The annual assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel opened this week amid an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that some believe reflects a crossroads in Israel- Diaspora relations.
Others see the crisis as a sign that the agency, whose historical role has been Jewish rescue and resettlement, must redefine its mission.
“The expectation in Israel has been that we can stabilize the budget,” said Eliyahu Dekel, a businessman from Rosh Pina and one of 400 assembly members gathered here for this week’s sessions.
“Instead, all we’re taking about is cutting, cutting, cutting,” he said. “Even the agency workers are having a hard time because they have no confidence about what is going to happen next.”
The Jewish Agency is the single largest recipient in Israel of funds raised by the annual campaign of Jewish federations and the United Jewish Appeal. The UJA contributes, through the United Israel Appeal, about $230 million, a little less than half of the agency’s $450 million annual budget.
About half of the agency budget goes toward immigration and absorption.
Strapping deficits attributed to flagging contributions from the Diaspora last year forced the agency leadership under Chairman Avraham Burg to adopt a radical five-year austerity plan to cut $500 million from the budget.
Burg’s recovery plan depends upon a commitment of an additional $230 million from the Diaspora over the five years, a sum that is far from assured.
The crisis reached a climax last October when the agency decided to transfer its Youth Aliyah program to the government in an effort to save $60 million.
Youth Aliyah, primarily a network of youth villages for needy and immigrant youth, was for many the agency’s heart and soul, and its transfer was a big blow.
“Giving away Youth Aliyah hurt the Israeli people,” said Dekel, who is a member of the assembly as a representative of the World Zionist Organization.
The WZO’s legislative body, he Zionist General Council, contributes half the delegates to the assembly, which is the Jewish Agency’s legislative body.
Israelis “cannot believe anymore in the stability” of the agency or the commitment of American Jews to the agency, he said.
Dekel said he got involved in the first place because “I believe in the relationship with the Diaspora and the strength of the connection.”
Some in the Diaspora echoed the Israeli belief that the declining overseas allocations reflect a lack of support by federations for the work of the work.
“The federation world is drifting away from the Jewish Agency,” said Bennett Aaron, a member of the agency’s Board of Governors and a past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“I think we’ve done a bad job in transmitting to our successive leadership what our obligations are,” he said.
“The federations are focused on local needs,” he said. “They care about Israel,” but “they don’t have an appreciation of the historic role” of the agency.
Michael Rukin, chairman of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said the agency “has a historic and unique role in Jewish life, but it needs to either reinvent itself, retaining critical parts of its mission, including aliyah, or become irrelevant.”
The Boston federation’s president, Barry Shrage, added, “Even if the agency were working perfectly, we still would have the question of how decisions are made to take care of certain needs in Israel” that may not be as critical as other needs or “that may more properly be the provenance of the government of Israel.”
For his part, Richard Wexler, the new president of the UJA, is optimistic.
He said campaign chairs he led last week on a mission through Minsk, Belarus, and Israel were “inspired” in increase their contributions to the campaign by 39 percent “because of the kind of work on the ground’ being done by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency.
The JDC, which does international humanitarian work, is another principal recipient of overseas campaign allocations.
Despite his optimism, Wexler said, “We need continued reform and we need to find common ground in our partnership for a single message for our contributors” and “a common goal that is meeting the needs of the Jewish people.”
Meanwhile, the change in the Israeli government has infiltrated the highly political world of the agency.
The agency’s chairman technically is elected by the WZO, 38 percent of whose members are Israeli delegates of Zionist political parties, according to their representation in the Knesset. The other members belong to international Zionist organizations, including the religious movements.
With the recent election of a Likud prime minister, next year’s re-election of Burg, a left-wing Laborite, is no longer assured by an agency that seeks and benefits from a close relationship to the prime minister.
Also, the reported agreement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assign Natan Sharansky, the new minister of industry and trade, to head a ministerial committee on immigration, absorption and the Diaspora, has some in the agency worried.
Sharansky is a member of the agency’s Board of Governors, but has made clear his frustration with the agency and his desire to curtail its mandate and transfer some of its responsibility for aliyah to the government.
Agency insiders say that would unravel a sacred partnership between world Jewry and Israel and is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Coalition agreements between Netanyahu and Israel’s three religious parties, which have been viewed by some as a threat to religious pluralism, also have surfaced on the assembly agenda.
A resolution slated to be acted upon this week urges the government in strong language to refrain from amending or passing legislation that would “estrange major parts of the Jewish people from their linkage to the nation, to their culture and the Jewish state.”
At the opening of the assembly, Netanyahu spoke about religious pluralism but did not address the issue directly.
He called for tolerance between secular and religious Jews. And, he said, “we are one people,” explicitly mentioning the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements.
The mere mention of the three streams by Netanyahu was “very encouraging” for Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
But, he added, “I would hope he realizes that the enactment of legislation in accordance with the coalition agreements” with the religious parties “would have a devastating effect on Israel-Diaspora relations.”
Another issue looming over the assembly is the future of the WZO, which is now independent but whose budget – roughly $30 million – is funded by the Jewish Agency.
Prior to the assembly, the WZO’s Zionist General Council voted for a series of significant structural reforms.
But Burg told the assembly delegates in his keynote address that he would like to see the WZO combined with the Jewish Agency into an entity he would call “Bayit,” the Hebrew word for home and an acronym for ‘Israel-Diaspora covenant.” He has called on other world Jewish organizations to join this partnership.
He said the old distinctions between Zionists and non-Zionists that dictated the organization of the current structures of the Jewish Agency and the WZO are no longer relevant.
All Jewish forces must be mobilized to battle the common enemy of assimilation, he said.
“We must change the Zionist world in order to ensure the Jewish future and so that our children, in 15 or 20 years, will have an organizational instrument to maintain the Israel-Diaspora dialogue,’ he said.