Donors seek unpolitical Jewish Agency

Some worry organization trying to disconnect from other Zionist bodies; WZO member threatens split.

zionist congress 2006 (photo credit: Sasson Tiran)
zionist congress 2006
(photo credit: Sasson Tiran)
Discussions taking place in the Jewish Agency look set to dramatically change the Zionist movement. As its Board of Governors meets in Jerusalem this week, discussions will be held among its officials and representatives of donor organizations in an effort to reduce the influence of Israeli political parties and the World Zionist Organization in the agency's governing bodies, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The WZO, founded by Theodor Herzl at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, is the umbrella organization of Zionist groups worldwide, including the Zionist parties in the Knesset. It selects about half the agency's 120-member Board of Governors and half the agency's 26-member executive committee. In this way, the "parliament of the Zionist movement" has significant influence over Jewish Agency operations. (The other half of the Jewish Agency's leadership comes from the fundraising bodies: the North American United Jewish Communities (UJC) and the worldwide Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal.) This structure has come under persistent criticism from donors, mostly in America, as needlessly "politicizing" a Jewish Agency that, with Israel's creation, long ago ceased to be the political arm of Zionism. With aliya down dramatically, and even well-funded private initiatives such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and AMI failing to produce dramatic waves of aliya, the agency is now seen by donors primarily as a vehicle for Diaspora philanthropy to social projects in Israel and the former Soviet Union. As such, say a growing number of American donors and UJC officials, it is high time to weaken, and even to sever, the control that ideological movements within the WZO - Zionist groups, parties in the Knesset and religious streams in North America - exercise over Jewish Agency operations. The immediate debate raging within the agency deals with the WZO's funding, half of which (around $7.8 million) comes from the Jewish Agency. The current funding contract between the two organizations will expire at the end of 2008, and some donors are pushing to completely free the WZO from reliance on agency funds. Proposals raised in December and January - including at a Jewish Agency Governance Committee meeting in New York a month ago - include giving the WZO a $70m. endowment that would provide around $4m. for its budget annually, while the $7.8m. provided by the Jewish National Fund would continue and another $4m. would be raised from other sources. According to one Jewish Agency board member, the move isn't just due to American donors' dislike of the WZO apparatus. "When you have a 20 percent drop in the value of the dollar operating in Israel, the money [the Jewish Agency] is bringing in is declining rapidly. So the agency has to do something to stabilize itself," the board member said. As for weakening WZO participation in the Jewish Agency, the sides are engaged in heated debate. "We're talking about depoliticizing the WZO - whether the political parties should have the same influence they've had historically," a senior Jewish Agency official told the Post. "And why should the religious streams, which are almost all North Americans, sit on the [agency] board through the WZO rather than a separate group?" Faced with such talk, including calls to reduce WZO representation from nearly 50% of the board of governors to 25% and even less, some WZO activists are responding in kind. "Some of us in the WZO are thinking about voluntary disengagement," said the World Likud's Danny Danon, a member of the WZO executive. "Why should we be a little decoration with 10% representation on the board? In that case, we'd rather be a separate organization, with our own ties to the government of Israel and the Jewish world, and our own fundraising." According to a Jewish Agency official, the agency would be more damaged than the WZO by a potential split: "If the agency divorces itself of the WZO, why would the UJC continue to fund the agency? They won't be seen as a representative umbrella, but as just another charity. Isn't the Jewish Agency cutting off its nose to spite its face?" Danon agrees. "They say we're politicized, but they forget that the prime minister of Israel and all Israeli society relates to the Jewish Agency in a special way because of this unique relationship," he said. To reduce the number of WZO representatives in the agency would be difficult, said a senior agency official. "It would require a change in the bylaws of the agency, but the non-WZO representatives [from the UJC and Keren Hayesod] don't have the numbers to create the change. So it can't be forced; it has to be consensual," the official said. Among the most distressed over these developments are the Reform and Conservative movements, who, as it is, have just single-digit representation among the 120-member Board of Governors. With their Jewish Agency representation, the American streams work to provide funding to their sister movements in Israel, the Progressive and Masorti movements. These funds, which amount to around $1.8m. annually to each movement out of a Jewish Agency budget of about $377m., are meant to offset the lack of government funds for non-Orthodox institutions in Israel. "The movements are very worried," said one Jewish Agency Board of Governors member. "They can defend that funding only as long as they have a seat at the table." However, a board representative from one of the movements downplayed the concern. "There is no intent to lower our voice in the Jewish Agency," he said. "It's important for the movements to be there because we represent a sizable segment of Jews worldwide. I don't believe the funding [to the Israeli movements] would be cut even if we weren't there."