After three years as President of the Jerusalem Foundation, Yohanna Arbib-Perugia announced her resignation last Tuesday saying that after three years, she felt that she had achieved what she had set out to do in the organization, and that she wanted to give the leadership opportunity – in which she had learned so much – to someone else who is as passionate about Jerusalem as she is.
Once her resignation became public, regrets from admirers came pouring in, along with many compliments. Arbib-Perugia was particularly appreciative of the comments made by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Notwithstanding the very close working relationship between the Foundation and the Jerusalem Municipality, it’s not always harmonious and there is occasional friction, usually due to differences in perspective and priorities. Even with all that, Barkat told her that it had been a pleasure to work with her, to be her partner and to share and implement her vision.
Arbib-Perugia is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice to succeed Natan Sharansky, who is relinquishing the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Her nomination was reportedly howled down by members of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors on the grounds that never before has anyone from the outside the agency held the chairmanship.
As it happens, that’s an erroneous contention – Nahum Goldman was chairman for several years starting in 1951, before becoming an Israeli citizen.
Though a proud Italian who was born in Rome, Arbib-Perugia has also been an Israeli citizen since 2009 and commutes so frequently to Israel that she spends more than half of her time here.
In fact, during her three-year presidency of the Jerusalem Foundation, she gave so much of herself to the position, that she abandoned her professional career as an international finance and real estate consultant. “I was full-time Jerusalem Foundation,” she said last week in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Asked how she feels about heading the Jewish Agency, Arbib-Perugia replied that she would feel honored and privileged, but noted that she did not ask to be nominated – it was the prime minister’s idea.
“But to sit in the chair of [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion – what else could a Zionist like me ask for?”
Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Jewish Agency executive from 1935 until 1948 when he became prime minister of the newly proclaimed State of Israel.
Questioned further as to why her colleagues on the head-hunting committee of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors – of which she is also a member – were so opposed to her nomination, she doubted whether it had anything to do with the fact that she comes from the outside. She suspects that it’s because they haven’t gotten used to the idea that she went to the other side of the table and became a professional. “They still see me as a layperson.”
If there is a change of heart and she is appointed, she will be the first woman to fill the role. Even Golda Meir was never chair of the Jewish Agency.
ANOTHER ESSENTIAL difference between Arbib-Perugia and the other people whose names have been proposed is that she is totally apolitical, whereas most of the others are active in politics or have political backgrounds.
Among the names that have been bandied about are several Knesset members: deputy minister in the Prime Minister` s Office Michael Oren (Kulanu), Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor), and Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai.
Other possible contenders are Ben Gurion University President Rivka Carmi, former Israeli ambassadors to the UN Dan Gillerman and Ron Prosor, Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, and former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
Arbib-Perugia is not interested in pushing any political agenda. What she cares about most is ensuring that future generations of Jews will remain Jews and will not be sucked into assimilation by apathy toward or ignorance of things Jewish.
She quotes Shimon Peres who, when speaking to Diaspora audiences, frequently said: “Who is a Jew? We always thought it was someone whose mother is Jewish, but when you ask that question today, the answer is someone whose grandchildren will be Jewish.”
Peres is one of her heroes along with Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin. To her, Begin is the “real hero” because “he really cared for the Jewish people. He was a savvy politician, but if he had to make a decision that would hurt the Jewish people, he would not do it. His priority was the well being of the Jewish people and Jewish unity.”
Arbib-Perugia, who is of Libyan descent, says that love of Israel and devotion to Israeli causes and the future of the Jewish people is part of her DNA . In 1935, her grandfather brought a group of athletes from the Libyan capital of Tripoli to participate in the second Maccabiah Games. That year, there were also competitors from other Arab countries, namely Egypt, Syria and Morocco.
In 1949, her father was on his way to Israel to make aliya. He traveled via Rome, “and he stayed there,” she says with a shrug. But he became deeply involved in Jewish and Zionist affairs and passed on that dual sense of commitment to his daughter, whose intensive Jewish activism began in 1985, when she was only 16, becoming involved in the local Keren Hayesod campaign.
When she was 20, she founded Rome’s Keren Hayesod Young Leadership Group – her father had been chairman of Keren Hayesod in Rome.
Then in 1999, when she was only 30, she followed in his footsteps; having proved her mettle, she was appointed in 2005 as a member of the Keren Hayesod Campaign Cabinet.
In 2007, she was elected to the board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.
The following year, she became a member of the Keren Hayesod International Executive, and in 2009, the same year in which she became an Israeli citizen, she was elected chairman of the Keren Hayesod Board of Trustees. Barely 40 years old at the time, she was the youngest person to ever hold the organization’s top leadership position.
IF SHE HAPPENS to get the top leadership position of the Jewish Agency, she will take up permanent residence in Israel, she says.
When the Jerusalem Foundation was looking for a new president, the fact that she lived in Rome was seen more as an asset than a liability.
Jerusalem Foundation chairman David Brodet said at the time that “Yohanna Arbib brings much international experience needed by a city like Jerusalem. [Her case] resembles the successful appointments of Stanley Fisher at the Bank of Israel and James Snyder at the Israel Museum, who came from overseas to take up their appointments.”
Regardless of whether or not she becomes the head of the Jewish Agency, Arbib-Perugia’s mission in the next chapter of her life is to work with the young generation.
Though full of admiration for what has been achieved by Birthright, and while acknowledging that “it’s amazing,” she says it’s not enough – that it’s only a first step. She wants to persuade young people to spend at least a year studying in Israel so that they will develop a sense of Jewish identity and continuity.
She defines Jewish identity as “being responsible for more than just ourselves. It’s a commitment to Jewish values that includes caring about others – even about those who are not Jewish. We have a history of standing up for justice, for equal rights. It’s a core Jewish value that is part of our identity.”
She also wants to make Israel relevant and meaningful to Jews wherever they may be in the world. “Jews around the world today feel isolated, disengaged, cut off and unwanted,” she says. “This, to me, is an existential threat to Israel and something I deeply want to address – repairing the very thin thread that binds us today.
“We often say that Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day] reminds us of the price we paid without a state, and Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day] reminds us of the price we pay for protecting our state. It is my deep desire to make this distinction clear to those for whom it is not.”
If she happens to sit in Ben-Gurion’s chair as she puts it, what if anything would she change?
Without even the blink of an eye, Arbib Perugia says “focus.” This is something that was missing in a previous generation she asserts. Today, people who give away vast sums of money want handson involvement with the cause or the project to which that money is directed. “Being focused is having an impact,” she says. “The world was a different place before and Israel and the Jewish people needed different things.”
GIVEN THE TIME she spends working for Israel and the Jewish people, doesn’t she encounter resentment from her family?
“Actually, they’re very supportive,” she says. Her husband, Prof. Dario Perugia, an orthopedic surgeon who is a member of the European Committee for the Weizmann Institute, completely understands what she’s doing and why. A true Roman, he is descended on his father’s side from the Jews who came to Jerusalem with Titus following the destruction of the Second Temple.
On his mother’s side, he comes from Sephardi stock, hailing from Livorno, on the western coast of Tuscany, Italy. They are related to former Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, who in April 1986, welcomed Pope John Paul II to the Great Synagogue of Rome.
Their three daughters are also supportive. Arbib-Perugia carries in her cell phone a long birthday greeting from her youngest daughter Yasmina Leah, who refers to her as “my best friend, my right arm, my role model; the person whom I respect more than anyone else in the world.”
She notes that her mother is always available for everybody, and particularly for her, whenever she feels lonely and sad. She also thanks her mother for “teaching me the importance of giving everything we can to [whomever] needs it more than we do; to be happy and help others [to be] happy as well.” And most of all, for teaching her the importance of believing in herself.
Arbib-Perugia has no time for hobbies. “I’ll have a problem when I get old – no hobbies,” she quips. But she does love to read and finds time for that on Shabbat or when she’s on a plane. She likes to read philosophy, history and the stories of Jewish families like the Rothschilds. One of the missions that she has given herself is to bring the younger generation of the famous family back into a commitment to Jewish values. They continue to give money to Israel and to Jewish causes, but she wants them to also give of themselves.