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Power Struggle in Jewish Agency As Chairman Proposes Reshuffling

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There’s a political storm raging at the corner of Keren Hayesod and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael streets in Jerusalem, headquarters of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the hub of Israel-Diaspora relations.

But it’s anyone’s guess whether this power struggle will actually change the nature of that sometimes tumultuous relationship.

This “tempest in a teapot,” as Jewish Agency secretary-general Ilan Rubin calls it, began when Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor proposed restructuring the Agency’s make-up.

Meridor, a lifetime civil servant and Likud party operative, suggests replacing two-thirds of the Agency’s board of governors and one-third of its executive committee. He wants to drop people representing Jewish political movements and communities worldwide, putting in their place well-known public figures from Israel and the Diaspora.

Given the shifting nature of Israel-Diaspora relations, the board of governors and executive committee members must be the “best we can be,” Rubin told JTA, saying it would be sensible to have members “who are able to help us” and “who have strong recognition value in the Jewish world.”

The proposed list reads like a Who’s Who of current Israeli government players. It includes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo and Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, among others.

However, when the mayors of Tel Aviv and Haifa, various intellectuals and business people were appointed to the board of governors in the past, none came to the meetings, countered Dudu Sommer, a veteran member of the agency’s executive committee representing The New Faction, a combination of the secular Shinui Party and the Movement for Reform Judaism.

Sommer, a retired social science professor, is leading the opposition to Meridor’s plan.

“They only came if they had something to do in Jerusalem,” Sommer said.

The reshuffling is a bad idea, agreed Michael Landsberg, secretary-general of the World Labor Zionist organization, who said he is seeking people willing to be involved with the Agency throughout the year, not a small group of elites “to tell us what to do and how to do it.”

When the Jewish Agency was established, the aim was to bring the world’s Jewish communities closer to Israel and Zionist activity.

Following the outpouring of Diaspora support after the Six-Day War, the Agency formed its Assembly as a grassroots governing institution that would act as a checks-and-balance system to the board of governors and executive committee. The Assembly was supposed to be an independent power center, Rubin said, a place where Jewish community representatives would meet to brainstorm and “reinvigorate the troops.”

The Assembly also was a stage for the world’s Jewish fund-raisers, giving them an opportunity to express their feelings about the State of Israel. In the euphoric aftermath of the Six Day War, money was rolling in to fill the Agency’s empty coffers.

“They were just Jews looking for a way to express their gratitude and share in the activities of Israel,” Sommer said.

Between the 1970s and the late 1980s, that relationship remained more or less static.

Yet the Assembly hasn’t been a decision-making body for some time, Rubin said. Nor has it acted as an active checks-and-balance agency.

“During the days when the Jewish Agency got a pot of money and had to decide how to divide it in the board of governors, that was one kind of a situation,” he said. “Now we have a situation where we have to persuade donors that we need money. We need people with clout, influence and who will fight for the Jewish people with Israel at its center. That requires a new kind of person.”

Since 1971, 50 percent of the board of governors and executive committee — 144 members — have come from the World Zionist Organization, the umbrella group for global Zionist activity.

Another 30 percent is comprised of a faction representing United Jewish Communities, the American representatives, and 20 percent is from Keren Hayesod, representing Jewish communities in the rest of the Diaspora.

Meridor’s plan would preserve this ratio, but change the identity of the representatives. Eight members of the executive committee and 80 members of the board of governors would be public figures rather than representatives of organizations and communities.

To ensure that the various Zionist movements propose desirable candidates, Meridor is recommending an appointment committee of six members — three from the WZO and three from Jewish communities worldwide.

“It’s only an instrument for rich people to tell others what to do,” Sommer complained. “It’s a struggle between plutocracy and democracy in Israel.”

Meridor’s changes will “leave the framework of the WZO, but empty it of its powers,” he added.

To Landsberg, the only detail being changed is who will determine the choice of members.

“How can anyone tell me that nominees of all organizations aren’t good and the new process will use the right people?” he asked. “Who has the right to determine that those serving in the organizations aren’t good? Who has the chutzpah to say that?

“We’re saying this is a partnership of two sides, a democratic Zionist organization,” Landsberg said. “Otherwise it will be another philanthropic foundation with Israel as beggars, not equals.”

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