News Analysis: Questions Still Loom for Future of the Jewish Agency and WZO

The just-concluded meetings of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization may prove more noteworthy for what they did not accomplish than for what they did.

Questions concerning the organizations’ future structure and continued funding look as large — or larger — now as they did before the meetings began last month.

One clear success of the meetings was the closing of the book on the leadership crisis that had faced the organization for more than two years.

The crisis began when allegations first surfaced that Simcha Dinitz, at the time chairman of both bodies, had misused his official credit card.

Avraham Burg has now been officially elected to succeed Dinitz, a post he had been holding in an “acting” capacity since February.

The Jewish Agency also elected a new chairman of its Board of Governors. Charles “Corky” Goodman of Chicago replaced Mendel Kaplan, who had served 10 years in the post.

Free of the leadership concerns that had dominated past meetings, Jewish Agency players began to focus on issues that will not easily be settled by a vote of acclamation, and are likely to dominate the agenda of Jewish Agency discussions for the foreseeable future.

The perseverance of these issues reflects the very serious obstacles facing Burg as he seeks to retool a new Jewish Agency.

Burg has called to WZO to merge with the Jewish Agency, creating “one body for one people.”

And he has separately asked leaders of the Diaspora fund-raising campaigns – - such as local federations and the national United Appeal — to guarantee a constant level of funding for Israel.

The Jewish Agency is the primary recipient of funds raised by UJA for Israel.

The request is part of an effort to prevent the perennial rounds of cuts that have seemingly dominated every Jewish Agency budget discussion in recent memory.

But Burg was rebuffed on both counts.

WZO’s Zionist General Council did not accede to Burg’s proposed restructuring plan ending to organization’s century-long independent existence.

Instead, it approved a resolution calling for a “renewed world Zionist movement” to remain a partner as the Jewish Agency reorganizes itself.

The body also resolved that “the Zionist movements in the Diaspora shall have a significant role” in any reorganization.

“Burg discovered there’s a Zionist movement that’s not going to be disbanded as easily as he wanted it to be,” said one satisfied American Zionist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But another Zionist, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not count out Burg’s ability to implement his idea.

“I don’t underestimate Burg. He’s very sharp. He was a little surprised by the opposition, but he has a whole year to play with,” said this American, referring to the time frame in which a reorganization plan is scheduled to be designed and approved.

But a WZO official supportive of Burg’s plan said Burg knew that his idea of merging would not be passed this year.

Similarly, Burg’s popularity among American fund-raising leaders failed to translate into an immediate promise of additional funds for the Jewish Agency.

In his meetings with WZO, Burg had said he would seek a guarantee of a stated sum each year, according to a participant in the meetings.

The continual decline of federation allocations to Israel has been seized upon by Zionist leaders as evidence that they — the communal activists focused on Israel — are the true lovers of the Jewish state, rather the federation leaders who finance the philanthropic enterprise that is only partially directed to Israel.

But Burg’s request for a five-year guarantee of stable funding was denied by American UJA and federation leaders, according to Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of UJA.

Despite the denial, Lurie said he believed that “what he’s asking for is very fair.”

Burg is “being asked to lead the Agency through times of change and redirection, and he doesn’t have the assurance that our income stream is going to remain stable,” Lurie said.

Despite the understanding, all Burg got was a resolution of the Jewish Agency Assembly calling on federated campaigns to transfer 50 percent of the funds they raise to Israel.

However, the resolution has no real meaning, since the Jewish Agency has no authority over federation campaigns.

“Does (the resolution) make a difference? In all candor, no,” Lurie said.

In any case, UJA has been urging federations to commit to giving Israel a 50 percent “partnership share” of campaign funds for some time. The Council of Jewish Federations has similarly asked federations to commit 50 percent of campaign increases to Israel.

However, these efforts “did not meet with overwhelming success,” said Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the United Israel Appeal, the conduit between UJA and the Jewish Agency.

“There was a reluctance on the part of the federations, and the current situation in Washington and the (Republican) Contract with America has created more reluctance,” she said, referring to increasing needs for local programs as federal dollars decline.

“The approach was one that both American leaders and Israelis obviously want to implement, but that has not happened to date,” she said.

The question remains under discussion by UJA, CJF and UIA.

But people who know Burg do not expect him to drop these issues.

“He’s in for the long haul,” said Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Community and Religion at Brandeis University and a sociologist specializing in the study of American Jewish philanthropy.

“You begin with long-term goals and positions that need to be reached,” he said.

“The issue of allocations to Israel through the central campaigns — whether as a guaranteed floor, a two-line campaign, a separate campaign, however — the goal of guaranteeing the funds coming to Israel is one the table,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency is facing a looming budget crisis. the assembly authorized a $519 million budget for 1995, amended from its initial $488 million.

The increase in budgeted expenditures reflects, among other things, a decision to increase participation in Jewish Agency summer camps.

Members of the Jewish Agency Assembly who visited Ukraine on the way to Jerusalem came away fearful for the Jewish community’s future there — and impressed with the Agency-sponsored youth programs there.

Consequently, they pushed to restore partial funding for the program that had served 20,000 youths last year, but was only budgeted for 16,000 youths this summer. That figure has now been boosted to 18,000.

Although it was barely discussed on the floor of the Assembly, Lurie and others say the Agency is about to run head on into a budget crisis that will dwarf past debates such as whether to fund an additional 2,000 summer camp slots.

The looming deficit is said the be $50 million or more.

“There are serious financial problems,” Cardin said. “They were identified probably three years ago.”

The problems stem from flat federation campaigns, the decreasing Israel allocations and the end of Operation Exodus, a special campaign launched to fund the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, she said.

“There will have to be major changes of thinking in how we fund what we fund,” Cardin said.

By next year’s assembly, agreed Lurie, there is going to have to be “serious change rather than incremental change.”

Lurie said he believes that the new Jewish Agency leadership will make that possible.

“Burg will give us the kind of decisiveness we haven’t seen before,” he said.

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