The Jewish Agency’s Strategy for Religious Tensions in Israel

Last December’s uproar about Beit Shemesh brought extremism to the spotlight. Jewish organizations have begun to wrestle seriously with what this means for Zionism, Israel and the Diaspora. The Jewish Agency has undertaken a two prong approach. One prong focuses on the educating the Diaspora donor community about the Israeli context. The other prong encourages local projects that address that problem and connects them to diaspora donors.

On the ground locally they sponsored a competition for local projects to address the tensions in Beit Shemesh. Projects proposals were judged by partnership organizations in Washington DC and South Africa. The four winners were announced Four winning projects were announced at the end of March:

In February when Diaspora donors met in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency Board of Governor’s meetings, Haredi-non-Haredi tensions were the focus of a full day educational session. An attendee described the meeting and earlier Jewish Agency donor education efforts in eJewishPhilanthropy:

[At the end of February ] I listened to one of the most hard-hitting and informative discussions of one of the most intractable and painful Jewish issues of our day – haredim and the Orthodox monopoly in Israel. Quietly but effectively, one major Jewish organization has held real conversations between vastly different kinds of Jews on real issues that scare and worry us – and without pandering to the lowest common denominator or obsessing about process.

Last June, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors met in Jerusalem for a daylong discussion about the legitimate boundaries of discussion on Israel, the old “Who’s inside the tent?” question. Right-wing Jews sparred openly with left-wing, major federation presidents complained about being caught between conservative donors and progressive young program participants, and all sorts of Jews from all over the world took some wisdom back home with them.

Finally, this week back in Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency did something that to my knowledge is unprecedented for a major umbrella organization. It held an academic lecture, roundtable discussions and many hours of thoughtful contemplation of the problem of haredi integration into Israeli and world Jewish society. Among the presenters (some of whom spoke by video) were the haredi mayor of a haredi city (Beitar Illit), the Labor Party-appointed head of education and welfare for the Bet Shemesh municipality, an Israeli-born Reform rabbi, a haredi woman educator and college president, a former Shas MK (not Rabbi Amsalem for once) and at least two researchers who gave long talks about haredi society and demographics.

So much was learned at this daylong seminar that for once, the agency’s Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People didn’t just publish a call for pluralism. “I want to know what I can actually do with everything I learned,” more than one board member told me, including a major federation executive.

The committee decided it would research potential “candidates for actions” by the next board meeting in June, where instead of yet another banal call for pluralism and unity, the committee would choose and approve a course of action and a budget for diaspora Jews to step in and affect the situation.

According to Haviv Rettig Gur, Jewish Agency Director of Communications, both prongs have a comon goal: dialogue. He stresses,

In our view there really is no alternative to dialogue. Anger can only take us so far. Lots of people have been calling for action, but few have suggested actual actionable steps. That’s what we’re trying to do.

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