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As Meridor Meets with Ujc Heads, Some Wonder About Future of WZO

July 30, 2004
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A meeting this week marked the early stages of a discussion that could spell trouble for the future of the World Zionist Organization. Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration and absorption in the Jewish state, met with leaders of the United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for the North American Jewish federation system, to discuss the WZO’s future funding.

The meeting comes as the Jewish Agency, the primary beneficiary of federation dollars overseas, is reconsidering its funding contract with the WZO, a representative body of Zionist groups from Israel and the Diaspora.

Highlighting the partnership between the Jewish Agency and the WZO, Meridor chairs both organizations. But they have different agendas: The Jewish Agency is devoted to aliyah and Jewish education, while the WZO, a fiercely political organization, is bent on spreading Zionism in its myriad forms.!

Surrounding the discussion are two opposing opinions about the 107-year-old WZO, which has been struggling to boost its profile among world Jewry for decades despite a shrinking budget that allows for little activity.

Some call the WZO a moribund group that burdens the Jewish Agency with extraneous expense and political headache. Others argue that it’s both the genesis and the future of Zionism, and a critical mainstay of the Jewish Agency.

The WZO’s power comes through the Jewish Agency. Despite the fact that it has only a $14 million budget, the WZO makes up half of the Jewish Agency’s board of trustees and influences its $350 million budget.

In the middle of the talks, and holding the purse strings, is the UJC.

The political triangle boils down to this: The WZO influences the UJC’s overseas partner, the Jewish Agency, yet the UJC has little control over or familiarity with the WZO.

Josh Schwarcz, secretary-general of the Jewish Agency, said there was ! no indication that the agency would cut funds to the WZO.

The meeti ng between Meridor and UJC leaders is just an opportunity to examine views on continued cooperation between the Jewish Agency and the WZO, Schwarcz told JTA.

“The World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency have a historical, longstanding relationship, which is reflected in shared activity and funding agreements,” he said.

An agreement is expected in time for the Jewish Agency’s October board meetings, when the agency’s annual budget is set, he said.

Since 1999, the Jewish Agency has provided $8 million of WZO’s $14 million budget.

Even WZO officials concede that the group’s budget does not allow for much programming, with more than 80 percent of funds going to salaries.

The WZO may be best known for its worldwide elections, in which Zionist groups of all stripes run for seats on the parliamentary-style governing body. Its backers tout the WZO as the only Jewish organization that democratically represents world Jewry.

“The size of one’s pocketbook do! es not determine the extent of one’s influence,” said Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement.

The WZO also is known for its Hagshama youth division, which provides Israeli programming on college campuses around the world, develops Zionist student leaders and promotes long- and short-term programs in Israel.

Founded by Theodore Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in 1897, the WZO became a partner of the Jewish Agency when that body was founded in 1929.

But its budget has withered since 1972, when it struck a deal to hand its assets to the Jewish Agency, which took over the WZO’s budget and debt. The WZO also agreed to stop fund raising independently.

Today, the balance of the WZO’s budget — some $5.5 million — comes from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. But JNF plans to cut funding to the WZO by as much as half due to its own budget woes.

Some say the WZO would be better off on its own. In ! recent weeks, the WZO executive decided to establish a committee to de termine the value of its assets.

“I’d be quite happy if we divorce the Jewish Agency and divorce the UJC and even the JNF, and let each one take its assets,” said Martin Stern, a member of the WZO’s finance committee.

Calling the WZO “a political farce,” hamstrung by too little money and too many competing political interests, Stern argued that the external funding supply lets the WZO putter along complacently.

“Zionism to me is the biggest miracle of the 20th century,” he said. “It is very important that we should all wake up before it’s too late and we have destroyed our own invention.”

American Zionist groups also stressed the WZO’s importance.

The WZO is “the only vehicle for the religious streams — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — to be involved as such within the operations of the Jewish Agency,” Golub said.

If American Zionist groups are asked to help ensure funding from the Jewish Agency, Golub said his group and others likely would press t! he WZO’s case with local federations.

But some WZO members feel no reason to fret.

David Breakstone, the WZO’s head of Zionist activities, said he has “full confidence” that Meridor “is doing everything he can to assure continued funding.”

Breakstone said he expects the “full funding that we’ve had up until now” to continue.

Others are skeptical.

The WZO marginalized itself when it gave up its independent fund-raising ability, said Jacques Torczyner of San Francisco, past president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Now, “the Jewish fund raising is in the hands of the fund-raisers nationally, and they’re not interested in the WZO,” he said.

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