Analysis: Playing with fire

Media leak about aliya restructuring underline Jewish Agency's vulnerability.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
March 20, 2008 22:19
3 minute read.

There is nothing new or dramatic about media leaks indicating that the Jewish Agency is considering restructuring its departments to deal with a budget crunch. The budget crunch is not new, and not the agency's fault. The nearly 30-percent drop in the value of the dollar is a drastic blow to an organization that solicits all its donors in dollar terms, receives most of its money from American donors and organizations, and spends nearly all its money outside the US. It is noteworthy that the final tally of dollars the agency takes in each year for Jewish education and welfare programs worldwide has not declined, but has transformed into "designated gifts," where donors, not the agency, decide where the money should go. The result has been a noticeable decline in activities worldwide - the dollar just doesn't go as far in Israel or Ukraine - and a far more drastic decline in the administrative budget, which faces the dual pressure of the weakened dollar and the picky philanthropist. Though many spent Thursday breathlessly lambasting the Jewish Agency - Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz took pains to say the preliminary discussions about restructuring amount to no less than "the bankrupting of Zionism" - it is hard to get too emotional about a budget-conscious agency's plan to trim its administrative overhead. Why maintain an Education Department emissary in some city across the ocean alongside another Aliya Department emissary? Can't the one do the other's job as well? One sympathizes with the angry denials from within the agency that merely discussing the closure of the Aliya Department - possibly by redistributing its duties to leaner "external activities" and "internal activities" departments - somehow amounts to a loss of Zionist values. However, as Jewish officials generally agreed this week, the media leak that revealed the restructuring plans was more dangerous to the agency than the plan itself. The leak, which billed the new plans as a dramatic shift in Jewish Agency priorities away from the core Zionist value of aliya, appears to have been intended to torpedo the restructuring effort, possibly by someone who would stand to lose their job in a leaner Jewish Agency. More than one knowledgeable observer of the agency recalled a former Tel Aviv mayor who, when campaigning for a budget increase from the government, would immediately announce the closure of soup kitchens - not city parks or the opera house - due to budgetary constraints. Such a policy of "shame-based" fundraising, which many say was employed by the Jewish Agency when it threatened last year to shut down the Hebrew education program in the former Soviet Union for lack of funds, is a dangerous road for a donation-based organization to tread. Judging by the genuine anger with which the senior leadership of the Jewish Agency responded to the leak - agency head Bielski admitted his anger with unusual vehemence - point to a low-ranking official as the source. But the problem was not the leak itself. The large organizations of the Jewish world leak as abundantly as one might expect from a people so viscerally addicted to "schmoozing." Rather, the problem is that the leak may have unnecessarily dramatized what must remain a serious and professional discussion. It is not unreasonable to seek to streamline internal administration in order to maintain the level of activities in the field. The Jewish Agency still spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on some of the most vulnerable and needy groups in the Jewish world. It is far from perfect, but its detractors, MK Ophir Pines-Paz included, are hardly offering to locate a new source for up to $100m. in lost value to the budget. The problem, then, is that the agency found itself utterly vulnerable to a simple media leak, without the ability to coherently respond or coordinate its response. For an organization that, because it does not fundraise, is utterly dependent on the goodwill of others, "controlling the message" and knowing how to explain itself is a survival skill no less important than the capacity to streamline itself during a budget crunch.


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