JAFI: The Dust is Settling; Now What Needs to Be Done?

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) Assembly and the Board of Governors’ meetings just ended and the dust is beginning to settle. Although it was reported that there were sweeping changes to JAFI’s relationship to the Israeli political system this was somewhat exaggerated and I sense there was more playing with smoke and mirrors than actual renovations to rehabilitate an ailing institution. This holds true also for the final approval of Natan Sharansky’s appointment as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency.

In 1929, when the Jewish Agency for Israel was created it was, for all intents and purposes, the administrative arm of the World Zionist Organization to implement the Balfour Declaration and establish the “Homeland for the Jewish People in Palestine.” With successive changes over decades it was formally reconstituted in 1971 and its governance was composed of three partner organizations. The Executive, the Board of Governors, and the Assembly, the largest governing body, all consisted of the same proportional representation. The three constituent organizations are the World Zionist Organization, WZO, (50%), the United Jewish Communities, UJC, (30%) and the Keren Hayesod, KH, (20%).

Each of the constituents represents different groupings of interested players. For example, the WZO, consists of individual members who represent various Zionist ideologies and political parties. The UJC is composed of representatives from the UJC and the member Federations and KH represents its donors from Jewish communities around the world. Although there have been changes in the procedures for nominating and appointing the Chairperson of the Executive of the Jewish Agency the question is what continues to be the role of the WZO and Israeli political parties in JAFI’s governance processes?

My reading of the “Amendments to the Reconstitution Agreement on JAFI Governance” passed this week, and the structure set up in the World Zionist Organization – Jewish Agency (Status) Law (passed by the Knesset November 24, 1952 and amended on December 23, 1975), is that nothing has basically changed. Although there has been a change in the process employed for nominating and electing the Chairperson of the JAFI Executive through a formal Nominating Committee as defined by the by-laws instead of a process of “advise and consent” with the political structure, there is really no difference.

I say this because the proportional representation on the newly created nominating committee is the same as all the governance bodies of JAFI (50%; 30% and 20%) as decided in 1971. The Zionist organizations and the Israeli political system continue to have a strong voice and influence on the decision making of JAFI as witnessed by the fact that there was one candidate for the Chairmanship this week. JAFI needs to be recreated to meet the needs of the Jewish people in the 21st Century and not through a simplified cosmetic process.

The World Zionist Organization – Jewish Agency (Status) Law needs to be amended to reflect both the nature of the Jewish people in the world today and the reality of the modern Jewish State.  It is time to redefine the formulation of the governing process and to create a truly world wide voluntary organization. Not one that is “…grounded in the American system of volunteerism…” as Rabbi Dick Hirsch pointed out in a recent article, but one that truly represents the changing nature of our reality as a Jewish people and our present needs and challenges.

The Jewish Agency’s greatest asset is the fact that there are Jews from all over the world and Israel that not only raise funds but also allocate those funds to meet the pressing and emerging needs of our people. It is now time for us to release ourselves from the albatross of an archaic institution that cries out for reorganization. JAFI needs to evolve into an instrument of the Jewish people that can provide leadership and services where and when needed.

When called upon to research, study and develop responses to problems then the new “Jewish Agency” has to be able to use the available resources. It would outsource services that can be provided effectively and efficiently implemented immediately. It is more important to focus on what needs to be done rather than who needs to do it. Creative and innovative departments like the Department of Jewish Zionist Education, for example, should become an independent non-profit organization and do not need to be functional arms of JAFI.

When cleaning a house we do not only get rid of the dirt but we also make room for the new additions to our home. The challenge facing JAFI is to become a “Foundation for the Jewish People” and provide the innovative leadership utilizing the full potential resources of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world. It will be a terrible waste if the historic institutional commitments prevent JAFI from filling its own destiny to lead the Jewish people and respond to our needs in the future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.