Chief visits Bay Area, touts Jewish Agency

He believes the Jewish Agency is the epoxy that keeps Jews glued together.

"If we weaken our global action, we're eventually going to weaken the strength of the Jewish people," Meridor said during a two-day visit to the Bay Area last month.

"We have to make sure that we are united into the 21st century instead of drifting apart."

Few would disagree with that statement.

But some argue that an entity other than the Jewish Agency — whether the Israeli government or an entirely new organization — could perform the job more efficiently.

Last year, one member of the Knesset called for the agency's total dissolution.

Another suggested that the agency's activities be reduced to cover only Jewish education in the diaspora and emigration from selected countries.

Critics charge that the agency is a bloated bureaucracy and that it wastes its funding.

"I would tell all those people…making irrational statements that destroy [the Jewish Agency] would be something very easy, but not too intelligent or sophisticated," Meridor said.

"I would ask them to join our partnership in strengthening the Jewish Agency and making it even better for the Jewish people, rather than lose an asset…that has worked so hard for the Jewish community."

The Jewish Agency is responsible for immigration to Israel, rescue, absorption and Zionist education. And even though it traditionally has been the main recipient of American Jewish dollars sent to Israel, during its 71 years, it has periodically had to justify its existence.

Meridor estimated that his agency will help about 70,000 Jews immigrate to Israel this year, which would be a 9 percent decrease from last year.

But then again, this year's final immigration figure could wind up being even greater than last year's total of roughly 77,000.

"If there is any instability or other events in the former Soviet Union, it may increase," Meridor said.

He expects about 50,000 emigres from Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet Union, and about 1,500 from the United States.

One of the hot spots right now is Ethiopia.

Meridor originally expected anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Ethiopian emigres this year, "depending on the process of getting Jews out." But that number could balloon if 26,000 Falash Mura — Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity — are allowed to immigrate to Israel.

"The Jews of Ethiopia are a major Jewish responsibility," Meridor said. "They are not only the responsibility of the Israeli taxpayer, but of the entire Jewish world."

Meridor said he never knows where the next wave of emigres will come from. Late last month, for example, high radiation levels in Minsk raised the possibility of some 32,000 Jews from Belarus being flown to Israel by the Jewish Agency.

He also said about 800 Argentinian Jews moved to Israel two years ago and 1,000 went last year. This year, Meridor believes that number could climb.

Meridor's 48-hour, whirlwind tour of the Bay Area took him to San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland for meetings with community officials, get-togethers with Israel advocacy workers and visits to Hebrew day schools.

Asked if he could draw any conclusions during his quick visit, Meridor said, "To say there is a lack of interest in Israel would not be a right description of what I saw, but we need to do more. We need to get information to more people, to engage more people.

"We can't take for granted anymore the traumas of the 20th century regarding Israel," Meridor said. "We need for young people to engage with Israel. And to feel more, people have to have more knowledge.

"This is the challenge that we have."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.