The American Zionist Movement is feeling squeezed in the wake of the World Zionist Organization’s decision to impose massive cuts on its budget.
Seymour Reich, AZM chairman, an umbrella for Zionist organizations, has charged that the disproportionate cut “was aimed to cripple us because of our position supporting the government’s peace process.”
Under Reich’s leadership, the organization has been outspoken in its support of the Israeli government’s peace policies.
Other American Zionists have speculated that the cuts were targeted at them not because of their politics, but because they believe that a planned restructuring of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel may reduce the role of Zionists in the Diaspora.
But top WZO officials say the cuts announced last month reflect fiscal necessity.
These cuts slash AZM’s budget by $250,000, or half of the AZM’s annual allocation from Jerusalem.
The cuts were part of a total package of $1.7 million in cuts instituted to balance the WZO’s budget.
The Jewish Agency for Israel is implementing $30 million in cuts of its own, largely in responses to fewer dollars coming from American Jewish federations, according to Agency officials.
The Jewish Agency is the principal recipient of money raised for Israel by the United Jewish Appeal. The WZO, whose members are elected on party lines by members of Zionist organizations, is the Jewish Agency’s sister organization.
The WZO, with a total budget of only $30 million, has also moved to eliminate a planned “Zionist fulfillment” program, designed to promote aliyah from the United States and other Western countries.
All other WZO programs received across the board cuts of between 7 percent and 10 percent.
Supporting his charge that the cuts were politically motivated, Reich said Hanan Ben-Yehuda, treasurer of the WZO and a Likud representative to the organization, had protested AZM’s political stands.
“We think Zionist federations should not just involve themselves in Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations and Zionist song contests,” said Reich.
Some American Zionist groups affiliated with the Israeli opposition parties have withdrawn from the umbrella Zionist group to pretest its political role.
But Ben-Yehuda denied that the budget cuts were politically motivated.
“The reduction in the budget that the World Zionist Organization can provide to the American Zionist Movement resulted wholly from the serious financial constraints of the Jewish Agency and WZO,” he said in Jerusalem.
Ben-Yehuda said the cuts to AZM were one of many painful decisions in the budgetary process.
WZO Acting Chairman Avraham Burg also responded to Reich’s charges.
“As one fully committed to depoliticizing the national institutions in order to preserve and enhance the unity of the Jewish people, I will never lend a hand to politicizing the organization by providing or reducing financial support.
“The cuts were painful in the past and will continue in the future,” he said, adding, “But they are the only way to foster a rebirth of the Zionist idea.”
After protests from the American Zionists, Burg told the AZM that they could appeal the cuts to the committee that makes the final decision, according to officials involved.
But sources close to the WZO said they expect few changes to be made in the announced cuts.
Ben-Yehuda said AZM’s initial grant was given with the understanding that the organization would eventually develop other sources of additional funding, but it failed to do so.
But AZM’s executive director, Karen Rubinstein, said, “There are a lot of American dollars that are driving our activities.”
AZM officials would not disclose the group’s overall budget, but said it collects dues from its 21 constituent Zionist organizations and has begun a fund-raising campaign.
“We see ourselves moving into a situation where we are much more financially independent,” she said.
But to have “a four-year plan, a five-year plan and to be suddenly told it’s over — the timing of that is off. We didn’t expect this to happen at this time,” she said.
In the midst of the budget cuts, some American Jews affiliated with the Zionist movement speculated that the cuts could be part of a general move to restructure the WZO. Burg has said he favors merging the WZO into the Jewish Agency.
Some fear that the proposals on the table for such a move could drastically take away power from Diaspora Zionists, who currently make up a majority of the WZO representation and more than a quarter of the Jewish Agency governing bodies.
Not surprisingly, the AZM has opposed the thrust of this restructuring, calling instead for the WZO to shift power to the Diaspora Zionist bodies.
“The WZO has written off American Zionism and Zionism in the Diaspora,” said Reich.
“It does make sense,” said another American Zionist, speaking on condition of anonymity, “that if the American Zionists are causing problems in the quest for radical reform that the WZO would be saying, `don’t lost sight of who has the power.’”
But Burg denied any such motives behind the cuts.
“If there is one thing I won’t do, it is to base any of my arguments on money,” Burg said.
“Money does not buy power; the lack of money does not render weakness.”
Although he would not go into details about his restructuring plans for the Agency and WZO, Burg said he supports the creation of a “fully democratic” body that is “50 percent Israeli and 50 percent Diaspora Jewry.”