also confirmed my main argument – that the move does not in fact do anything for freedom of religion in Israel. I have pasted his email in full below, followed by my response:
We don’t know each other, but this first introduction is not a good one.
I read in amazement your assessment of JAFI’s new role in conversion recognition. So many basic facts are wrong, so much of the analysis is unproven or completely contradicted by the numbers – that it’s hard to know where to begin.
On the facts:
1. We are not, nor have we ever been, funded by the Israeli government. Our tax status forbids it.
2. While some (starting with Ben Gurion in 1948) have criticized us for having no more historical role, it’s a far greater insult to say that we needed this minor advisory role for a small handful of converts each year to justify our existence. With hundreds of employees and $330m. annual budget, it’s hard to understand how advising on the conversion of at most 10 olim a year could be “a task with which it can justify its continued existence.” You don’t know what we do. Why not ask? You’d discover for example that our Youth Futures program employees 500 educators working with 10,000 youth at risk each year, the largest youth empowerment program in the country.
3. While Nefesh has certainly revolutionized a lot of aspects of aliya, it does so with millions of Jewish Agency dollars each year – as Nefesh officials will readily and gratefully admit. Furthermore, the largest rise in aliya over the past three years has been outside the English-speaking world – a 17% rise in each of the past two years – where JAFI is the sole player in aliya. This isn’t a statement against Nefesh. It has worked wonders in the United States, by far the hardest nut to crack on aliya, raising the percentage of US aliya to almost 20% of the total aliya last year.
4. That this new agreement “has done nothing for freedom of religion and the status of one’s Jewishness once in Israel” is surely correct, and we were the first to note that it is only a first step on a long road to compromise on the more difficult, substantive issues. But is it really so meaningless that Shas has willingly compromised on a question of Jewish identity?
In short, your article is full of outright mistakes, ignorance and inexplicable disdain. If you’re at all interested in correcting these errors, I am at your service. At the very least, I believe we are owed an apology.
You don’t have to agree with us, but you do have to know us before you publicly bash us.
Haviv Rettig Gur
Director of Communications
Jewish Agency for Israel
Indeed the Jewish Agency is not funded by the State of Israel as its budget is derived from donations – however it is a government agency that operates under Israeli law and receives support from the government for specific projects. Its chairman is appointed by the state. It can thus be seen as an arm of the government, like other quasi-governmental bodies such as the Jewish National Fund.
As far as Nefesh B’Nefesh, I was referring to it having surpassed the Jewish Agency in aliyah (immigration) from English-speaking countries and specifically North America, not aliyah in general, which is what in fact led the Jewish Agency to sign an agreement with Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2008, essentially conceding that giving money to NBN’s efforts is more effective.
Finally, I am indeed aware the Jewish Agency has and continues to do a lot of important work in Israel and abroad, and I certainly simplified this in my post. However, my criticism stems from the Israeli government’s discriminatory policies on religion and the organizations and mechanisms that serve that policy. My argument is that having the Jewish Agency assume Orthodox converts’ eligibility to immigrate from the Chief Rabbinate should not be seen as progress, as Mr. Rettig Gur himself admited it does nothing for freedom of religion in Israel.
As a body committed to Jewish empowerment and continuity that was born before the state, I hoped the Jewish Agency would refuse to play a role in – and thus condone – the rigid institutional religious practices enacted by the government, practices that are more fit for a theocracy than a liberal democracy.