Guest Columnist: Why the WZO governance debate matters for world Jewry

The American leadership wants the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency to be totally separate from the leadership of the WZO. I believe this is a mistake.

In 1929, the Zionists comprised only a small minority among world Jewry. Most Diaspora leaders of the day referred to themselves as non-Zionists. They were unwilling to accept Zionist ideology or to affiliate with a "Zionist organization." But Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, recognized their importance and managed to obtain their philanthropic support for those Jews who were willing to establish a Jewish homeland in Israel. Thus was the Jewish Agency for Israel established as a cooperative venture of world Jewry, both Zionist and non-Zionist. Before this partnership could take place, however, the traumatic events of the worldwide Depression, World War II and the struggle to establish the Jewish state delayed the plans to create a true partnership between the Zionists and the non-Zionists. Until the 1967 Six Day War, the World Zionist Organization and JAFI essentially constituted one organization, where the leadership of the WZO acted as the Executive of JAFI. During those years, Diaspora Jewry's major responsibility was fund-raising for the Jewish state, mostly through the Jewish Agency whose leadership they did not choose. This situation, which some later defined as "taxation without representation," was resented by the younger generation of world Jewish leadership after 1967. THE NEW POST-'67 Jewish leaders saw themselves as more than fund-raisers. Though they did not necessarily affiliate with Zionist organizations, they considered themselves Zionists in every sense of the word and committed themselves to building the Jewish state. So in 1971 a Reconstitution Agreement was signed, later ratified by Knesset legislation in 1976. The Diaspora leadership demanded and was given a constructive role in the formulation and implementation of JAFI policy. The finest example of the changes brought about by this new Diaspora influence was in the area of Jewish-Zionist education, which was taken out of the exclusive purview of the WZO and transferred to JAFI. Diaspora Jewish leadership began to see itself as responsible for JAFI's education programs, which use Israel as an inspiring campus for Jewish learning and demonstrate that Jewish education and Zionist education are inextricable, even as Judaism and Zionism should be inextricable. THIS WEEK and next, the WZO and the Jewish Agency will consider a new reworking of their relationship, a proposal to radically change the governance of both organizations. This proposal includes changing the current relationship, according to which the WZO selects one-half of the Jewish Agency's leadership, including its chairman. The American leadership want the chairmanship of the agency to be totally separate from the leadership of the WZO. I believe this is a mistake. It is based on American Jewish leaders' view that the WZO is "politicized," a view born of a misunderstanding of the culture and nature of Israeli governance. In the Diaspora communities, Jewish identity is based on voluntarism. It is a question of personal choice. Leadership is chosen in a self-selecting process by which persons volunteer to give of their time, efforts and material resources. Rarely is there a contested election. In almost every instance a small nominating committee selects the leaders based on one criterion - who can best advance the interests of the institution. In Israel, however, Jewish identity is not a private matter, but a public one. A citizen in the Jewish state is obligated to serve in the army of the Jewish state, to pay taxes to the Jewish state, to participate in the culture and to use the Hebrew language of the Jewish state. The Jew in Israel is a "Jew by fate." Jewish identity is a compulsory dimension of citizenship. In contrast to the Diaspora, in the democratic Jewish state of Israel, leadership is selected through a process of public elections among political parties. The WZO, as the precursor to the establishment of the state, is grounded in a political structure closely related to this framework. The Jewish Agency is a distinctive blend of these divergent systems - the voluntarism of the Diaspora and the political processes of Israel. That is why JAFI has been given special legal status with the Israeli government, enshrined in Knesset legislation and perpetuated through the officially recognized Coordinating Committee of the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, which meets at least three times yearly. No other Jewish organization enjoys such a status and such a relationship. I understand the perspective of our American partners. It would be easier to have an organization grounded in the American system of voluntarism such as the JDC. But we don't need to duplicate the work of the Joint, especially if it results in eliminating or diminishing the Israeli political dimension: the unique involvement, commitment, concern and support of state institutions and the fruitful collaboration between the government and the Jewish Agency. To preserve this relationship while giving each organization a leader focused on its needs, let us have a single chairman for both organizations who deals primarily with the many activities of the Jewish Agency, while a deputy chairman for both organizations deals primarily with the WZO framework. IN THE FINAL analysis, reorganization of structure is not the major challenge confronting world Jewry. By now we should have learned that to change organizational structures without revivifying goals, programs and leadership will not foster more effective creative achievement. This is not to say that the WZO does not need change - it does. The donor organizations in this system, the UJC and Keren Hayesod, raise their major funding from their own constituents. Where is the funding from our WZO constituent organizations? Until the organizations which comprise our membership are willing to support the WZO with their own financial resources, the WZO will be weak, dependent and ineffective. Yet worse than any lack of funding is a lack of initiative. We must initiate creative and innovative programs which will inculcate Zionist Jewish values, knowledge and commitments in the lives of fellow Jews throughout the world. The money will follow the programs. The theme of this Zionist General Council is "Building the Zionist Movement in a Changing World." At a time when increasingly rapid change is dashing outmoded theories and making many institutions anachronistic, the Zionist movement must also change, and change radically. Assimilation, intermarriage, anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel continue to jeopardize Jewish survival, and we require new creative approaches to meet the needs of tomorrow. Who should assume responsibility for giving a new direction to world Jewry if not our national institutions JAFI and WZO? We have undertaken to preserve and nurture the precious interdependence between Israel and the Diaspora. That which makes Israel a unique state is its inseparable identity with world Jewry, even as that which makes the Jewish people an am segula, a "treasured people," is its inseparable relationship to the Land and State of Israel. The writer is the chairman of the Zionist General Council of the World Zionist Organization.