Some of the biggest names in American Jewish philanthropy are calling for fundamental changes to the organization that helped found Israel.
The calls for reform came in a draft proposal that was circulated during a board of governors meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental organization devoted to Israeli immigration and social services. The proposal, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward, was drafted by a group of American philanthropists. Among them are Charles Bronfman and Cleveland banker Robert Goldberg, former chairman of the coordinating body for American Jewish federations, United Jewish Communities
The Jewish Agency has long been the sister agency of the World Zionist Organization, which helped found Israel. The philanthropists are calling for a full separation between the two organizations and a minimizing of the role that the Israeli government has played in the Jewish Agency.
The Jewish Agency is recognized in Israel and around the world as the primary vehicle for Jewish support of Israel. Its support, however, has been eroding for decades, in both Israel and the United States, and the voices of big-time donors could represent a serious threat to the organization.
“The stakes are high,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “Will the Jewish Agency remain a central force in shaping the identity of Israeli society, or will it be one marginal player among many others?” JFN is an independent association of major Jewish philanthropists.
The Jewish Agency originated as the Jerusalem operating office of the WZO, the international body founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl to work for a Jewish national home. Under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, the agency served as the de facto government of the Jewish residents in pre-independence Palestine, and after Israeli independence in 1948, it was reorganized as a not-for-profit in charge of immigration, regional development and social services.
The WZO and the Jewish Agency officially separated in 1971, but the WZO still appoints half the members of the Jewish Agency’s board, shares top leadership positions with the Jewish Agency and is largely funded by the agency.
The officers of the WZO are selected by the World Zionist Congress, which convenes every four years, with delegates elected by Diaspora Jewish organizations and Israeli political parties. The WZO’s power and prestige have diminished in the years since Israeli independence, as the organization has focused on international Jewish and Zionist education and, more controversially, settlement in Israel’s occupied territory. The WZO came under fire two years ago when an Israeli government report stated that it had been used to circumvent Israeli laws against building new settlements in the West Bank.
Since the 1930s, most of the Jewish Agency’s budget has come in allocations from local Jewish charity federations and community funds around the world, but the allocations have been declining steadily for a quarter-century. Between 2003 and 2008, allocations from American federations will have dropped to a projected $138 million from $143 million. The agency’s total annual budget is $314 million.
This year, the agency also lost its monopoly on aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Israel, when the Israeli government decided to fund two private initiatives sponsoring aliyah outside the agency’s purview. Israel’s interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, further rattled the agency heads at last week’s meeting by proposing a series of new restrictions on Jewish immigration to Israel, aimed at reducing the influx of non-Jews who have Jewish relatives but little loyalty. Sheetrit is a former Jewish Agency treasurer, and he urged the agency to focus its resources on assisting those already in Israel rather than seeking out more newcomers.
American donors have attempted for decades to fully separate the WZO from the Jewish Agency, but the latest attempt comes at a time when philanthropists have been demanding greater control over how their money is spent. The purpose of the new push, according to some of the donors, is to cleanse the Jewish Agency of politics.
“When political parties are involved, decisions are made for political reasons,” Goldberg said.
The draft proposal by the donor group would remove WZO representatives from the agency’s board, separate the WZO’s leadership from the Jewish Agency’s and give the Diaspora Jewish federations three-quarters of the seats on the new board, putting donors firmly in control.
The proposal also arises out of recent concern in America about financial oversight and transparency at not-for-profits. If the philanthropists have their way, the Jewish Agency would have a new compliance committee and a series of governance reforms, including new policies on whistleblowers and conflicts of interest, plus a Code of Ethics.
The proposal represents a threat to the grass-roots Jewish organizations that run the WZO elections, and the leaders of these organizations are pushing back.
“Sometimes politics means fraud and abuse, but it also means different ideological perspectives,” said Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, which is the Zionist wing of the Reform movement.
Davids and other Zionist leaders argue that the WZO’s status as an elected body means that it represents the interests of all Jews, not just wealthy donors. They warn that cutting off the WZO from the Jewish Agency would eliminate a crucial forum for Diaspora Jews to make themselves heard in Israeli politics.
Despite the strong rhetoric, the donors’ demands may not be as radical as they appear. Observers of the Jewish Agency said that several of the changes demanded by the donors either have been implemented or are in progress. Jay Sarver, a member of the Jewish Agency board, pointed out that even the WZO’s power on the board is not what it once was, as several elected WZO seats have been ceded to prominent Israeli philanthropists.
“There’s a misperception about the politicization of the Jewish Agency,” Richard Wexler said. Wexler is chairman of the United Israel Appeal, the UJC subsidiary that funds the Jewish Agency. “With a better understanding on the part of some of the philanthropists, that may go away,” he said.