Summer 2008

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Summer 2008

JAFI Receives Israel Prize

In recognition of the importance of the bond that the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) has succeeded in building between Jewish communities around the world and Israel and the contribution that JAFI has made over its nearly 80 years to the creation and development of the Jewish state, the State of Israel chose to honor the Jewish Agency at this past Yom HaAtzmaut with the Israel Prize, the country's most prestigious award.

The Jewish Agency was established in 1929 by the World Zionist Organization as a partnership between the WZO and non-Zionist Jewish leaders, such as Louis Marshall, Leon Blum, and Felix Warburg. The Agency was set up in accordance with the stipulation in the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (1922) that a "Jewish agency" comprised of representatives of world Jewry assist in the "establishment of the Jewish National Home . . . in Palestine."

As the de facto government of the state-on-the-way, JAFI was recognized as the official representative of the Jewish community and world Jewry vis-a-vis the League of Nations, the British Mandate government, and foreign governments. The Jewish Agency was also responsible for the Yishuv's internal affairs: immigration and resettlement of new immigrants, building of new settlements, economic development, education and culture, hospitals and health services.

Reorganized after the '67 Six Day War as a 50-50 partnership between the WZO and the Jewish community fundraising apparatus (the UJC in the United States and Keren HaYesod elsewhere), JAFI, with its annual budget of approximately $300 million, is the largest global Jewish partnership in existence, officially representing the Jewish community in Israel, together with the million or more Jews around the world who belong to Zionist organizations and/or contribute to the annual Jewish federation campaigns.

Ironically, the announcement of the Israel Prize came at the same time that rumors began circulating about impending reorganization plans at the Agency to deal with a $25 million deficit, about 10% of its budget, plans that could lead to a revamping of its aliyah operations and the merging of the Aliyah and Education Departments into a single "Diaspora operations" division.

Over the past decade, JAFI has been dealing with a slow but steady decline in revenues, a consequence primarily as American Jewish federations have shifted the ratio of funds from overseas needs towards local Jewish concerns. However, the current crisis has arisen suddenly as a result of the U.S. dollar's decline of nearly 20% in just one year against the shekel, from 4.2 NIS to $1 in April '07 to under 3.5 NIS to $1 today.

Discussions on restructuring the Aliyah Department also come at a time when the traditional "aliyah from necessity" from such places as the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, an aliyah which saw tens of thousands of new immigrants needing to be moved and settled at once, ends and is replaced by a slower and smaller "aliyah from choice" from countries in the West, including the United States, Canada, Latin America and Western Europe.

As those in the field have contended, this latter type of aliyah requires a different kind of investment of resources, with greater attention to strengthening Jewish education and encouraging positive short and long-term Israel experiences as necessary stages towards eventual aliyah. Nevertheless, whatever restructuring may occur, the Agency is firmly committed to maintaining aliyah as one of the key pillars of its operations.


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