Behind the Headlines: is Fund-raisers’ Move Against Lewinsky Constructive or Anti-democratic?

The controversy surrounding the upcoming World Zionist Organization elections has brought to the surface tensions that have long existed between Jewish diaspora fund-raisers and the WZO’s Zionist members.

According to interviews conducted with representatives of fund-raising organizations, a Jewish Agency panel’s decision last week to reject Akiva Lewinsky, the Labor Party’s candidate for the WZO-Jewish Agency chairmanship, represents a show of strength by diaspora Jews who have been calling for new faces and ideas from the WZO leadership.

But according to Zionist representatives, the fund-raisers acted improperly in rejecting Lewinsky, subverting democratic principles in the process.

By opposing Lewinsky’s candidacy, a high level body of diaspora Jewish Agency fund-raisers known as “the Committee of 12″ brought down a fragile arrangement between a confederation of American Zionist constituents and the Labor Party.

Support of Lewinsky by the confederation — whose members include Hadassah, the Reform Zionists of America and Mercaz, the Conservative Zionist organization — would have been matched by Labor support for Avraham Avihai and other confederation candidates for top positions. Avihai, who is currently chairman of Keren Hayesod, one of the fund-raising arms of the WZO and Jewish Agency, would get the post of WZO treasurer, now held by Lewinsky.

The arrangement would have effectively frozen out members of Israel’s Likud bloc from top Jewish Agency posts, a reason given by fund-raising officials for their opposition to Lewinsky.

NEED FOR A ‘BRAND NEW FACE’

Yet the strongest rationale for opposing Lewinsky, according to a top fund-raising official, was to “get somebody young, energetic, with a brand new face — someone who would help with the process of changing around the agency. We felt Lewinsky would be perceived as being the same old stuff again.”

And according to Neal Potash, assistant executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal, “Some U.S. leadership felt that Lewinsky was not seen as enough of a change from (Aryeh) Dulzin (the outgoing WZO-Jewish Agency chairman), and they felt that they wanted to see more of a difference in the leadership.”

“I think it is a healthy, constructive step, not an attack on two men,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. “Avraham Avihai is a friend and a wonderful guy. Akiva Lewinsky is a fine man. But can either provide dynamic, forceful leadership?”

But representatives of the Zionist political establishment feel the fund-raisers may have overstepped their bounds in rejecting the Labor candidate.

Simmy Ziv-el, North American representative of the United Kibbutz Movement and executive director of Friends of Labor, said the meeting in Jerusalem that resulted in Lewinsky’s rejection was improper. He bases his claim on WZO rules that outline the limits of “advice and consent,” a process of candidate review that he said has been abused by the Committee of 12.

NO RESPECT FOR DEMOCRATIC PROCESS

“The committee’s move doesn’t respect the fact that the Zionist movement is in the middle of a democratization process,” said Ziv-el.

“While we, the Zionist movement, respect the right of fund-raisers to review the election of chairmen of the movement,” he added, “we expect the fund-raisers to respect the Zionist movement’s rights to a democratic process.”

Yehiel Leket, chairman of the World Labor Zionist Movement, concurred. “Never before has the nomination process taken place without asking the candidate to appear,” said Leket, who is in the United States to attend this week’s retreat for American delegates to the 31st Zionist Congress in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “I think there was a deliberate campaign against Lewinsky.”

Leket said that Labor still gives its full backing to Lewinsky, whom he describes as “clever” and “a doer” who has distinguished himself as WZO treasurer.

“The fund-raisers feel he lacks charisma, that he talks too much at meetings,” said Leket. “But he introduced a plan of change. There’s a lack of leadership from both sides, and policies have been frozen for the past eight years. His plan was never even discussed.”

ALTERNATIVE LABOR CANDIDATES

Despite Labor’s continued support of Lewinsky, Israeli dailies report that other names have been mentioned in Labor circles as alternative candidates. They include Gad Yaacobi, the minister of economic coordination in the Labor-Likud coalition Cabinet, and Knesset member Mordechai Gur. Both are well known to Israelis and diaspora Jewish leaders.

“I think this is going to be the first dance in the minuet,” Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, said of the situation. “I think there are going to be many realignments and much recoalitioning. The real thing to watch is how the confederation, Likud, and Labor slug it out.”

Conservative and Reform organizations will watch that battle with intense interest. Ironically, by opposing the package deal that included Lewinsky, the Jewish Agency leadership threatens to lessen the gains made by the Conservative and Reform movements in terms of WZO representation. With Labor, they control 320 of the 535 delegates to the Zionist Congress.

Kelman said he was sure that promises made to the Conservative and Reform organizations concerning top agency posts remain firm. “They must be given a spot, major spots,” he said. “No one denies that Reform deserves a major post and Conservative a smaller one… The fight is over the treasuryship.”

Fund-raisers maintain that whoever emerges as the strongest candidates for the chairman’s and treasurer’s posts will be a force for change.

“Who will be the next candidate? Somebody good,” said Lurie of San Francisco. “I’d like to see a leader who believes and understands strengthening the diaspora relationship. Somebody who wants to work with partners.”

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