The Man in the Middle

Rabbi Michael Melchior of Jerusalem has one heck of a job ahead of him.

Newly appointed to Ehud Barak’s Cabinet, he’s got the unenviable assignment of trying to make Jews get along with each other. His official title, minister for social and world Jewish affairs, says it all. “Social” implies healing divisions in Israel, particularly secular versus religious. The other part is about closing the gap between Israelis and Diaspora — particularly American — Jews. No small task.

Melchior believes that it’s urgent. A Danish-born Jerusalemite who served until recently as chief rabbi of Norway (he quit after entering the new Knesset in May), he’s convinced that Israel and the Diaspora are fast drifting apart. “It endangers the concept of a Jewish people,” he said in an interview in Jerusalem.

But unlike most leaders who fear for the Jewish future, Melchior doesn’t blame everything on assimilated American Jews. Israelis, he says, are also losing their sense of connection to a larger Jewish people. “It’s less and less a part of the Israeli identity, which is a tragedy,” he says. To reconnect, Israel must rekindle its self-awareness as a Jewish society. That’s why the two halves of his job — social and world Jewish — go together.

On paper, Melchior is in a perfect position to get things rolling. As czar of Israel-Diaspora relations, his duties will cover every aspect of Israel’s complex relationship with world Jewry: Jewish education, pro-Israel activism, the “Who is a Jew?” flap, Holocaust restitution, plus the increasingly urgent re-examination of what Israelis and Diaspora Jews actually mean to each other these days. As a liberal Orthodox rabbi with good ties to Reform and Conservative leaders, he can speak to all sides.

But that’s on paper. In practice, he’ll have to fight for every inch of his would-be empire. Most of it is already spoken for. Israel never had a Cabinet-rank minister for Diaspora affairs before. Over time, the field has been parceled out among other agencies, from the Foreign Ministry to the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs to the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, plus dozens of smaller bodies. None of these will gladly submit to a new czar.

In fact, many of the key players in Israel-Diaspora cooperation are angling furiously these days to expand their reach. And a host of new players wants to break in. The result is something of a land-rush atmosphere in the once-sleepy field of Israel-Diaspora relations in Jerusalem.

Signs of change are everywhere.

* The Foreign Ministry’s World Jewish Affairs department has doubled its staff size in recent months, and just received its first-ever operating budget for outreach programs.

* Jerusalem’s most prestigious think tank, the Van Leer Institute, which for decades focused solely on Israeli affairs, has launched not one but two new task forces in the last year to rethink Israel-Diaspora relations.

* Several of Israel’s most ambitious politicians, including Labor’s Yossi Beilin and Avraham Burg and Likud’s Meir Sheetrit, have made relations with the Diaspora a vital part of their political agendas, staking political capital on it in a way that previous generations of Israeli politicians wouldn’t have dreamed of.

* Israel appears ready for the first time to spend its taxpayers’ dollars on an educational program for Diaspora youth, the audacious “Birthright Israel.” The $100 million allocation, OK’d last year by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and tentatively reaffirmed by Barak, is unprecedented. Up to now, the money always flowed the other way.

All that scrambling has to be good news for American Jews. Five years ago, Diaspora Jewry barely merited a yawn among Israel’s movers and shakers, except at times of disaster. Now Diaspora concerns may finally get the hearing they deserve in Jerusalem. Eventually, it could translate into more resources for Jewish educators, more accountability for Jewish philanthropists, more recognition for Diaspora forms of Judaism.

For Minister Melchior, though, the jostling poses no small challenge. To succeed, he’s got to win cooperation from the people whose work he’s supposed to oversee. As a minister without portfolio, he isn’t actually anyone’s boss. His only power is persuasion.

Barak’s aides don’t agree on what Melchior’s job should consist of. They tend to view Diaspora-related business in three main categories: “Who is a Jew?” and related Jewish identity issues; Holocaust restitution; and political relations with pro-Israel lobbyists. Melchior expects to take over all of it. Barak’s aides want to let him have about half.

They’re happy to give him the “Who is a Jew?” file, if only to get that headache off Barak’s desk. If he manages to generate a broader dialogue on Jewish peoplehood, nobody will object.

They have no intention of giving up the oversight of American Jewish lobbyists. They consider it a sensitive aspect of their overall diplomatic strategy. They’re fighting among themselves for control of it.

Holocaust restitution is more complicated. Israel’s share has been handled up to now by a Knesset committee, the Jewish Agency and the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs. The adviser, Bobby Brown, is a Netanyahu holdover, kept on partly because he knows the Holocaust issue cold. He’s developed a good working relationship with Melchior, who emerges well positioned to take the lead.

It’s less clear how the Jewish Agency will fit in. The huge social-service agency has been the main voice of Israeli Jewry on this and other Jewish issues for years. It won’t take kindly to being upstaged. It doesn’t help that the agency is headed by a Likudnik, Salai Meridor. He’ll be under pressure from his party to keep the heat on Barak’s people.

The Jewish Agency may become a headache for Melchior in a broader sense. Israeli law defines the agency as the official liaison between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state. It’s been on the ropes for a decade, widely viewed as hidebound and obsolete. Still, it won’t sit still as a government minister emerges to usurp its Israel-Diaspora liaison role.

In all this back-room maneuvering, the biggest unknown is Melchior himself. His potential rivals, in government and outside, count on his public image as a slightly bewildered scholar, more versed in Talmud than turf wars.

Those who know him say that’s a mistake. Melchior is smart and very patient, they say. He was the political brains behind the Meimad party, which he helped form in 1988 and eventually rode into the current Knesset. He will wait out his rivals, build a network of American and European Jewish leaders who back him, and, in the end, he’ll be the last one standing.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.