Crisis in WZO Over Allegations of Favoritism Toward Orthodox Projects

The kipah seruga (knitted skullcap) is often associated with REligious Zionists
The kipah seruga (knitted skullcap) is often associated with Religious Zionists

By Judy Maltz

Concerned that the World Zionist Organization gives funding preference to projects affiliated with Orthodox Judaism, in apparent violation of its charter and at their expense, the progressive Jewish movements are demanding intervention from the organization’s own court.

Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements on the WZO executive board tell Haaretz they will be requesting an injunction against the transfer of millions of shekels to various projects in the United States, South America and Europe associated with the Orthodox movement. They are being joined in the petition by representatives of two Israeli political parties from the center-left opposition, Meretz and the Zionist Union.

WZO is an international Zionist organization whose executive board is comprised of representatives of all the main Zionist movements and religious streams of Judaism. The breakdown of seats among them is determined by elections held every few years. Financed mainly by the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet), WZO funds projects in Israel and the Diaspora that promote Jewish identity and Zionism.

The funding was approved at a meeting Tuesday night, which members representing the progressive Jewish and Zionist movements claim was sabotaged.

The request for an injunction against the transfer of funding to Orthodox-sponsored projects overseas will be submitted to the Zionist Supreme Court, which adjudicates all disputes involving organizations that are part of the Zionist movement, including WZO.

This would be the first time the Zionist Supreme Court has ever been petitioned on a matter related to WZO finance committee decisions.

“We will not allow WZO to become a funnel for transferring funds for the Orthodox parties,” said Yaron Shavit, head of the Arzenu faction on the executive board. (Arzenu represents the international Reform movement and is one of the largest factions in WZO.)

“We want the court to force the chairman of WZO to comply with the organization’s charter and to respect the autonomy of the finance committee and its chairman,” Shavit said.

In a statement issued through a spokeswoman, WZO Chairman Avraham Duvdevani said that the vote on the budgetary transfer held in the finance committee was in complete compliance with organization rules.

The finance committee was scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to allocate 25 million shekels (around $6 million) to various WZO projects, beyond the amount approved in its annual budget.

A large part of the amount has been earmarked for projects that bring young Israeli envoys to Jewish day schools and communities abroad. In dispute was 11.5 million shekels contributed by the Ministry of Religious Services. Its minister, David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has been openly hostile to the non-Orthodox movements.

The WZO charter specifies that funding from external sources, including government ministries, cannot be tied to specific projects. Nevertheless, the Religious Services Ministry said it would only approve the allocation if the money went to three handpicked projects whose stated purpose was to “strengthen Jewish identity”: one in Miami, one in Europe and one in South America.

Finance committee co-chairman Doron Argov asked Duvdevani to delay voting on the ministry’s disbursement until it could be determined whether the earmarking violated WZO regulations. Other committee members also expressed objections to the fact that the money was being designated exclusively for projects affiliated with Orthodox organizations, in violation of the WZO charter, which requires that funding be allocated equally among the various streams of Judaism.

Duvdevani, a representative of the religious Zionist movement, insisted that the committee vote on the funding in its entirety, without breaking out the disbursement from the Religious Services Ministry. In response, Argov, who represents the Zionist Union, called off the meeting. After he and his supporters stormed out, Duvdevani took over, and in the absence of members of the opposition, passed the budget by a huge majority.

The non-Orthodox factions and the opposition political parties hold only a minority of seats on the committee, so even if they had been in attendance, the outcome would most likely have been the same.

Through a spokeswoman, Duvdevani said the committee vote passed by a large majority, with 18 out of 22 members raising their hands in favor. He said Argov “decided not to attend for his own reasons.” Duvdevani added that the budget approved will “benefit Jews in Israel and abroad – of all the different streams.”

In a letter sent to finance committee members on Wednesday, Argov said he did not intend to serve as a rubber stamp for Duvdevani.

“As chairman of the committee, I see it as my responsibility and our responsibility to maintain its independence,” he wrote. Since he had never officially called the meeting to order, he said that as far as he was concerned, it had never been held, and therefore, any vote that had taken place was invalid.

The clash at the WZO comes just days after the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs announced a major funding initiative to boost Jewish identity on American college campuses. Two of the key partners in the project – Chabad and Olami – are Orthodox organizations.

“What is happening at the WZO is part of this bigger plan to export Israel’s Orthodox monopoly to America,” said a member of the finance committee who asked that he not be identified.

In a phone conversation from his home in Toronto, Rabbi Larry Englander, the chair of Arzenu, expressed outrage over how the finance committee vote was handled.

“The WZO was set up as a parliament for the entire Jewish people,” Englander said.

“It was meant to serve religious Jews, secular Jews and all shades in between. But Duvdevani wants to put greater emphasis on Orthodoxy, and his particular brand of it. What he did may be legal, but it’s not ethical and is contrary to Jewish and Zionist values.”