Menu JTA Search

Call for Rival Jewish Agency Lacks Broad Political Support

Calls to create an alternative Jewish Agency for Israel to represent the interests of Orthodox Jews are not gaining much support.

Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron have charged that the Jewish Agency is a bastion for the non-Orthodox movements and that its chairman, Avraham Burg, has displayed a preference for the Reform and Conservative movements in their bid to win legal recognition in Israel.

Burg has been a vocal proponent of religious pluralism in Israel and has openly backed efforts to resolve through negotiations the conflict between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

While the idea of establishing a rival agency has not mustered political support beyond Shas, it reflects the deepening animosity between the fervently Orthodox and liberal streams of Judaism.

The calls by the two Sephardi leaders came amid the heated debate over religious pluralism and in the wake of a recent Labor-Likud accord to allow Avraham Burg, who is Orthodox and affiliated with Labor, to continue as chair of the agency for another two years before turning over the reigns to an as- yet-unnamed Likud member.

It also comes after the Reform and Conservative movements’ strong showing in elections for the 33rd Zionist Congress, which is slated for Jerusalem next month.

The victory — the Reform and Conservative claimed more than 73 percent of the American Jewish vote — places the non-Orthodox streams in a position to capture key leadership positions within the World Zionist Organization establishment and wield significant influence over the budget of its partner, the Jewish Agency.

At least half of the agency’s $400 million budget is contributed through the United Jewish Appeal by U.S. Jews. The money is spent mainly on immigration and absorption as well as Jewish and Zionist education in the Diaspora.

“If the Jewish Agency has become the home of the new streams and an arena for political bickering, then an alternative agency can be established,” Bakshi- Doron told Jewish Agency and WZO officials affiliated with the World Mizrachi Movement, which includes several Orthodox groups, including the National Religious Party, but not Shas.

Deri said Reform and Conservative Jews should be left to “stew in their own juices.”

But the two have little support in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for setting up a new organization.

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism, one of three religious parties in the governing coalition, believes that creating an alternative could threaten Jewish unity.

“We feel a responsibility to the Jewish people and we don’t want to create a split,” he said.

Knesset member Ze’ev Boim of the Likud Party said Shas’ call for an alternative agency “is a bad suggestion — one that the Likud and others should reject.”

The Jewish Agency “is the organization of the Jewish people all over the world and it should be maintained,” he said.

Shas has not yet taken any formal action to establish an Orthodox agency.

“At the moment it’s just an idea, but one that we have been considering for a long time,” said party secretary Tzvika Jacobson. “Shas is entitled to representation in a world Jewish body, but it can’t be the Jewish Agency, a body we see as almost anti-Zionist.”

Burg, meanwhile, appears to be untroubled by the calls for a rival agency.

He questioned Shas’ ability to support an alternative agency, given that some 70 percent of the American Jews who contribute to annual fund-raising campaigns are Reform or Conservative. A portion of the campaigns goes to fund the Jewish Agency.

“Even if they were to succeed in creating such a non-profit body, it would be very parochial, very ghettoized,” he said. “I don’t think they’re serious about this.”

Burg’s own efforts to quell the fierce dispute over religious pluralism got a boost of support last week from Israeli emissaries of the WZO and the Jewish Agency stationed in the United States and Canada.

“As those who strive to strengthen Israel’s position in the Jewish community and the connection between Israel and North American Jewry, we are sounding the alarm,” the emissaries wrote in a letter to Burg. “The actions of certain Jews in Israel to delegitimize the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism there are liable to cause a split between the Jewish people.”

NEXT STORY