Analysis: Saving Jewish Agency will take compromise

Whatever the arguments, the standoff over Sharansky only serves to undercut the reform process itself.

sharansky 88 (photo credit: )
sharansky 88
(photo credit: )
The American-led reform of the Jewish Agency may have its merits, but transparency is not one of them. While the Americans, including Board of Governors chairman Richie Pearlstone, are correct in noting that the reform has been under way for 2.5 years, this process took place within the notoriously political and opaque institutions of the agency itself. In an organization whose politicking is as often personal as it is ideological, and where the American funders hold many of the purse strings, does that really constitute public debate? Despite a dozen attempts by The Jerusalem Post in recent days to reach American architects and backers of the reform, it has been nearly impossible to get anyone to speak on record or in a deep way on the issue. This is a shame. The reform proposals that will be considered by the Jewish Agency Assembly in Jerusalem this week could signify a major shift in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel. The Jewish Agency is the only organization that connects Diaspora Jewry with Israel by law. For Israeli leaders, it makes up the only obvious address for reaching out to the Diaspora, with the government investing some $130m. in programs run by the Jewish Agency. Now, the primary mechanism for this formal connection is going to be dramatically weakened. In working for the separation of the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency from that of the World Zionist Organization, the reform plan will essentially take the choice of agency chairman away from the Israeli political system. The choice of the WZO's chairman is heavily, even decisively, influenced by the Israeli government. According to the new reforms, only half the votes for a new Jewish Agency chairman will come from the WZO. Unfortunately for the American efforts at reform, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu selected famed Soviet dissident and former Likud minister Natan Sharansky to be chairman. For a Jewish Agency that is thirsting for leadership after years of lackluster chairmen who oversaw an organizational decline in funds, influence and sense of purpose, it is hard to see the logic of resisting the chance to be led by a man who just about everyone agrees would bring a dramatic boon to the agency's image worldwide and sense of purpose at home. Moreover, were Sharansky to be rejected in the new election mechanism, senior Likud figures have already promised to wreak their vengeance on the organization, essentially dismantling its raison d'etre by severing its ties to the Israeli state. The American reformers have some excellent points in their favor, even if they are refusing to make them publicly. While the Likud is outraged that there would be resistance to Sharansky, the party is engaged in a rear-guard action negotiating for political support with a Kadima team who have been charged with squeezing the Likud over Sharansky in exchange for support in the WZO for a Kadima appointee as the next chairman of the JNF. As the Americans might point out, this is hardly a recipe for instilling confidence in American funders that the Israeli political system truly cares for the future of the organizations in whose name it is so valiantly doing battle. Whatever the arguments, the standoff over Sharansky only serves to undercut the reform process itself. The American reformers say they are holding off on supporting Sharansky even in the face of direct pressure from the prime minister because they fear undermining the reform process. Yet, the deep antagonism that has developed through this policy may lead to far worse damage to the organization than a lackluster reform. Meanwhile, quietly, most American Jewish officials believe Sharansky should be chairman, according to the likes of Washington, D.C. federation head Misha Galperin and a senior United Jewish Communities official who spoke to the Post last week. If that is true, perhaps the elegant solution could be to endorse Sharansky ahead of the reforms in exchange for the Israelis' allowing the reform process to pass unimpeded. Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein has suggested as much. The response, from a senior American official speaking to the Post, has been, "I don't talk to Edelstein."