Friday, January 04, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Yechiel Eckstein?

Making Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a voting member of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel is a significant issue only if the Jewish Agency is significant. In some ways it is. JAFI has a huge budget, projects in perhaps several dozen countries and lots of valuable property in Israel, including its impressive fortress-like headquarters on King George Street in Jerusalem. Yet, it is no more than an organization and while on occasion it acts as if it is the government of and for the Jews, it isn’t. Its primary role was permanently transferred to the government of Israel on that eventful day in Iyar 5708, sixty years ago. In recent years, its decline has accelerated.

It is, however, a crown jewel in the crowded world of Jewish macherdom, a world where people with titles covet additional titles, as well as trips, meetings, photo ops and being briefed on Israeli security and diplomatic developments that any of us can read in the newspaper. I have this fantasy that the machers who have risen to the top of the bureaucratic heap will before they have breathed their last wonder whether it was all worthwhile, whether they could have done more with their resources and talent than accumulate titles.

While they are alive and still kicking they obviously cherish the transient glitter. With the tens of millions of dollars of Evangelical funding at his disposal each year – he apparently has broad discretion – Rabbi Eckstein purchased a major role in JAFI, to the consternation of some Israelis and also American Jewish leaders who worry about tainting the yichus of the Jewish Agency through association with the Evangelicals. They also claim not to like the notion of Jewish Agency seats being open for sale. In fact, Rabbi Eckstein is a bona fide Jew and the path that he has taken has been well trodden by wealthy Jews who have purchased indulgences in the Jewish Agency or elsewhere in Jewish life.

I doubt that the arrangement will open the door for the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells to sit amongst the Jewish elite. It is interesting that in marriage and other loci of Jewish sanctity there is no comparable concern about keeping non-Jews out. To the contrary, in this post-intermarriage phase of American Jewish development there is overwhelming sentiment for putting out a welcome mat to non-Jews, including at Reform synagogues where according to Jonathan Sarna about one-quarter of those who come to the services are not Jewish by any standard. Why are organizations different?

It’s also appropriate to ask whether the overheated reaction to Rabbi Eckstein arises from his association with Evangelicals, they being Christians who, as we well know, are extreme in their social and political conservatism. Suppose he was involved with Christians at the other end of the social/political spectrum, with Episcopalians (or Anglicans) or the World Council of Churches, groups that have well-advertised their hostility toward the Jewish State. Suppose that miraculously they repented their wrongful ways and accepted biblical teachings about Israel being the homeland of Jews, would we still be so critical of Rabbi Eckstein?

There is a necessary question about what Evangelicals hope to achieve via their large investment in Israel and Jewish life elsewhere. A collateral question is Rabbi Eckstein’s motivation. At the least, his path is singular and strange. For years, the Rabbi Eckstein gravy train assisted Jewish activities in the Former Soviet Union. I remember meeting him in Kiev where I learned of the support that he was providing to Jewish orphanages and other projects in Ukraine. He struck me as sincere, yet he apparently craves attention and is inordinately devoted to self-promotion and this is troublesome. So far as I know, he has not spelled out how he fits into the Evangelical scheme of things.

He should because there are suspicions – they may be unfair – that the Evangelical investment of political and financial capital is driven by conversion goals and other theological calculations that Jews cannot be comfortable with. About two years ago, the Jewish Observer, the English-language monthly published in New York by Agudath Israel, had a lengthy investigative article raising serious concerns about Rabbi Eckstein and his organization. The magazine published his response, but it wasn’t convincing and unsettling questions remain.

There are other question marks. It may be that his commitment of $15 million a year to the Jewish Agency, with the attendant condition that he be given a visible and important role, is his way of burnishing his reputation.

Because the Jewish Agency is engaged in some sensitive matters, Rabbi Eckstein’s yen for publicity may turn out to be an embarrassment or worse. What the organization does should not be fodder for his public relations. Just recently, the Jewish Agency arranged for forty Iranian Jews to come to Israel in an operation that I believe was clandestine and had the cooperation of key Iranian officials. This is part of an on-going program that previously resulted in good outcomes. Unfortunately, with the wrongful acquiescence of Jewish Agency officials, there was Rabbi Eckstein’s announcement that his organization was providing a $10,000 gift to each of the forty new arrivals. A major figure in world Jewry tells me that the fanfare endangers the continuation of this vital project.

Unless Rabbi Eckstein learns to control his appetite for publicity and the Jewish Agency restrains its going gaga over the contribution that he has provided, there is a strong prospect that his involvement in the Jewish Agency will backfire.