Jewish World: Lessons from a week of Jewish Agency politicking

American Jews don't want to fund salaries for second-tier Israeli politicians.

bibi sharansky 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bibi sharansky 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Jewish Agency for Israel is a strange alliance. Realizing that building a Jewish state would require not just labor, but also money, in the 1920s the Zionist movement created the agency as a cooperative venture between itself and the large fund-raising umbrellas of the worldwide Jewish communities. It is hard to argue with the success of this system. The institutions and towns of a future Jewish state were established. Refugees were resettled. Infrastructure was put in place for civil and economic life in the new state. But the pre-1948 unity of purpose did not last. With the establishment of the state, David Ben-Gurion suggested dismantling the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. Once the house is built, he said, why keep the scaffolding? Yet that "scaffolding" remains standing. For Diaspora Jews, particularly the Americans who now make up more than three-quarters of their numbers, it serves as an institutional bridge for helping to fund the state's needs. For Israelis, meanwhile, it serves another purpose altogether. Since Ben-Gurion, it has been the dumping ground for political allies, operators who serve their purposes during elections or political feuds and need steady salaries in between campaigns. Still, it's important not to get carried away with the accusation of "politicization." The Zionist movement has always been political because it has always, from day one, been democratic. The present-day wheeling and dealing in the WZO over lucrative political appointments is an echo of the past, where the political maneuverings often concerned the nature and implementation of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. FAST FORWARD to today. On Tuesday, the Jewish Agency Assembly passed a new governance reform put forward by American funders. Yes, they want to help fund education in the periphery and vacation days for lone soldiers. No, they don't want to fund salaries for second-tier Israeli politicians appointed in WZO coalition negotiations. So what to do? The reform plan, the product of two years of negotiations, puts up some new barriers between the leadership of the agency and the leadership of the WZO. Instead of being led automatically by the chairman of the WZO, the Jewish Agency will now be led by a chairman chosen by a 10-member committee, only five of whom are selected by the WZO. The remaining members are chosen by the umbrella group of American Jewish federations - the UJC (three members), and the international communal umbrella outside the US, Keren Hayesod (two members). In developing this plan, meant to weaken the Israeli political system's hold over what many Diaspora Jews view as essentially a charity organization, the reformers seem to have done a partial job at best. To select a chairman, the committee requires a 90 percent vote, or nine out of 10. If one member is missing that day, the requirement of nine votes remains and the committee must be unanimous or fail to appoint a chairman. In the words of Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who has had the unenviable task this week of negotiating a new coalition agreement in the WZO to divide the spoils among Israeli political parties, "the conclusion is this: to do reform you have to be very careful and know what you're doing." Instead of getting a chairman de facto appointed by the prime minister, "now the Americans are hostages of even the smallest operator in the WZO. We have to put together a unanimous political coalition now just to appoint someone allegedly 'apolitical.' We'd have done this also if we were appointing someone completely independent, such as [rumored candidate and Israeli businessman] Eytan Wertheimer." IN THE END, famed dissident, author and international symbol Natan Sharansky was unanimously nominated by the committee. With representatives of Likud, Labor, NRP, Kadima and the Reform movement around the table, that's quite an achievement. Inside the committee, it was no easy task, said chairman Amos Hermon. "Nine out of 10 is an impossible majority. It takes a lot of nerves to run such a committee." Yet it was what happened outside, in backroom negotiations between Israeli politicians, that determined the outcome. The coalition agreement was finalized at 4 a.m. Thursday. It had to be completed before the committee's final vote to allow Sharansky to be chosen, though the remainder of the positions will only be distributed in a year, during the next Zionist Congress. The agreement is a complex political bargain. It gives the Likud the chairmanship of the agency and the deputy chairmanship of the WZO. Labor got the chairmanship of the Jewish National Fund, with rumors claiming that Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon wants the job. The Reform movement got the Israel department in the WZO and the deputy chairmanship of JNF. Kadima got the WZO chairmanship and cochairmanship of JNF. The Conservative movement took the External Department of the WZO, while Israel Beiteinu got the deputy chairmanship of the JNF. Mizrahi, the religious-Zionist movement, has yet to sign the coalition agreement because it feels it did not get enough - merely the deputy chairmanship of the agency and the Settlement Division of the WZO. There was one job that nobody wanted - the chairmanship of the Zionist Executive. This is a powerful position currently held by the venerable elder statesman of Reform Zionism, Rabbi Richard Hirsch. The job is both influential and prestigious, but has one major flaw from the perspective of Israeli politicians - it is volunteer. OF COURSE, all this could be changed by next year. The current representation in the WZO matches the situation of the 17th Knesset. In the next Zionist Congress in the summer of 2010, the new Knesset would be represented, with a hugely expanded Likud and Israel Beiteinu and a diminished Labor. This would reshuffle the deck and redistribute these key positions in a new constellation of party appointments. According to sources in the political establishment, Shas has also decided it's missing out on a good thing. The non-Zionist (though not anti-Zionist) party wants a place in the WZO, and its operators have finally obtained spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's permission. Religious Services Minister Ya'acov Margi and party official Yigal Bibi will be masterminding this effort. At next summer's Zionist Congress, expect to see the first-ever non-Zionist haredi delegation. It's safe to say they won't be there as homage to Theodor Herzl, but rather looking to take a share in the spoils every other party is enjoying. Is it any wonder there are some exasperated Americans wondering if their money is well-spent? Did I mention that the second major plank of the reforms passed this week will free the WZO from the Jewish Agency financially, allowing it to fund-raise on its own and keeping Diaspora donor funds from being spent on Israeli politicians? It is not yet clear what the new reforms will bring in the Jewish Agency and the WZO. One of the major supporters of the reforms, agency Board of Governors chairman Richie Pearlstone, has already noted that governance reforms are never perfect and that there would be follow-up discussions. One thing is clear, however. If the Diaspora donors are worried about Israeli political operators having control of their hard-earned money, the Israelis did nothing to calm their fears.