The Zionist General Council Convenes

At 10:10 am this morning, Session XXXV/4 of the Zionist General Council was called to order. It was the beginning of a fast-changing day on the governance/Sharansky questions. And, all may well be different tomorrow morning.

One thing is certain, regardless of the various votes on Tuesday, this will not (as some think) be the end of the story. Nor will the conclusion be Thursday when the JAFI Board meeting adjourns [until October]. For what happens next week moves us from the prelude to the first, or perhaps second, chapter. Regardless of the outcome of the governance votes and the CEO election, this new story is in its infacy. It will play out over years. In the short-term, it will effect relationships within JAFI; between JAFI and the Government; between both of those and the Diaspora fundraising community. And perhaps, depending on the vision of the new CEO and Board Chair of UJC, on relations between that organization and the Israeli philanthropic and government worlds.

Rabbi Dick Hirsch, Chair of the Zionist General Council, opened the morning with a message complete with 20th Century Zionist history and a plea to retain the historic ties between JAFI and the World Zionist Organization. Rabbi Hirsch’s complete remarks follow.

Also today:

  • The WZO Executive approved a major land-swap between the Jewish Agency and the Israel Lands Authority. Here’s background to this change from The Jerusalem Post. update, Friday am: The Government has decided to place the legislation on hold. Any further action by the ZGC or JAFI is currently unnecessary.
  • MK Michael Melchoir, touted yesterday as Kadima’s candidate against Sharansky, claims he’s not running. The reality, maybe he’s not running.
  • As we wrote Tuesday, the Zionist General Council is expected to postpone adjournment tomorrow morning [with no vote] and reconvene on Tuesday, following whatever actions JAFI takes.
  • JAFI Board Chair Richie Pearlstone confirms in writing his comments to the Prime Minister earlier this week.
  • Natan Sharansky, knowing full well he still has a huge problem with parts of the Diaspora concerning his views on pluralism, already has a speech written setting out a new vision. It’s in his pocket, ready to deliver either before the vote, or as part of an acceptance speech.

It’s 6:45 pm in Jerusalem. This story could still go anywhere before people call it a night. In the meantime, here’s Rabbi Hirsch’s remarks:


JUNE 18, 2009

Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch

Chairman, Zionist General Council

We convened the last meeting of the Vaad Hapoel in November, 2008. At the time, the JAFI Task Force on Governance was already meeting. At the urging of the Presidium members, I announced that any Task Force recommendations which affected the relationship between the World Zionist Organization and its partners – the United Jewish Communities and Keren Hayesod – would be brought for approval before the Vaad Hapeol Hatzioni in June 2009.

After extended discussion, the Presidium has presented a resolution to the Vaad Hapoel Hatzioni which relates to the most controversial plank in the Task Force proposal. It states: “It is the explicit preference that neither the Chairperson of the Executive nor the Deputy Chairperson of the Executive should assume or continue an additional position of meaningful responsibility during his/her term of office.” The effect of this statement, if implemented, would be to separate the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Jewish Agency from their role as leaders of the World Zionist Organization.

The Presidium of the Zionist General Council has accepted the principles of the Governance proposal. However, they have urged that the parties work toward an agreement whereby the Chairman and Deputy Chairman continue to serve as the heads of both JAFI and the WZO.

In order to comprehend the issue, it is essential to rehearse the historical background. In 1929, the Zionists comprised only a small minority among world Jewry. Chaim Weizmann, then the President of the WZO, recognized the importance of mobilizing the support of the major Jewish leaders and philanthropists in the Diaspora. At that time, most of them defined themselves as non-Zionist. They were unwilling to accept Zionist ideology or to affiliate with a Zionist Organization. They did agree to support on a philanthropic basis those Jews who were willing to establish a Jewish homeland.

Therefore the Zionists and the non-Zionists established the Jewish Agency for Israel as a cooperative venture of world Jewry.

No sooner had JAFI been established than world Jewry was confronted by the traumatic events of the world-wide depression, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Shoah and the struggle to establish and strengthen the Jewish state. As a consequence the plans for the partnership between the Zionists and non-Zionists were never implemented. In effect during all the period until the Six Day War, the WZO and JAFI were the same organization. The Executive of the WZO acted on behalf of the Executive of JAFI.

During these years, Diaspora Jewry undertook as its major responsibility the raising of funds to support the effort of the Jewish state. However, after the Six Day War, the younger generation of world Jewish leadership resented the situation which some defined as “taxation without representation.” They considered themselves as Jewish leaders and not only fund raisers. Even though they did not necessarily affiliate with Zionist organizations, they considered themselves as Zionists in every sense of the word, and committed themselves to “Binyan Haaretz” the upbuilding of the Jewish state. So in 1971 a Reconstitution Agreement was signed, later ratified by Knesset legislation in 1976. The Diaspora leadership demanded and were given a legitimate constructive role in the formulation and implementation of policy. The Reconstitution Agreement and the new definition of responsibilities stimulated interpersonal and intra-institutional responsibilities which in turn lead to continuing changes.

The finest example was in the area of Jewish Zionist education. Originally, Jewish education and Zionist Youth activities were in the exclusive purview of the WZO. Both because the WZO leadership aspired to acquire greater funding and because Diaspora Jewish leadership recognized their responsibility for Jewish and Zionist education, responsibility was transferred to JAFI. Today, these programs are under the framework of JAFI’s Department of Jewish Zionist Education. JAFI’s education programs, with their distinctive approach to Israel becoming an inspiring campus for Jewish learning, demonstrate that Jewish education and Zionist education are inextricable even as Judaism and Zionism should be inextricable.

Why has the Zionist General Council called for continuing discussions on the role of the Chairman and Deputy Chairman?

The persons who serve as the key full-time leadership of an organization set the tone and the content of the organization’s mission. In many ways they also personify the organization’s message. They are responsible for formulating the policy issues and bringing them before the board. That is why in the American Jewish federation framework a major function of the lay board is to seek to engage top professionals. In recognition of this the top professional leaders are often given the title of President, reinforcing the significance of their role. In an international organization like JAFI, whose Board of Governors convenes only three times a year, the role of the chairman is even more critical.

We believe that the appointment of two separate heads will inevitably lead to conflict between the two leaders over issues, policies, programs and financing. This in turn would lead to institutional and ideological competitiveness and in all likelihood would exacerbate the existing differences between JAFI and the WZO.

Furthermore, the phrase “explicit preference” complicates the differences. Every time it will be necessary to select new Agency leadership, their status will be in question. It could even become the key factor in the selection process. If the persons selected for the leadership roles in JAFI insist on being the heads of the WZO as well as of JAFI, their selection could be vetoed. Moreover, since the WZO selects its leadership in a World Zionist Congress every four years, the candidates and the Congress itself will be confronted with uncertainty concerning the eligibility, the qualifications, and the definition of job descriptions for leading positions.

We have been told that the American Jewish leadership are motivated by their desire to eliminate “politics” in the selection of the top leadership of the Jewish Agency. This statement reflects a misunderstanding of the divergent cultural experiences and the divergent systems of governance between American Jewry and Israel. It is important to delineate these differences.

In the Diaspora communities, Jewish identity is based on voluntarism. Jewish identity is a question of personal choice. In that sense not only converts to Judaism may be designated as “Jews by choice,” but every person in the Diaspora is a “Jew by choice.” Leadership is chosen in a self-selecting process by which persons volunteer to give of their time, efforts and material resources. Rarely is there a contested election. In almost every instance a small nominating committee selects the leaders based on the criteria of who can best advance the interests of the various Jewish institutions.

In Israel, Jewish identity is not a private, but a public matter. A citizen in the Jewish State is obligated to serve in the army of the Jewish State, to pay taxes to the Jewish State, to participate in the culture and to use the Hebrew language of the Jewish State. The Jew in Israel is a “Jew by no-choice.” Jewish identity is a compulsory dimension of citizenship. Therefore, in contrast to the Diaspora, in the democratic Jewish State of Israel, leadership is selected through a process of public elections among political parties. The WZO, as the institution which was the precursor to the establishment of the State, is grounded in a political structure closely related to the state framework.

Therefore JAFI represents a distinctive blend of two divergent systems – the voluntarism of the Diaspora and the political process of Israel. That is why JAFI has been given special legal status with the Israel Government which is enshrined in Knesset legislation and perpetuated through the officially recognized Coordinating Committee of the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, which meets at least three times yearly. No other Jewish organization is privileged to enjoy such a status and such a relationship.

In my opinion, the head of JAFI-WZO should be considered one of the key positions in the Jewish world. The person selected should be of the highest caliber and possess the finest qualifications. Unfortunately, a major disability in both the voluntary system of the Diaspora and the political system of Israel is that the most qualified persons either do not want to serve or are not electable. Because we all aspire to the finest leadership we should seek creative ways of elevating the qualifications for leadership in both systems.

I understand the perspective of our American partners. It would be easier to have an organization grounded in the American system of voluntarism such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. However, to transform JAFI into another “Joint” would be to create another philanthropic organization which in many ways would and could duplicate the work of the Joint. That would eliminate or diminish the Israeli-WZO political dimension. Unfortunately, it would also eliminate the Israeli political process: the unique involvement, commitment, concern, and support of state institutions and the fruitful collaboration between the Government and the Jewish Agency.

What do we propose?

The Chairman of the Agency Executive should be the Chairman of both instrumentalities. He will have an expert Director General and administrative staff for implementation within the Agency. The Deputy Chairman, in addition ot his responsibilities within the Agency, and by approval and authorization of the Chairman on goals and policies, should be given primary responsibility for the WZO framework. This will enable the Chairman of the Executive to devote most of his energies to JAFI, while at the same time maintaining close working partnership relations with the WZO. It will offer the World Zionist Organization a leader who will devote major emphasis to advance its goals and programs.

A word to colleagues in the WZO who believe that separation of the chairmanships would be beneficial to the WZO or, as some have told me, “It would be the best thing that could happen to the WZO. We could be financially independent.”

My response to you, dear colleagues: No one today prevents us from raising money on our own. I have always contended that a Jewish organization which is totally dependent on outside funding sources, by definition, cannot be independent, and that a Jewish organization which does not raise more money next year than last year is not Jewish. To their credit, the UJC and Keren Hayesod raise their major funding from their own constituents. Where is the funding from our WZO constituent organizations? Until the organizations which comprise the membership of the WZO are willing to support the Zionist federations and the WZO from within their own financial resources, the WZO will be weak and ineffective.

Do not be under the illusion that the major problem for the WZO is lack of funding. Our challenge is to initiate creative and innovative programs which will inculcate Zionist Jewish values, knowledge, and commitments in lives of fellow Jews throughout the world. The first mandate is to establish constructive impactful programs. The money will follow.

A summary word to all leaders in JAFI and WZO: In the final analysis, reorganization of structure (governance) is not the major challenge confronting world Jewry. The reorganization of American Jewish institutions more than a decade ago has not proven to be the overwhelming success its leadership originally projected. Nor have the strategic plans adopted by JAFI and the WZO plan for restructuring elevated the status and the impact of our institutions among world Jewry. By now we should have learned that to change organizational structures without revivifying goals, programs and leadership is not necessarily a recipe for more effective creative achievement.

The world in which we live is undergoing kaleidoscopic change at an ever more rapid pace. The shocking failures in the world economy have dashed outmoded theories and made many institutions anachronistic. In the geo-political sphere even America, heretofore the greatest power in history, will have to learn to shift to a multi-polar world order in which China, India, the Far East and Middle East nations will demand an ever increasing share of political power and economic influence.

The changes in the world order have already impacted on every Jewish institution – synagogues, schools, communal institutions and higher institutions of Jewish learning. Assimilation, intermarriage, anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel continue to jeopardize Jewish survival.

The theme of this Zionist General Council is “Building the Zionist Movement in a Changing World.” In a changing world the Zionist movement must also change and change radically. I repeat. By definition, all three of our institutions the WZO-UJC-KH are an integral part of the Zionist movement

We require new creative approaches to meet the changing needs of tomorrow. Who should assume responsibility for giving new direction to world Jewry, if not our national institutions – JAFI-WZO? We have undertaken to preserve and nurture the precious interdependence between Israel and the Diaspora.

That which makes Israel a unique state is its inseparable identity with world Jewry, even as that which makes the Jewish People an Am Segula a “treasured people” is its inseparable relationship to the land and State of Israel.

That is the message, the mission, the mandate of our partnership for assuring that Am Yisrael Hai Ad B’li Dai” “The Jewish People lives and will continue to live forever.”