We'll return to the sad story of the WZO's leadership's abandonment of all reason with regard to the Survivor community in a moment. First, some relevant history.
Time and again American Jewry have had to explain away the activities of the World Zionist Organization and, most often, with its Settlement Division, with regard to, e.g., activities in Judea and Samaria for which fingers have wrongfully pointed to the federations as "responsible." Back in the 90s the leaders of the then UJA and CJF had had enough. At a meeting in New York City which I attended, the American leadership -- Corky Goodman, Marvin Lender, Alex Grass, z'l, Richie Pearlstone (I recall that I was invited only because Joel Tauber could not be there), confronted the top Zionist leadership, including Amb. Sallai Meridor, then the Chair of the Executive of JAFI and Chair of the WZO, after much passionate and often angry debate, with the demand that the WZO role in JAFI end with a financial settlement to be negotiated. As the meeting approached a climax, Sallai asked for a time-out and a sidebar -- just Sallai and the America leaders. At that meeting Sallai made a very personal plea premised on his grave concern that if this were the deal, he, a personal friend of so many of us but, in particular, Corky Goodman, would be voted out of office at the next WZO Zionist Congress. He asked that the decision be deferred until after that event. The Americans agreed.
Never would we get so close again. But some of us tried.
A few years later, I participated in a series of meetings in Jerusalem led by Richie Pearlstone and Jay Sarver, then the JAFI Board and Budget and Finance Committee Chairs respectively. We developed a plan for the elimination of the worst parts of the JAFI-WZO interface -- the political nonsense, the nexus of WZO Chair with the JAFI Chair of the Executive, the essential veto power that WZO held over many things JAFI wished to do -- with a preservation of the best: the engagement with the religious streams and Zionist Movements. Meeting with JFNA leaders at the time -- notably Joe Kanfer, then the JFNA Chair, but also others -- there emerged a tremendous momentum for change. We felt that one place to start -- perhaps, the best place -- would be to gain the support of the American Religious Movement leadership of both JAFI and WZO. A meeting was convened with the Movements' lay and Rabbinic leaders serving on the Jewish Agency Board. Kanfer, Pearlstone, et al., met and planned the approach -- providing reassurance to the religious leaders that their allocated positions, Committee Co-Chairmanships, and perquisites would be preserved, even enhanced and that JAFI allocations would be assured, among other things. A meeting was convened in one of those windowless rooms in the bowels of the Jerusalem Inbal Hotel. No sooner than we were all seated the Movement leaders present attacked even the idea of a discussion of change to the WZO-JAFI relationship -- they had no idea what the concept was -- they were vehement. It was depressing to the extreme to realize that the religious movements were more concerned with money, jobs, positions and status before any and everything else. Before the JAFI/JFNA leaders could respond, Kanfer said, effectively -- "never mind" and he just walked out. The meeting ended and with that ended another opportunity for change.
But a few years later, in 2009, history would then record a "negotiation" unworthy of the name. It marked a dismal low point for the JAFI and the federation system. During Richie Pearlstone's JAFI Chairmanship he appointed the wonderful philanthropist, Max Fisher's, z'l, daughter, Jane Sherman, she of Detroit and Palm Beach and Max, to Chair a negotiation with WZO over the future of the JAFI-WZO relationship. Jane would choose to work with Cleveland's CEO (and the immediate past JFNA CEO), Steve Hoffman. Interjecting himself into the process was Kanfer, the JFNA Board Chair, who had evidence no love for JAFI. WZO was represented by a group of its apparachniks -- experienced Israeli bureaucrats and minor politicos. When Sherman announced a "deal" to the Jewish Agency Executive, it was accompanied by a fiat: "you" (that was anyone at JAFI -- the party which would be most affected by the outcome)..."you can't change a word in this deal or it will fall apart." When the "deal" was published and pending a vote, the document was discovered to be rife with typos, grammatical and substantive errors of the worst kind. Steve Hoffman stood with Jane -- there were to be no changes. (BTW, there were technical changes made in the deal but only those to which WZO agreed.) The ultimate agreement, presented as a major "compromise" on both sides, was not that -- it was almost a total capitulation of JAFI leadership to the demands of WZO leadership.
Here's what JAFI received: the JAFI Chair of the Executive would no longer serve simultaneously as the Chair of the WZO. That was all. What did the WZO receive? In addition to controlling the Chair of WZO, it was paid tens of millions of dollars in cash, payments that would end a few years after the "deal," equities and real estate (including a Class "C" office building in Tel Aviv that will someday be worth a king's ransom) not to go away...no, not that...but to continue all that it was doing before. While most of JAFI's American leaders believed that the end product of the negotiations would include governance changes that drastically reduced the WZO roles in JAFI governance, there were none. And, after electing Avraham "Duvdev" Duvdevani as WZO Chair, WZO decided to use the JFNA tens of millions and tens of millions more from the Government of Israel to go into direct competition with the Jewish Agency in every conceivable area of its interest. As part of the consideration, the WZO, which for years had held up any and every JAFI demand that the stock in the Jewish Colonial Trust (the "JCT"), the very same equity that WZO holds hostage today, received those shares from the Agency -- Pearlstone had concluded that inasmuch as the WZO would never acquiesce to the sale of the shares, it might as well have them.
The venal episode reported by the superb and thoughtful Dan Brown in ejewishphilanthropy asserted that funds due those of our People most in need, the Israeli Holocaust community were being withheld at the direction of "Duvdev,", should be the final of many final WZO straws. (See, for example,http://forward.com/news/israel/215543/zionist-groups-vote-could-bare-israels-secret-fund/ or http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.656008 as examples) In the meantime, questions have been raised about the extraordinary directors fees being paid to Israeli political hangers-on for no apparent service. It is long past time for a formal and final divorce of WZO from the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Yet, WZO's positions within JAFI governance are almost a poison pill to any and all efforts at substantive reform to which WZO leaders object. JAFI's governance structure in 2016 is of another time, it is nothing more than anachronistic. For the JAFI Assembly WZO has 50% of the members; the same percentage in the JAFI Board and the JAFI Executive. Almost every Board Committee other than Budget has one WZO Co-Chair. The balance of the governance is divided between American Jewry with 30% and Keren Ha-Yesod, the Jewish communities worldwide 20%. BUT...but...for reasons unclear the WZO controls 50% of KH as well. Attempts over the years to revise these voting and membership percentages were met with the same contempt and disdain as have the efforts to free up funds for the Israeli Survivor community that the WZO refuses with a rationale like the following:
“JCT was founded by Herzl for the realization and financing of Zionist activity and therefore we oppose the liquidation of its funds… this would damage the World Zionist Organization, who is doing the holy work world-wide combating against surging Anti-Semitism. We say to the Company for the Return of Holocaust Property (Hashava): – first you should distribute the money in your coffers before asking us.”WZO appears to consider itself an entity beyond the reach of the actions of the Knesset and asserts that it has no fiduciary duties to anything other than its own agenda.
Further, friends, the WZO, contributing nothing tangible to JAFI other than some fine people, and now operating in open competition with JAFI, exercises control, visible and invisible, of JAFI itself. Yes, there was a time when WZO's governance involvement was important...say in 1948. But, I would welcome any reader's input on just what rationalizes WZO's governance control of JAFI today.
I don't know about you, but I can think of little if anything worse than using this most beleaguered, needy Survivor population as pawns, as hostages, to a selfish, political fight. But that's what WZO does; and their leaders do so with no shame at all. When Dan Brown wrote that WZO "...failed the decency test," he was understating the ugliness of what it has done here.
So, what might be done? It would take a real negotiation with WZO to reform its involvement in and control of the Jewish Agency. I know that a team of Chuck Ratner, JFNA's David Brown and Richie Pearlstone would be a formidable negotiating team staffed by an Eric Goldstein or Jay Sanderson. But any such negotiation would have to recognize that whereas in decades past American influence within JAFI was exponentially stronger, given that allocations, down from historic highs even at the outset of the merger than it is today, when they are down almost $100,000,000, the leverage is still there to do something that will preserve the work of worldwide Zionist and religious movements without the politicization and negativity that comes with WZO engagement today.
* I have referred to "American Jewry" throughout this Post. That is because the Canadian federations are represented within Keren Ha'Yesod within JAFI's governance,