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Sharansky nomination shines light on debate over reforms at Jewish Agency

The choice of Natan Sharansky to head the Jewish Agency for Israel has rankled some agency officials. (Kikasso / Creative Commons)

The choice of Natan Sharansky to head the Jewish Agency for Israel has rankled some agency officials. (Kikasso / Creative Commons)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Israel’s prime minister has nominated former Soviet dissident and close political ally Natan Sharansky for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Once that would have made him a shoo-in for the job, but now some of the organization’s Diaspora-based lay leaders think they should be making the decision.

After several weeks of speculation, Benjamin Netanyahu publicly tapped Sharansky to chair the Jewish Agency’s executive committee. The spot became vacant when Ze’ev Bielski left the organization in November to run for the Israeli parliament.

Following Saturday night’s announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Israeli press lauded Sharansky as the perfect candidate for the job. Jewish Agency officials in Israel hailed him as a Jewish hero who could help attract major donors to an organization that has enacted tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts in recent months as funds from one of its primary backers — the North American network of local Jewish federation — shrunk significantly.

“We’ve always had politicians, but now we could have someone of world stature who is accepted into the White House and is accepted all over the world,” one Israeli-based Jewish Agency insider told JTA Monday. “He’s been a man of stature, a freedom fighter — whatever adjective you want to give. Now the Jewish Agency is catapulted into world news, not only into Jewish news.”

But some of the Jewish Agency’s leaders in North America are quietly voicing concerns that Netanyahu’s announcement could undercut their plan to de-politicize the chairman position and keep this key decision in the hands of the organization.

At stake is control over a storied but struggling organization that served as the prestate Jewish government in Palestine and later played the lead role in facilitating immigration to the new Jewish state.

Though its budget has steadily declined, the Jewish Agency remains the largest recipient of charitable dollars from the federation system, receiving about $140 million per year from the annual campaigns of communities across North America.

Sharansky’s backers see him as a potential rainmaker who could attract new sources of financial support to make up for the cuts from increasingly cash-strapped federations. But several of the key proponents of reform at the Jewish Agency fear that the perception of an overly political selection process will hurt efforts to boost support from federations and raise funds from other Diaspora sources.

Several North American philanthropists — notably Charles Bronfman and Bobby Goldberg — have long complained that in past decades the Israeli prime minister seemed free to reserve the chairmanship for political allies. Jewish Agency officials have acknowledged that the perception has been a stumbling block in terms of attracting new donors and, as a result, are in the end stages of a five-year process of revamping the agency’s governance structure.

A key component of the proposed reforms is making the prime minister more a consultant to a nominating committee comprised of members of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors. That, supporters of reform say, would put the choice of who should run the organization back into the hands of its primary funders, the Jewish federations (through the United Jewish Communities) and Keren Hayesod, which raises money in Canada and Europe.

The plan was formalized at November meetings of the organization’s board of governors and was expected to be ratified at the Jewish Agency Assembly June 21-23 in Jerusalem. Lay leaders have said the process of nominating a new leader had been in “suspended animation” until after the assembly.

Moshe Vigdor, the Jewish Agency’s director general, has been running the organization in the interim.

Now, say some of those on the North American side of the Jewish Agency’s lay leadership team, Netanyahu may have made a pre-emptive move to put in place his longtime political ally.

Netanyahu even may have pressured Sharansky, who heads the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies — a position for which he was hand-picked by its funder, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — to take the Jewish Agency job and use it as a stepping-stone to Israel’s presidency, The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month.

Sharansky had made an attempt to become the Jewish Agency leader in 2005. Shortly after quitting the Knesset in protest of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, he ran against Bielski, Sharon’s pick for the job, and lost.

“Netanyahu has read the political tea leaves and he has made a decision,” one U.S.-based high-ranking Jewish Agency lay leader told JTA on the condition of anonymity.

The source insisted that Netanyahu announced his decision without first consulting Richard Pearlstone, the Jewish Agency’s top lay leader. Pearlstone declined comment. Aides to Sharansky and Netanyahu did not return messages.

Jewish Agency officials said that Netanyahu was scheduled to speak with Pearlstone via telephone on Monday — two days after making it official that Sharansky was his choice.

The source acknowledged that Netanyahu’s approach was standard operating procedure for Israeli prime ministers, but said the rules of the game are changing.

“I hope the prime minister will understand and respect the move to change governance rules,” the source said. “Having said that, the government of Israel is really our strongest partner, so we are not interested in confrontation.”

The chairman of the United Jewish Communities, which annually funnels approximately $140 million per year from the annual campaigns of local Jewish federations into the Jewish Agency’s budget, also expressed concern.

“We have been working for quite a while on new governance processes that will strengthen the Jewish Agency and feel that any position should be filled according to those governance processes,” said UJC’s chairman, Joe Kanfer. “Sharansky should be given thoughtful consideration by the nominating committee. We believe this is important work and that [the Jewish Agency] needs to follow procedures.”

After years of seeing the chairmanship go to Israeli politicians, some Jewish Agency lay leaders in North America were hoping to find a professional nonprofit worker to run the organization. Sharansky would seem to fall more on the politician end of the spectrum, having headed his own political party, served as a minister and been widely viewed as a Netanyahu ally.

Jewish Agency professional staffers are downplaying any hints of an internal conflict, saying that either under the old process or the proposed new one, the prime minister would have had a say in who became the next Jewish Agency chairman. Either way, they say, Sharansky would have been a strong candidate as a former minister of diaspora affairs with international stature.

Steven Nasatir, the head of a federation that is one of the top financial supporters of the Jewish Agency, said he is not concerned.

“Sharansky is a hero of the Jewish people, and as someone who watched as he served on the agency’s board of governors before he went into government, I think it is wonderful that he is willing to sacrifice himself to be considered for the job,” said Nasatir, the president of the JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “I am sure we will go through the appropriate processes and that the prime minister’s suggestion will be given serious consideration, and I trust that the process for giving this consideration will end in a happy conclusion.”

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