The World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency Struggle to Find Meaning

Nowhere are the fissures of the Jewish world more apparent than in early summer Jerusalem. For here, on the one-hand, we see the energy accompanying the first wave of Birthright Israel, teen youth program, and 20-something summer visitors – arriving by the tens of thousands – to experience all that Israel has to offer.

And at the other end, the [mostly] greying and powerful professional and lay leaders of the world’s largest and most visible Jewish organizations on their annual summer pilgrimage. Unfortunately, rarely do the two meet, let alone sit and speak with each other.

This is the beginning of a particularly busy two weeks with the opening this afternoon of the World Zionist Congress, followed next week by the Assembly, and the Board of Governors meetings of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Both organizations, like so many in the Jewish world, are undergoing change. Both, as you will read, will be making significant decisions that go the heart of their very existence. Both, like others – including the Jewish Federations of North America – are trying to figure out how to connect to young Jews. Both are fighting to stay relevant in today’s world.

Let’s look first at the World Zionist Organization (WZO).

It is somewhat ironic that in the year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Theordore Herzl, the WZO is so terribly adrift. As to the Congress itself, where elections had to be postponed due to a cash shortage, the importance of the organization has fallen so greatly over the past four years, that no-one is quite sure what it stands for or who it represents. Former MK Rabbi Michael Melchoir expresses it best, “no one cares anymore about the WZO. Besides the people who are attending, I regret to say that I don’t think anyone in the Jewish world even knows about the congress.”

Today, the WZO has an annual budget of only $12 million, a number the organization claims does not leave it room to accomplish much. Other than a handful of dedicated lay and professional leaders, the only ones who seem interested are the politicos who continue to milk the organization for all they can. At the top of the list is Shas, the Sephardi haredi party who has recently become a part of the organization. This week they will be introducing a resolution to amend the Jerusalem Program, the formal platform of the WZO, which speaks of the need to work toward establishing a society “according to the vision of the prophets of Israel.” with the wording “according to the Torah”. They further propose that the wording referring to the Jewish state “marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people” be eliminated. With a stated goal to lessen the proportional representation in the organization of Diaspora Zionist movements and the various religious streams, the proposals are seen as a frontal attack on the non-Orthodox movements and pluralistic organizations that are a considerable voice in the Zionist world.

Also on the agenda is the election of a new chair of the executive of WZO, a position that has been open since changes in the Jewish Agency’s governance procedures enacted last year [when Natan Sharansky assumed a similar position in that organization]. As of this writing, the name that internal politicking is discussing is Avraham (Duv Duv) Duvdevani, representing Mizrachi, a religious Zionist party. If this happens, the WZO will become even more marginalized than it already is and the world Zionist movement will continue its free-fall to oblivion.

Where are our Diaspora leaders while all this is taking place? Basically, asleep at the switch. When might they wake-up? While we heard faint stirrings in the past couple of days, it will probably not be until Shas takes their new found power to the Jewish Agency Board and proposes to amend Sharansky’s Identity programs with the words, “according to Torah” and remove “mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people” from the agenda of the Jewish Agency.

According to Bill Hess, president of the American Zionist Movement, “The future of the Zionist movement is mostly dependent on the ability of the Israeli political parties to see beyond their limited interests and involve world Jewry in their activities in a meaningful way.”

Don’t hold your breath.

If you think all the controversial decisions will be limited to the WZO, just wait until next week’s Jewish Agency’s meetings get underway. For while only Shas is trying to drag us all back to medieval times, the issues facing the Jewish Agency are no less important.

Beginning prior to Natan Sharansky’s election last June as chair of the Executive of JAFI, Richie Pearlstone, JAFI’s Board chair, initiated a process to update the strategic plan. Driven, in part, by reduced income from the North American federation system, JAFI has been on a cost-cutting spree for several years. Without a realignment of mission, further reductions will be difficult to achieve.

For most of the past year, internal meetings have taken place. Sharansky has personally been proactive in messaging his concept of “Identity”, which will play a major focus in JAFI’s new world outlook. The professional staff has initiated the process of thinking about how the organizational will look and function.

We’re still a week away, but as of this writing, here – a bit cut and dry – are some of the issues that will come before the Board for discussion and approval:

1. A new message statement will be proposed,

“The Jewish Agency for Israel connects Jews throughout the world with their people, heritage and homeland, and inspires and empowers them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.”

2. Based on this message, the new strategic plan aims to focus on activities where JAFI offers unique services and with added value in the areas where it is already engaged. The broad outlines of the plan are:

  • Facilitating aliyah and a smooth transition in Israel;
  • Promoting Israel experiences in particular for youth and young adults;
  • Bringing Israel to Diaspora communities through shlichim and educational programs;
  • Fostering partnerships with funders, organizations and others;
  • Promoting social activism in Israel to connect young Jews to Israel and to each other;
  • Developing programs to strengthen individual and collective aspects of Jewish identity in Israel and abroad;
  • Facilitating Israel/Diaspora joint efforts by young people to engage in Tikun Olam;
  • Working with populations at risk with increased focus on Jewish/Zionist values and identity among young Israelis.

3. It is anticipated that there will be major organizational changes related to the approval, including establishing a new FRD Department to be headquartered in New York, with world-wide responsibilities for fundraising and communications. This new department is to be totally independent of the Jewish Agency, reporting only to it’s own board of directors.

5. This new department is expected to require a larger investment than had previously been budgeted. A loan from the capital fund will fund the initial expenses and it is expected that over time the organization will repay the loan which will not be charged to the operating budget.

So, what does all this mean; what does it signal for the future.

First and foremost, is the decision to establish this global center in New York, and all the ramifications involved. Coupled with a beefing-up of the FRD staffs of both the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and World ORT, it heralds the decreasing influence of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), through the United Israel Appeal, as a facilitator of global allocations. All three organizations (JAFI, JDC, ORT) are already engaged in a public feud on how the federation pie will be split, highlighting – at least for now – the Jewish Federation system’s inability to maintain a public display of unity. What does all this competition mean to JFNA’s constituent organizations and grantees?

Keren Hayesod (KH) fundraising, which has been productive in a positive direction concurrent to the decline in federation allocations, may see the move from Jerusalem to New York as a particularly negative message. The decision to name the restructured legal entity the Fund for the Jewish Agency in North America is likely to further alienate the non-North American world.

Speaking of the board, what exactly does it mean that this new global operations center will report only to its own board? Who will now hold the decision making power for JAFI’s global actions? Who controls the budget? Perhaps an independent U.S. board worked with the current model, but this is being touted as a global center with global responsibilities and authority. What messages does this send to JAFI’s worldwide partners.

The relocation to New York also means the organization will be competing with a host of other significant players for media placement – loosing the powerful Jerusalem “top of the mind message”, byline and time advantage. How will this play in Australia, Europe and Israel itself?

How big is the New York gamble? I am a proponent of ‘spending money to make money’, but is borrowing money to fundraise a good idea. What are the implications for JAFI’s finances if this move fails?

While many professional and lay leaders, including McKinsey and Company as facilitators, have put a great deal of effort into developing this updated plan, the entire process has been top-down and from within. Input was not sought from the broader community of individuals JAFI hopes to engage through these changes, including the younger demographic they must reach out to.

And, while we are speaking about a younger demographic, it seems the Global Forum for Emerging Leaders has stalled. Launched with great fanfare last October to recruit young leadership, this second attempt in the past few years has disintegrated, with only token representation – and no target programming – scheduled at the upcoming meetings. Regardless of how the Jewish Agency updates mission, without a serious and sustained approach to bringing in a younger group of leaders, all will be for naught. The sooner that JAFI, and they are far from being alone in this regard, internalizes that 1950’s style board make-up is history, the better they will be positioned to meet the challenges of the future.

When they convene, the Board will be “wowed” with a plan presentation, the likes of which they have never before witnessed. It is likely that hall-way concessions will be made, and the Agency’s revised direction will be approved. In October, the first budget reflecting these changes will be presented and the new and improved Jewish Agency will be off and running. And a great many people will be hoping for the best.

Stick around; the next twelve months will be quite interesting.

Dan Brown, the founder of eJewish Philanthropy, is a long-time observer of the Jewish world.