The World Zionist Organization is meeting in Jerusalem this week to discuss an institutional restructuring reform that comes as the veteran body, founded by Theodor Herzl at the 1897 Zionist Congress in Basel, struggles to demonstrate it is still relevant and important to Jewish life.
The relatively unknown organization, which brings together in its Zionist Congress representatives of the world's Zionist organizations and the Zionist parties in the Knesset, has a budget of $14 million drawn from the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. These representatives wield great influence over Jewish Agency decisions and determine many of the officials occupying senior agency positions. Now, the WZO has embarked on an ambitious reform plan partly due to pressure from agency donors who question its utility and efficiency, and may be looking to dismantle the organization outright.
As one American Jewish professional who has watched the WZO for years told The Jerusalem Post this week the organization "is basically useless, supports redundant bureaucrats and failed Israeli politicians. What does it do? It doesn't do anything - fighting anti-Semitism, for example - that isn't done better by a specialized agency. If it were dismantled tomorrow, its few educational functions would be replaced immediately by more efficient organizations. And it doesn't really represent the Jewish people. It represents political parties and organizations. So who is it really representing?"
This sentiment from America, and the real threat of disbandment, has led to the reform proposal, which would dismantle the WZO's four departments, each representing a field of WZO activity, in favor of a two-department structure, one for Israel activities and the other for those overseas. Some of the staff positions will also be removed if the reform proposal is passed when it comes up for a vote on Friday.
But old-time WZO activists reject this criticism as unfair and even hypocritical. For them, the organization represents the democratic branch of the Zionist movement, and the costs of its operation are similar to the cost of operating any parliament. Several told the Post this week that American Jewish organizational life itself is not democratic, but entrepreneurial, so the Americans don't see the need for democratic political representation of the various branches of the Zionist movement.
Of the Jewish Agency's approximately $400 million annual budget, they note only about $8m. goes to maintaining the WZO and financing its educational programs.
The Americans "don't accept the fact that the organization is political," commented Eliezer Sheffer, chairman of the World Organization of Orthodox Communities and Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora, and a former head of the NRP-affiliated Mizrahi faction at the WZO. "There's a different frame of mind in America."
"How do you represent Zionism?" asked Philip Meltzer, past president of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, "except through organizations that represent the Zionist enterprise and the political parties of Israel? Kadima and Labor and Likud don't represent the Israeli politic? In the Diaspora, in addition to the political organizations, you come [to the WZO Congress] through the religious streams. Most Jews in the Diaspora identify as Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, not politically as Labor or Likud." Meltzer believes that "the role of the WZO has evolved to build a deeper relation between the state of Israel and the Diaspora. It's really the only place where the three religious streams sit around the table. It's where the Jews of the Diaspora are able to interact with the political system of Israel and where Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews find they have much in common, something rare within the state of Israel or in the Diaspora."
For Meltzer, echoing sentiments heard often this week, the WZO "has value if for no other reason that it allows Jews in the Diaspora to interact with Israel; Jews who have trouble working together elsewhere work together here on a common cause." Furthermore, he says, the threat from the American donors has only energized reformers who were already working from inside the WZO.
"Many have been trying to reform the organization for years, recognizing we should work more efficiently. It helps to have the funders saying the same thing as many of the reformers on the inside. It forced us to face what we should have done anyway, and hopefully it will succeed. Many of us hope that by noon Friday we will have adopted a more meaningful WZO."