A proposal to streamline the Jewish Agency for Israel is being bitterly opposed by Zionist organizations, which say it would threaten the agency’s character as a marriage of the Zionist movement and Diaspora philanthropy.
But the leaders of the North American Jewish fund-raising agencies say efficiency and savings must be the Jewish Agency’s top priorities.
The actual stakes in the dispute are small, compared to the Jewish Agency’s overall $632 million budget for this year: The proposed change to the agency’s bylaws would trim three high-level jobs, related secretarial staff and perks.
Advocates of the change, which would require two-thirds approval at the Jewish Agency Assembly in October, say the three department chairmanships to be eliminated duplicate the function of the department director-generals.
Currently, the department chairmen are elected by the World Zionist Organization, on the basis of political affiliation. But they must be approved by the Diaspora fund-raisers.
The WZO’s method for selecting the chairmen is similar to that of the Israeli government, where government ministries are headed by politicians picked by the prime minister to satisfy coalition partners and party factions.
Until a few years ago, the department chairmen appointed the director-generals to run their departments. Now, at the instigation of the Diaspora fund-raisers, the director-generals are selected by a search committee, on the basis of merit, and report to the Jewish Agency’s overall director-general.
One source on the fund-raiser side said the costs for the department chairmen, including staff and travel, could be as high as $700,000 annually, a figure the Zionists dispute.
Phil Granovsky, who sits on the Jewish Agency Executive for the fund-raisers, was more cautious: “What we do know is there’s a lot of duplication, and that when you take the department heads themselves, their secretaries, telephones, it will amount to a substantial sum of money,” said Granovsky.
The Zionists say the total amounts to only a few hundred thousand. But they say the issue is not the amount of money but the distribution of power.
“It’s part of a thrust to do away with the Zionist movement,” said Rabbi Louis Bernstein of Mizrachi, the Orthodox religious Zionist movement.
What the fund-raisers denounce as politics, said Bernstein and other Zionists, is in fact a more democratic, volunteer-based system than the corporate structure advocated by the fund-raisers.
“Under their system, only a millionaire can sit there. It’s a closed corporation,” said Bernstein. “For better or worse, the Zionist influence in the (Jewish) Agency at least has an ideological base and popular input.”
While Bernstein conceded that some of the political appointments put forward by the Zionists have left something to be desired, he pointed out that the fund- raising half of the marriage can veto those appointments.
In the past, fund-raisers have vetoed some Likud candidates for Jewish Agency posts, including such well-known names as Ariel Sharon and Israel’s current ambassador to the United Nations, Yoram Aridor.
“I don’t like the inroads made by our partners into the classical Zionist structure,” agreed Bernice Tannenbaum, who sits on the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
“I don’t think we should vest more power in a corporate manner, in the concept that professional heads are the only ones who can carry out a job effectively.”
Tannenbaum, a longtime Hadassah activist who represents its parent Zionist organization, the Confederation of General Zionists, said that delegating all posts but the chairman and treasurer of the Jewish Agency to professionals would weaken its democratic nature and the influence of the lay bodies that oversee it.
“I also feel that a duly elected person who officially represents a Zionist movement has much more clout with the government of Israel than someone who is simply a paid employee,” she said, noting the Jewish Agency’s close cooperation with the Israeli government on matters of immigration and absorption.
Rabbi Daniel Allen defends the reforms.
“We’re not taking out Zionism,” said Allen, who is assistant executive vice president of the United Israel Appeal, which serves as the link between U.S. fund-raisers and the Jewish Agency.
“The Jewish Agency in the last three years has clearly been the instrumentality of meeting Zionist hopes and dreams, because it has been the agency in bringing to Israel, at this point, hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “That system worked well because we had a professional staff, hired by merit.”
Allen pointed out that regardless of the changes, the Zionists will continue to hold 50 percent of the seats all of the various Jewish Agency bodies, including the Assembly, Board of Governors, Executive and various committees.
“In those forums, votes are taken on policy and budget,” he said. “So I don’t see there’s a problem of democracy if you remove heads of departments, who cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to hold in office.”
Meanwhile, the fund-raisers have held back from approving candidates for the three department heads, pending the October vote.
Candidates include two Laborites, Uri Gordon, who would be assuming a second term as chairman of the Aliyah Department, and Yehiel Leket, who would move from the Settlement Department to the Youth Aliyah Department.
Likudnik Salei Meridor is slated to chair the Settlement Department.
However, a separate but related proposal would merge the Settlement Department with the Project Renewal Department, which does not have a department chairman. Whether the new, merged department would have a chairman or not is similarly a matter of dispute.
The fund-raisers have also rejected several Likud candidates for the post of treasurer of the WZO and Jewish Agency.
While the first candidate, Ronni Milo, was turned down because he refused to relinquish his Knesset seat to take the job, the other vetoes are said to have reflected the belief that the candidates were not qualified.