Changing Relations (part 3): a Century After Its Inception, is Zionist Movement Still Needed?

Next week the World Zionist Organization will begin what may be its most fundamental debate since the question of accepting Uganda as a Jewish national home dominated its 6th Congress, in 1903.

With only two years until the centennial of the WZO’s founding by Theodor Herzl, some in the organization see an opportunity to declare Zionism victorious and put an end to the organization’s current incarnation.

When the WZO’s Va’ad Hapoel, its governing body, begins its annual meeting June 18, the question of the organization’s future will top the agenda.

The most dramatic possible outcome of the restructuring process would involve the merger of the WZO into the Jewish Agency for Israel, effectively closing down the WZO as an independent organization.

According to the plan’s advocates, this would turn the Jewish Agency into the arena for a broader, more authentic Israel-Diaspora relationship. In closing a chapter of Zionist history, this plan would also minimize the influence of American Zionist organization within the community.

So it is too surprising that the plan has generated strong opposition among some American Zionist leaders.

But Avraham Burg, head of the WZO, apparently favors the idea, saying the believes in “one people, one body.”

Currently acting chairman of the WZO and the Jewish Agency, Burg is expected to be formally elected to the top post during this month’s meetings of both bodies.

The WZO’s clout is greatly diminished from the days when it negotiated with sultans and prime ministers to lay the groundwork for a Jewish state.

Today, much of the WZO’s significance comes from its role as equal partner in the Jewish Agency, which spends more than $400 million annually on bringing immigrants to Israel and resettling them and on other social services in Israel.

The Jewish Agency’s money comes from the United Jewish Appeal and the Keren Hayesod. Since 1971, these two fund-raising bodies have held the other 50 percent share in the governance of the agency, which was originally founded by the WZO.

The WZO receives its budget of roughly $30 million from an arrangement reached with the Jewish Agency. The WZO’s mission is to promote aliyah and Zionist activities, primarily in Western countries.

Though the WZO, Diaspora Zionist activists and Israel political parties are able to influence the central world Jewish philanthropic enterprise. The WZO’s role in the Jewish Agency has made it a central channel of the organized relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Consequently, the restructuring of the WZO could revolutionize Israel-Diaspora relations. Already, the debates about restructuring have raised several profound questions about Israel-Diaspora relations in the closing years of the 20th century: – What does it mean to be a Zionist in the Diaspora? – Is there a difference between being Zionist and pro-Israel? – Can Jewish leadership be opened to circles beyond those of “major givers” to the UJA campaign?

Critics of the WZO have argued over the years that until Zionist leaders commit themselves to making aliyah, there is no difference between Zionists — that is, members of the WZO — and other pro-Israel Diaspora Jews, such as contributors to UJA.

Foremost of these critics historically was David Ben-Gurion, who led the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine as head of the Jewish Agency and the WZO.

On May 14, 1948, the Jewish Agency leadership became the leadership of the new State of Israel, Ben-Gurion was concerned — the Zionist movement in the Diaspora became an anachronism.

Now the notion that there is no longer an ideological difference between the Diaspora Zionists of the WZO and the Diaspora “fund-raisers” of UJA appears to be moving to the fore.

“What makes me not a Zionist and him a Zionist?” is how Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of UJA, expressed it in a recent interview. The “him” he was referring to was Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, the association of Zionist groups in the United States.

“I speak Hebrew better. I lived in Israel two years. I have better credentials,” Lurie argued.

Replied Reich: “The difference is that Brian’s campaign raises its money based upon the emotional appeal of Israel and overseas needs, but the money is in effect diverted and does not go to Israel in the amounts that it should.”

“Our message is that Israel is central to our Jewish life, and if we’re concerned about Jewish life, we need that Israeli quotient,” said Reich.

Whatever the depth of the ideological divide between them, the facts is that the actual number of Israelis in the WZO — and the Jewish Agency — by far fails to reflect a world where half of all Jewish schoolchildren now live in Israel. Only 38 percent of WZO seats are assigned to the Israeli delegation.

In Burg’s vision, the new Jewish Agency would be half Israeli and half Diaspora, rather than half Zionist and half fund-raisers.

Such a partnership of Israelis and Diaspora Jews would at least significantly minimize the participation of American Zionist groups, which would be unlikely to maintain their current influence in the Jewish Agency as part of a Diaspora delegation.

Burg’s vision was first articulated by Rabbi Richard Hirsch, chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international umbrella body to Reform Judaism, and a member of the WZO Executive.

Hirsch, who has long supported reforming the WZO, now chairs a WZO committee looking into restructuring. But Hirsch’s plan is not supported by his committee, where the sentiment is that the WZO should not merge with the Jewish Agency, according to people familiar with its discussions.

But according to one WZO source, a position paper prepared by the committee “was not acceptable to Burg.” According to this source, all Burg wants to remain from the WZO is a small core devoted to “hagshama,” or Zionist fulfillment — in other words, promoting aliyah.

While the question of these conflicting visions will dominate this month’s WZO discussions, but a concrete resolution is unlikely.

Burg’s goal for the process is for “a declaration of principles” to be issued this month, to be followed by a year of discussion culminating in a decision next June and the implementation of the new structure in 1997, WZO’s 100th birthday.

In the process, conflicting visions of Zionism will get their hearing.

Reich of the American Zionists Movement has complained that “key Israeli leaders” of the WZO “appear to have forgotten that Zionism is first and foremost a Diaspora movement.”

“Clearly there must be changes in the WZO structure. It’s outmoded, it’s rife with political fiefdoms,” Reich conceded.

“But the concern is that the Israelis may cut themselves off from the amcha, or grass roots, if they push aside those who fervently supported the Zionist cause and the Zionist dream when it was not embraced by the community,” he said.

Another leader opposing WZO’s dissolution is Deborah Kaplan, president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the largest single American delegation to the WZO.

“I believe there is still a lot for Zionists to accomplish,” said Kaplan. “To push them into a small body where there is no room for them to flourish and grow would be a major loss.”

Advocates of the WZO have long pointed to the democratic nature of the organization as a major factor in its favor. Worldwide elections, last held in 1987, have enabled Diaspora Jews to have their ideologies represented within the WZO — and have enabled nascent Zionist groups, particularly the Reform and Conservative Zionist affiliates, to achieve prominence and influence within the WZO and the Jewish Agency.

But Hirsch, Burg and others are questioning whether the WZO structure can continue with only incremental change.

“You have the anomaly, for example, that the American synagogues are represented more by the WZO than by the ostensible representatives of the American Jewish communities,” said Jonatham Woocher, author of “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews” and executive vice president of the Jewish Educational Services of North America.

Although Burg has not elaborated on the details of his vision, the plan drafted by Hirsch called for half of the Diaspora delegation to come from the fund- raising organizations and half of the Israeli delegation to come from political parties.

The remainder of the Diaspora delegation would come from Jewish communities, synagogue movements, Zionist organizations, an other international and national organization.

Half of the Israeli delegation would include representatives of Israeli government ministries, local government, national organization, universities, the settlement movements and the business community.

The one qualification Burg has made for the representation of the new body is that it be “fully democratic.”

In America, the Jewish Agency’s funders seem to see a major change in the WZO structure as inevitable.

A joint committee of the UJA and Council of Jewish Federations has been investigating restructuring themselves and other components of the central American Jewish fund-raising system. The first set of proposals prepared for the committee’s consideration did not mention the WZO, speaking in vaguer terms of “our Israel/overseas partners.”

The plans also spoke of eliminating the United Israel Appeal. As the conduit of UJA money to the Jewish Agency, the UJA is the only component of the central American UJA-federation fund-raising structure that has representation from the Zionist movement and the religious streams.

So far, however, the CJF-UJA restructuring group has yet to meet with the WZO restructuring committee.

“That’s disturbing,” said Karen Rubinstein, executive director of the American Zionist Movement.

Within the CJF-UJA restructuring task force, the question of how to ensure a continued broad representation of American Jewry within the Jewish Agency has emerged.

“Any structure would have to be representative of the broader American community the way the UJA is now,” said one member of the CJF-UJA committee, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If we’re truly going to talk about a Jewish Agency which is half Israeli and half Diaspora, then the Diaspora half has to include a fairly broad representation of those whose raison d’etre is Israel, or supporting Israel,” said the committee member.

CJF Executive Vice President Martin Kraar agrees.

“Sitting around the table, whether it is here or whether it is there, should be as broad-based a group of segments of Israeli society as possible, and as broad-based a group of American Jewish society as possible,” he said.

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