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Sunday, 9 March 2008

Donors seek unpolitical Jewish Agency

Donors seek unpolitical Jewish Agency
By HAVIV RETTIG
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
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."

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