NEW YORK (Jun. 29)
Just as the Jewish Agency for Israel was outlining a new vision for its future, Israeli legislators were offering motions in the Knesset questioning whether the agency should have a future at all.
The Jewish Agency’s annual assembly closed on June 23, having ratified in principle a strategic plan that broadens its traditional mission of aliyah, rescue, absorption and Zionist education to include broader engagement in Jewish identity, Jewish unity and “strengthening the State of Israel as the State for all Jews.”
But the following day, Knesset members Reuven Rivlin of Likud and Yossi Beilin of One Israel introduced separate motions in the Knesset that envision vastly different relationships between the Diaspora and Israel.
According to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Beilin called for the agency’s total dissolution, to be replaced by a “parliament of the Jewish people.”
Rivlin, on the other hand, suggested that the agency’s areas of activity be scaled back to cover only Jewish education in the Diaspora and immigration from countries where Israel’s direct involvement would have precarious political consequences.
The Jewish Agency, traditionally the main recipient of American Jewish dollars for Israel, has periodically had to justify its existence over its 70 years. In those cases, as now, critics have charged that it is a bloated bureaucracy whose work could be done more efficiently by the Israeli government itself.
But advocates stress the agency’s critical role in having patriated millions of olim, or immigrants to Israel, and in serving as a link between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.
The agency was founded in 1929 by Chaim Weizmann — then president of the World Zionist Organization and later Israel’s first president — as a partnership between the WZO and Diaspora Jews who wanted to take part in the establishment of the State of Israel.
Since then, the Jewish Agency has become a quasi-governmental body responsible primarily for bringing new immigrants to Israel and resettling them.
The agency receives support from the U.S. government through the United Israel Appeal and generates income from the sale and rental of public housing in Israel.
But most of the agency’s funding has come from the United Jewish Appeal and local Jewish federations in North America, and from Keren Hayesod in other countries.
Now that relationship is changing, too.
This year, UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations merged with the United Israel Appeal to create the United Jewish Communities. Funding for Israel and global Jewish causes will be determined by the newly formed Overseas Needs Assessment and Distributions Committee.
Its 25 members will include representatives from federations and — for the first time — three members each from the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
While this arrangement gives the Jewish Agency a direct voice in funding allocations, it will also force the agency to defend all of its funding needs at a time when federations are demanding greater control over how collective moneys are spent.
Moreover, the contract between UIA and the Jewish Agency, which designates the agency as the exclusive recipient of Jewish communal philanthropy in Israel, has been extended only until December 2000.
In May, Ami Uliel, a Zionist leader in Israel, called for the Jewish Agency to disband.
He suggested instead the creation of an independent, worldwide Zionist organization with its own sources of funding.
But defenders of the Jewish Agency strongly dispute the proposals of Uliel and the Knesset members.
“If the remarks made about the irrelevance of the Jewish Agency come from the mouths of imbeciles or cynics, they are not worthy of a response,” said Sallai Meridor, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency and WZO.
“If they come from the mouths of those who do not know how to ask, then we have to explain to them about the Zionist idea,” he said in a June 14 address to Zionist leaders in Israel.
“We are a movement of the Jewish people, not a movement of the elite. We are a democratic movement,” said Meridor.
Many Jewish community federations have also criticized the Jewish Agency in recent years, going so far as to reduce their annual campaign allocations to Israel.
But Stephen Solender, UJC’s acting president and the executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, said in a telephone interview with JTA that the apparent downturn in allocations is deceptive.
“Almost $200 million continues to come to the Jewish Agency from the American federations,” he said, calling that “a significant amount of money.”
In addition, he said, “more and more federations want to direct some of their funds to specific projects, and one of the reasons that the overall allocations to the agency have diminished is because more and more federations are directing funds to these particular projects.”
The agency’s strategic plan, he noted, provides for greater opportunity for federations to direct their funds to specific projects through the agency itself.
Alex Grass of Harrisburg, Pa., the new chairman of the agency’s Board of Governors, conceded that allocations from the UJA and federations “have gone down somewhat,” but affirmed that they remain “very substantial.”
Asked about Beilin’s Knesset motion, Grass said, “If he had better knowledge as to what the agency has accomplished and continues to accomplish, and if he recognized fully the bond that the agency helps to create between Israel and world Jewry, I think he would recognize his position is totally wrong.”
According to the Ha’aretz report, Beilin — who has long called for revolutionary changes in Israel-Diaspora relations — believes the agency has a damaging “monopoly” over the involvement of “Diaspora Jews in Israel and Israelis in Jewish affairs.”
A proponent of greater intellectual exchange between the communities, Beilin reportedly proposed the “parliament,” which would bring together Jewish luminaries from the humanities, politics and economics.
Solender said, however, that the Jewish Agency is already moving in that direction through its strategic plan.
A refined version of the strategic plan is expected to be approved at the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting in October.
Rabbi Daniel Allen, the executive vice chairman of UIA, said the agency is “much leaner” than in the past and “partisan politics-free,” following bureaucratic reforms during the past decade.
In an interview, he also noted that with the new strategic plan in place, the agency will work with other agencies to deliver services and administer programs, rather than maintaining central control.
“This is not your father’s Jewish Agency,” he said, borrowing Oldsmobile’s popular advertising slogan.