Top American Charity Embroiled in Debate Over Gaza

Passions Flare at Jewish Agency As Staff Balks at Disengagement

By Nathaniel Popper

Published July 02, 2004, issue of July 02, 2004.

America’s central network of Jewish charities has become embroiled in the ideological debate over Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan after the Israeli prime minister asked United Jewish Communities’ biggest beneficiary, the Jewish Agency for Israel, to help relocate settlers evacuated from Gaza.

With key backing from American delegates, the Jewish Agency’s board of governors voted last Wednesday in Jerusalem to approve a proposal to build new communities in the Negev desert and Galilee that could house displaced settlers from Gaza.

But the vote came only after a heated debate, with hardliners demanding that the agency stay out of “partisan” Israeli disputes. In a compromise bid, the final resolution omitted any mention of the disengagement plan that the new settlements are meant to assist.

Nonetheless, disputes remain that still could threaten the plan’s future. Numerous sources close to the massive, quasi-governmental agency confirmed that a staff revolt had broken out within the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency’s parent body, which plays a central role in agency development plans for the Negev. WZO development experts reportedly are refusing to take part in a plan that would contribute to disengagement from Gaza and the dismantling of existing settlements.

Sharon’s media adviser, Raanan Gissin, downplayed the potential impact of the revolt. “There are a few disgruntled workers who don’t want to do the job,” Gissin told the Forward. “That is not the problem of the government. The Jewish Agency will probably fire anyone who won’t do their job.”

But the close ties between the Jewish Agency and the WZO make such firings problematic and, some say, unlikely. One of the 12 Israeli representatives on the 24-member Jewish Agency executive committee, Avraham Duvdevani, is the chairman of the WZO settlement division and a key opponent of dismantling Gaza settlements. At an executive committee meeting that preceded the June 23 board meeting, Duvdevani gave an emotional speech — the only speech delivered in Hebrew that day, participants said — arguing against any explicit or even implicit support for the government’s disengagement plan. Duvdevani’s vote was only one of 19 cast, but as chairman of the settlement division his opposition could have broader ramifications.

The debate pointed to some of the problems that Sharon may have in implementing the disengagement. The plan enjoys broad public support, but some of the people who have the most technical expertise in dealing with settlements — such as Duvdevani — also have the greatest misgivings about it.

The Jewish Agency is a social-service body with a $400 million annual budget, funded mainly by federated Jewish philanthropies around the world. Its governing institutions, including the executive committee and the 120-member board, are divided evenly between representatives of Diaspora philanthropies and leaders of the WZO and its affiliates.

The WZO was founded in 1897 in Switzerland as a worldwide membership organization whose goal was to win Jewish statehood. The Jewish Agency was set up in 1922 as the organization’s Jerusalem-based operations arm. The two were formally separated in 1971, and the agency was reconstituted as a partnership between the WZO and the Diaspora funders.

Under the 1971 separation, the WZO took charge of settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, while the Jewish Agency carried on rural development projects inside Israel proper. In recent years the agency has concentrated mainly on immigration and Diaspora Jewish education, and it shut down its rural settlement department in 1994.

The new Jewish Agency plan for development in the Negev and Galilee comes as mass immigration from the former Soviet Union winds down. The agency’s director general, Giora Romm, who reportedly has not yet finalized plans, is overseeing the project. The WZO is seen as a likely subcontractor in the final plan.

“The agency has a chance to go back to one of its original missions,” said Robert Goldberg, a member of the agency’s executive committee and chairman of the board of United Jewish Communities, the agency’s main funding source. “We need more Jews in those areas, and the Jewish Agency is the perfect one to be in the lead.”

The move toward developing the Negev and Galilee has won support in the past from all ideological factions within the agency, but the linking of Negev construction with Gaza disengagement proved unexpectedly controversial last week. Duvdevani was one of three members of the 24-member executive committee who voted against the resolution.

“We have never done any uprooting,” said one of Duvdevani’s allies, Amos Hermon, an Israeli Likud leader who chairs the WZO’s education department. “We were never connected to any internal political issues. This is not our business.”

However, right-wing opposition was only one side of the debate. Before the executives met, some American donors expressed skepticism about spending Diaspora donations to assist settlers in the territories, even in their relocation, Israeli sources said. That concern was dispelled after Sharon assured the agency that settler relocation would be fully funded by the Israeli government. Consequently, during last week’s meetings, American communal leaders were among the strongest backers of the proposal that the agency build the new homes.

The resolution approved by the agency’s executive committee Wednesday morning was explicitly linked to Sharon’s disengagement plan. After discussion moved to the larger board of governors that afternoon, however, all references to Gaza disengagement were stripped from the document, making it appear as though the agency had come upon the plan without any immediate provocation.

“We did not want to be drawn into the political discussions about disengagement from Gaza,” said Stephen Hoffman, CEO of United Jewish Communities. “That’s not our role as the agency or as federations.”

Nonetheless, “there was a sense around the table that this was a very important, historical decision,” said Gad Ben-Ari, director general of United Israel Appeal, which coordinates Diaspora fund-raising campaigns. “We’re not dealing with a theoretical issue that may or may not take place. It’s a new reality.”

Sharon himself addressed delegates to the Jewish Agency meetings on Sunday night, calling on them explicitly to help him in relocating settlers. “I know that this is a great challenge for you, and am confident you too attribute great importance to its realization,” he said.

Agency officials were quick to note that the WZO was a separate body whose internal disputes were unrelated to the Jewish Agency’s work.

“It was the [WZO’s] settlement division that was responsible for developing settlements in Judea and Samaria,” said the agency’s treasurer, Shai Hermesh. “That organization has nothing to do with the Jewish Agency.”

But the new situation — in which the WZO has been tasked with Jewish Agency development work — underscores the often-nebulous division between the two. Hermesh himself is treasurer not only of the Jewish Agency, but also of the WZO, while Sallai Meridor is chairman of both organizations.

Hermesh, a Negev kibbutz member, is one of the most ardent supporters of developing the region. A Jewish Agency task force has been examining the topic for several years, but Sharon’s disengagement plan could provide the impetus to move the work forward. Sharon has stated his intention to relocate all settlers from Gaza before December 2005. “You have to make those plans now if they want the option,” UJC’s Hoffman said.

On Wednesday, the board of governors declined to consider a separate proposal to focus agency fund raising on the new settlements. Right-wing members noted that while Sharon’s government has approved the disengagement plan, it has not yet approved specific plans for relocating settlers. But Romm is going ahead with his planning, and a vote on the complete strategic plan is worked out for the agency’s October assembly.



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