Jewish Agency switches focus to 'peoplehood'

By Paul Berger, October 14, 2010

Misha Galperin is adamant that the Jewish Agency for Israel is not changing direction.

"It's changing strategy," said Mr Galperin, from his 31st-floor corner office near Grand Central Terminal in New York.

When the Agency was formed in 1929, its aim was a Jewish state. After 1948, it focused on helping millions make aliyah.

This year, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky announced the Agency's focus would be peoplehood.

As part of that strategy, he hired Mr Galperin, co-author of the 2008 book The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?, and installed him as president and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development in New York.

According to Mr Galperin, who arrived in July, the aim is to create a globally connected Jewish people. He sees the problem as twofold.

In the diaspora, being Jewish has become largely a religious question. In Israel, citizens do not feel part of a collective Jewish identity.

"We were once a people without a state," said Mr Galperin. "We are now in danger of having a state without a people."

It is perhaps unsurprising that such an idea would be formulated by former Soviet Jews who maintained their identity under a system that prohibited religion.

"The unique thing about Russian Jews worldwide is that for them the idea that Judaism is an extended family is in their bones," said Mr Galperin, who was born in Ukraine.

Mr Galperin explained that Jewish identity can encompass many elements, from "feeling Jewish" to having a "realistic view of Israel".

The Agency aims to invigorate Jewish peoplehood by building on programmes such as MASA, which offers grants for 18- to 30-year-olds to study or volunteer in Israel.

With a squeezed budget, however, it is unclear to what extent the Agency will be able to keep funding such schemes.

"If we have to drop something in order to do something else, we are not going to succeed," Mr Galperin said.

The majority of Jewish Agency revenue comes from The Jewish Federations of North America, a body which divides overseas aid between the Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

As the Federations' total overseas allocation has shrunk, the Agency and the JDC have squabbled over their allocations. Last year, the Agency received $100 million (£63m), down from $120 million (£76m) the year before.

Mr Galperin, a former head of the Washington federation, said it may be time to find alternative funding sources. "The system is clearly not working any more," he said.

But it remains to be seen whether the shift in focus will persuade donors that the Agency is still relevant.

Last updated: 3:17pm, October 14 2010