Summer 2008

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Summer 2008

President's Column — Dr. Stephen S. Wolnek

As this newsletter goes to press, I am on my way to Israel for the thrice-annual meetings of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors. On the agenda is the $25 million deficit the Agency is facing. Some American Jewish philanthropists are using the current fiscal crisis as an opportunity to call for major changes in the Jewish Agency. They are demanding that JAFI declare its independence from the World Zionist Organization, both financially and organizationally.

A little Zionist history: the World Zionist Organization was established in 1897, following the First Zionist Congress convened by Theodore Herzl. For the first 30 years, the Zionists had the dual responsibility of establishing the policies and funding the programs necessary to achieve this goal. However, as the needs of building the Jewish national home grew, the WZO created in 1929 the Jewish Agency, reaching out to non-Zionist community leaders to share in this effort.

This arrangement became an official 50-50 partnership following the '67 Six Day War. Since then, JAFI and its $300 million annual budget has been governed jointly by the leaders of the WZO, as elected by the World Zionist Congress, and the representatives of the Jewish federations, as designated by the United Jewish Communities in the United States and Keren HaYesod in the rest of the world. Now, as mentioned, some community representatives want to sever the ties between the Agency and the WZO. They contend that the WZO, as a political organization, has no place getting funding from JAFI or sharing in its decision-making process.

Let there be no mistake: the WZO is a political organization. The basic units in the Zionist movement are Zionist political parties, both the traditional ones like the Labor, Likud and Mizrachi (Orthodox) and the newer ones like ARZA (Reform) and MERCAZ (Conservative). And implicit in any political organization are ideological conflict, on the one hand, and patronage, on the other.

Therefore, I can sympathize with those who are calling for the change. At a time when the Agency is facing a 10% deficit, the nearly $8 million that the WZO receives annually can't be glossed over lightly. On the other hand, while politics can be messy, I am convinced that the WZO is, and must remain, an integral element in the governance of JAFI.

First of all, there is the historical connection between the two. Without the WZO, there would not have been a Jewish Agency nor a State of Israel; and while Israel is now 60 years old, there are still important Zionist tasks and duties left to perform both within Israel and throughout the Jewish world.

Moreover, if JAFI is to be a real partnership among the Jewish people today, we have to realize that 40% of all Jews today live in Israel. Their lives in Israel earn them the right to participate in this partnership. The vehicle for enabling this partnership is the WZO, since when Israelis vote in the Knesset elections they are also electing their Zionist representatives to the World Zionist Congress.

Further, since the agenda of the Jewish Agency is the improvement of the quality of Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, the questions of what, how and when to improve are fundamentally political issues. Zionist political parties represent different answers to these difficult issues, and each position has a right to make its case. We should not duck away from ideological conflict as we so often do here in our American Jewish community but rather embrace it.

Finally, as Conservative Jews, the way that the federation system is structured, there is no place for the Conservative Movement to have any formal or direct influence on the use of the donations that come from our members. The only vehicle for us is through the WZO. It was for this reason that MERCAZ was established 30 years ago as a Zionist organization. The annual $1.7 million JAFI "Stream funding" and the now $500,000 WZO allocation for spiritual services in the Diaspora are direct results of our movement's Zionist political lobbying.

The current system has been in place for 80 years and has proven itself. The tasks at hand require that it remain in place.


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