How Israel's Dusty Zionist Bureaucracy Survives

Jobs for Cronies — and Ties to Deep-Pocketed Diaspora


By Anshel Pfeffer

Published May 10, 2014.
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JNF tries to pretend it’s a major fund-raising operation in the Jewish world. In reality, its network of fund-raisers around the world bring in only a tiny portion of its income. In the United States and Britain, entities presented as part of the JNF actually belong to Israel’s Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael — Jewish National Fund, which after long legal battles has been allowed to use the prestigious brand-name for fund-raising in local Jewish communities, while most of the donations go to independent projects in Israel.

The JNF board controls a massive cash fund filled by selling public land (“JNF land”) to the public. The fund allows them to distribute funding for lucrative projects — like parks, boulevards and buildings — to local councils headed by connected and influential politicians. The JNF gains twice from this funding. It purchases valuable political backing and protection and at the same time invests in PR. The Channel 10 investigation revealed how under Stenzler, JNF’s PR budget quadrupled.

But why does Stenzler, a former mayor of the Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim, need so much political goodwill and public recognition? He’s a survivor of an old system whereby his party, the historical Israeli Labor movement, controlled the national institutions. As Labor’s power shrunk, JNF remained the only stronghold. The parties in power, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Bayit Yehudi, which already took over the rest of the apparatus, would like control of JNF as well. The only way Stenzler can hold on is by proving that the Laborite from Givatayim can come up with the goods.

Stenzler has been joined by another survivor — his co-chairman, Eli Aflalo of the now near-extinct Kadima party. Aflalo also needs political backing after crossing his former party leader Tzipi Livni and supporting Shaul Mofaz in the primaries. As justice minister, Livni has embarked on a campaign to force the JNF to accept the supervision and scrutiny of the state comptroller, and the JNF chiefs accuse her of doing so just to get back at Aflalo. They needn’t worry — Livni has scant chance of getting a majority in the government to approve her plan. Last Sunday, she lost a vote on the plan by the cabinet legislative committee. Most of the other ministers are fine with the JNF continuing unsupervised.

Stenzler and Aflalo’s days at the helm of the organization are probably numbered though. Their positions are coveted by coalition members. Still, the political establishment will forever be in Stenzler’s debt for the way in which he transformed the JNF from a gray and boring sinecure to an attractive green platform, creatively using its budget to accrue unprecedented political credit.

Wandering, aimless Jews

An old Jerusalem joke goes like this: A lion escaped from the Biblical Zoo and hid in the courtyard of the National Institutions building on King George Street. Every day, it ate a Jewish Agency official. Nobody noticed until it ate the lady who distributes tea. This joke is unfair to the Agency, which has recently undergone drastic cutbacks and layoffs. It’s hard today to call it wasteful. Some even say it’s grown too small, but there was no choice. Relying throughout its history on the largesse of Diaspora philanthropy worked as long as Israel had a failing economy. But with the rise of “startup nation” at the same time as the global financial crisis, it became much more difficult to continue convincing Jewish donors, even the most ardent Zionists, to bankroll the Agency.

The Agency tried everything. It agreed to strict governance rules in the hope that the American federations would come to its rescue. It hired Chairman Sharansky’s friend Misha Galperin for an obscene sum to head a new fund-raising operation in the hope he would act as a rainmaker. Keren Hayesod — UIA (another of the national institutions run by Netanyahu’s confidante ex-minister Modi Zandberg), which is in charge of fund-raising in other parts of the world, beefed up its efforts to attract new money from oligarchs. Nothing worked. Donations were down, and the funds that continued to come in were greatly eroded due to the weak U.S. dollar.

Donors were once willing to put their money in a general fund, believing the money would be put to good Zionist use. That willingness is disappearing, and much in the way Hadassah failed to continue funding its hospitals in Jerusalem, the Agency has been forced to come to terms with the fact that the new Jewish donor, like casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, prefers to donate to young and sexy pet projects, like Taglit-Birthright, which offers free tours of Israel to young Jews and has become much more prominent than the Agency in recent years.

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