Jewish Agency Assembly Concludes with Strained Partnership Intact

The Jewish Agency Assembly concluded last month with the strained partnership between the Zionists and the Diaspora fund-raisers intact — at least for the next three years.

Assembly delegates signed an agreement that continues to designate the Jewish Agency as the exclusive recipient of funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal and transferred by the United Israel Appeal.

The agreement is to last five years, with an option for either side to reopen the terms after three years.

The assembly also agreed to implement key reforms aimed at making the agency less political and more efficient. The reforms were pushed primarily by the fund-raisers and were resisted by some of the Zionists, who believed the reforms were part of an effort to undermine their status.

Some members say the decision to continue the contract after three years will depend on how successfully the reforms are implemented.

The assembly, the policy-setting body of the Jewish Agency, met amidst deeply felt tensions between its two partners.

On one side is the World Zionist Organization, with representatives of Diaspora Zionist organizations and Israel’s Zionist political parties.

On the other side are the Diaspora fund-raisers, who contribute the bulk of the Jewish Agency’s $500 million budget with funds raised by UJA through local federations and by Keren Hayesod, UJA’s international sibling.

The contract agreement between the two sides followed heated debate begun even before the assembly, when some of the fund-raisers threatened to eliminate the Jewish Agency’s exclusivity.

The threat triggered a fierce response in some quarters of the Jewish Agency. Agency Treasurer Hanan Ben-Yehuda threatened to sever the agency’s ties with UIA and raise funds independently if agency exclusivity were removed.

ELIMINATING HEADS OF THREE DEPARTMENTS

During the assembly, Ben-Yehuda offered a carefully worded, formal apology for his threat, saying he would work to “heal the wounds” inflicted by the episode and to rebuild confidence among “those who provide the resources.”

As part of the reforms, meanwhile, the assembly voted to eliminate the department heads of three agency departments: immigration and absorption, youth aliyah, and rural and urban development. The positions have long been denigrated by the fund-raisers as Zionist political posts.

The change is slated to be carried out in 1997 at the next World Zionist Congress.

The assembly also agreed on a controversial plan to take immediate effect, to raise the number of members on the Board of Governors from 74 to 120 and on the assembly from 398 to 518.

The increase is aimed at broadening the base of participation to include sectors not traditionally represented, including academia and industry.

The assembly also agreed to reduce the WZO staff by 20 percent over the next four years.

The three actions were part of a package of reforms proposed by the Committee of Six, composed of three representatives from each side of the partnership.

They were approved only after a secret vote by the Zionist General Council, the WZO’s legislative body, of 84 to 52.

The vote came after pressure was applied by WZO leaders who told delegates the entire partnership would be threatened if they didn’t support the reforms.

“The (WZO) deliberations were difficult,” said one well-placed WZO source. The delegates labored under the “distinct feeling” the contract agreement and the Committee of Six recommendations would “undermine their status within the partnership.”

But they accepted both “for the sake of the partnership that is necessary for the mission” of the Jewish Agency, he said. Meanwhile, the contract “gives us three years to sort out the differences (between us) and find appropriate solutions,” he said.

The assembly meeting was held against a background of increasingly insistent calls by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin to dismantle the Jewish Agency. Beilin has charged it is an outmoded body and no longer effectively serves the Israel-Diaspora partnership.

Beilin renewed his calls at a meeting with reporters in New York earlier this month, promising to have a full, detailed plan available by September.

BEILIN NOT THE ONLY CRITIC

Beilin said in New York he believes that Diaspora philanthropy should leave Israel’s social welfare problems totally to the government, and instead should increase its efforts for Jewish education by fully subsidizing youth trips to Israel.

Yehiel Leket, whose tenure as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency was extended through October, said he expects to meet with Beilin in the coming weeks to talk about the agency’s role and performance.

But, Beilin, who is dismissed by some Jewish Agency officials as a firebrand, is not the only critic.

Gary Tobin, head of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and a keynote speaker at the assembly, termed Beilin’s prescription “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

But Tobin warned that reform is urgent. He presented data on changing patterns of Jewish giving showing “this system needs retooling.”

Donors are rethinking previously automatic contributions to “umbrella agencies” and are beginning to consider the UJA-Federation system as only “one of many choices,” he said.

According to Richard Pearlstone, the new national director of UJA, “Gary’s message has (already) been taken to heart in America.”

He cited the recent UJA-Council of Jewish Federations study of the relationship of the agencies to the wider Jewish world.

“All the partners recognize this is a living organism which, to survive, has to change and adapt to the new environment,” Pearlstone said.

(JTA staff writer Larry Yudelson in New York contributed to this report.)

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