Focus on Issues: Wzo-jewish Agency Merger Idea Now Seems a Foregone Conclusion

The slogan on the sturdy blue-denim bags that delegates to the Jewish Agency Assembly here were carrying around this week may have seemed more like a wish than a reality.

It read: “The Jewish People: Moving Forward Together.”

Yet moving together is precisely what the two major organizations that represent the Israel-Diaspora partnership seem to be doing.

Although many of the details have yet to be worked out, it appears to be a foregone conclusion that by 1997 — on the centennial of the founding of the Zionist movement by Theodor Herzl — the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel will have merged into a single entity.

Today, the WZO’s chief mission is to promote aliyah and Zionist activities, primarily in Western countries, while the Jewish Agency concentrates on bringing immigrants to Israel and resettling them, as well as providing a number of other social services.

A merger would fulfill the dream of Avraham Burg, who coined the phrase “One People, One Body” when he took office in February as acting chairman of both organizations. The “acting” has now been removed, and so have most of the impediments to his plan.

While the details of the contentious merger plan are still cloaked in uncertainty, amid continuing concerns over the Zionist movement’s role in the new organization, the focus of the Jewish Agency’s five-day conference this week had already shifted to another vexing topic: the future of fund raising.

The merger plan did run into fierce opposition during last week’s meetings of the Zionist General Council, as the WZO’s governing body is called. But as the crucial vote on the issue neared, the resistance to the plan seemed to have waned.

An ad placed in the Jerusalem Post on the day of Burg’s election was telling. It was signed by Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement.

It read, “Regrettably, the World Zionist Organization is about to make a monumental blunder. The impression is that they want to `write off’ the Zionist movement in the Diaspora.”

By the same afternoon, Reich stressed in an interview that he does not oppose Burg’s plan as such, conceding that the WZO and Jewish Agency are in great need of reform.

On the Israeli side, Uri Gordon, head of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, has been the fiercest opponent of the WZO. He has termed it “anachronistic and dispensable,” and has called for its immediate dissolution.

Gordon welcomes the merger and sees the new entity serving as a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora, taking responsibility for Jewish education and for fighting assimilation.

Yehiel Leket, head of the Jewish Agency’s Youth Aliyah Department, sees the WZO’s acceptance of the principle of a new pluralistic partnership as “a revolution of historical proportions in the relations between Israel and the Diaspora.

“For the very first time, it is being determined that Zionism is no longer the focal point of these relationships,” he said.

For his part, Burg told WZO delegates that any change will not come as a result of executive or administrative decisions, but rather out of a process of consultations and discussions.

“We don’t have a mandate to be divisive,” he said. “Our search must be done while maintaining `shalom bayit’ — internal peace.”

In the end, the Zionist General Council passed a resolution at its closing session that pledged to continue the WZO’s reorganization and restructuring efforts, according to a specific timetable. Adopted by an overwhelming majority, including a few American Zionist groups, the resolution was welcomed by the leadership of the Jewish Agency, despite the fact that no one seems to have a clear idea on how it will all pan out.

Even Charles (Corky) Goodman, who was expected to be elected by week’s end as chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, remarked in an interview: “How it will all work out, I don’t know.”

But he and others were working hard to reassure the Zionists that they will continue to play a role in Israel-Diaspora relations.

“Clearly the Zionist movement will exist in whatever form,” Goodman said in an interview. He added that although a new Israel-Diaspora partnership is needed,” everyone should have a place around the table.”

But every bit as much on the minds of Jewish Agency leaders this week was the challenge of how to raise more money for Israel.

Since Burg took office six months ago, the Jewish Agency has had to face a $30 million budget deficit. Agency officials now say that the deficit may run as high as $80 million.

Across-the board cuts have been implemented, affecting every program, including those run by the WZO, which receives $30 million annually from the Jewish Agency’s nearly $500 million budget.

Although the reason for the budget shortfall are still being debated, some facts are indisputable: Less money is being raised in the United States and in other Jewish communities abroad, and American Jewish federations are now allocating only 40 percent of their annual campaign proceeds to Israel, compared with the 60 percent they once sent overseas.

Burg alluded to this in his speech to the Jewish Agency Assembly. “Diaspora leaders say, `We took care of israel for 50 years. Now is the time to look after local needs.’ But there is no Diaspora without Israel, no periphery without a center,” he said.

Not surprisingly, one of the three program tracks of the Jewish Agency conference concerned fund raising. Burg attended the opening session, where the guest speaker was Professor Ya’acov Frenkel, governor of the Bank of Israel.

Frenkel spoke of Israel’s thriving economy and of the singular tremendous contribution to it by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But he elegantly sidestepped the question he was asked to address: Israel’s economy and Jewish philanthropy.

“Israel still needs your help,” he told a roomful of fund raisers, “but I leave this to you.”

Despite recent difficulties, the fund raisers seemed to agree that as long as there are some 1 million Jews in the Soviet successor states, fund raising for he Jewish Agency is not seriously endangered. The real crunch will come once there are no more distressed Jews in need of a safe haven.

Burg, for one, sees the Jewish Agency’s future role as combatting spiritual distress.

“Ignorance is our enemy. The assimilated Jews, our target. Education, our weapon, And we are all peons in this battle,” he told the assembly.

A booklet containing Burg’s blueprint for how to fight this battle was distributed to delegates at Both the WZO and Jewish Agency conferences. Called Brit Am (the People’s Covenant), the booklet is filled with ideas for Jewish education programs, ranging from a worldwide Jewish open university to Sunday school programs, interactive satellite links, a Jewish peace corps and more.

These programs are meant not just for Diaspora Jews, but for Israelis too, as Burg considers them to be threatened by “spiritual distress” of their own, namely the absence of Jewish education and values.

In that respect, the Jewish Agency and other organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, have started separate efforts to introduce wealthy Israelis to the idea of fund raising.

If these and some of Burg’s other ideas succeed, it appears the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora truly will begin moving forward together as one.

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