I know better than most that the federations' lay and professional leaders who should (and even do) know better, should be doing something/anything about the real crises in our organizational lives. Instead they are hiding behind narishkeit, or doing absolutely nothing when bold actions are called for. Case in point: the Jewish Agency for Israel and its continued control by a competitor, the World Zionist Organization.
A few weeks ago I wrote:
"You are such perceptive followers of this Blog. In response to the Post on WZO, one of you (G-d, I wish it hadn't been anonymously) pointed out the reality that as the WZO has decided to go into direct competition with the Jewish Agency, its continuing control (through its own voting rights and the voting control it maintains over Keren Ha'Yesod) of JAFI'S ultimate governance is a blatant conflict of interest that can only be resolved, in this writer's opinion, by the withdrawal by WZO from the governance and affairs of the Jewish Agency.Then one of you wrote:
And, where, if anywhere, might the impetus for such a movement arise? From JFNA? Maybe in another lifetime. From KH? Maybe in another lifetime (although KH leaders have, over time, demonstrated periodic evidence of thought and action that suggest that they might stand tall. Unfortunately, KH, even more so than JFNA/federations, has almost ceased, on a relative basis, its "free dollar" funding (undesignated) of the Jewish Agency.
All of this suggests a stasis that plays directly into the hands of the apparachniks at WZO. Exactly what they expected."
"You are absolutely correct about the conflict of interest in WZO involvement in the Jewish Agency governance (which, by the way, we brought upon ourselves).And who might lead this effort? Is there anyone....anyone at all? (The Sandler/Silverman duo once again exercised their leadership by writing WZO about its malfeasance in refusing to fund Holocaust survivor efforts. Not only did they not receive a response; they weren't even aware that they had not received a response when asked.) One might expect that someone might have the courage to resist the temptation to continue to do nothing; but there is nothing on the record as I write this today that suggests that anyone would want to be "bothered." So, I will..
It is going to get worse and worse and it will end badly unless we reorganize the Agency's governance structure as soon as possible.
Those who contribute should be in control - certainly not those that contribute nothing and attempt to undercut and compete with the organization.
This should be an urgent action item for JFNA and KH - for all who want to build the Jewish Agency rather than allow it to be destroyed by political manipulators. "
Charles Bronfman, whom I am certain, had he not grown disenchanted with JFNA and our system while he served as the inaugural Board Chair, would have led this effort. It was Charles who wrote: "“this might sound like the rumination of an old geezer, there is something to be said for having a few wrinkles and battle scars.” I think I qualify, at least by age, personality and battle scars, if nothing else.
After the Comment above, there flowed a literal torrent of Comments strongly weighted toward criticism of alleged secret, politicized actions of JAFI, points and counter-points with regard to the Jewish Agency's viability. When I was elected the Chair of the Chicago Federation, I explained to my predecessor, the inestimable Corky Goodman, that as I was still fully employed as a land use lawyer, I needed guidance as to where I should focus my efforts and time. I will never forget when Corky replied: "Whatever you do, just don't get involved with the Jewish Agency; it is too complex and impenetrable." I remembered that somewhat ironically a little over a decade later when Corky, who had assumed the Chairmanship of JAFI, asked me to join him in his effort to move the Jewish Agency through a series of critical reforms.
I joined that effort. At leadership's urging I served for years as the "Diaspora Co-Chair" of the JAFI Israel Department Committee. I had a wonderful partner, named by WZO, who, until the implementation of reforms, was a full-time "Co-Chair;" spending long days at the Sachnut, working on Israel Department matters. I found it impossible, from 7,000 miles away, to be an effective "partner" -- in fact, I was not a "partner" at all. Committee agendas were set without my input (except after the fact); meetings scheduled without my input. At one and the same time, thanks to fine pros within the reformed Department, we effected financial reforms, gained budget transparency and gave Committee members a sense that they were engaged on substance. This was true in other areas of JAFI's work -- thanks to a succession of professional Director Generals -- serious men (they were all men) of integrity, indefatigable and often frustrated by the Chairs of the Executive whom they served, all of whom, other than Natan Sharansky, serving simultaneously as the Chairs of the World Zionist Organization.
I recall three moments in time, during my service on the JAFI Board and Executive Committee, when we in Diaspora Jewry had the opportunity to effect real change within the Jewish Agency that would have eliminated the WZO from its direct control of the Agency. This first came in the late 90's at a meeting in New York City attended by JAFI, WZO and American Jewish leadership. Our demands for reform were on the table -- the WZO would be paid to go away, relinquishing its roles in JAFI governance. Ambassador Sallai Meridor, beloved to so many of us, passionate Zionist leader, asked that before the ultimate vote if he could meet with the American leadership in private. There Sallai pled with us on a very personal basis that any vote to divest WZO be delayed until after the upcoming Zionist Assembly -- that Assembly was still six months or more away. And we agreed. The meeting broke up and we never met again on this subject.
About five years later, when my friend, Richie Pearlstone was JAFI Chair, that Richie and Jay Sarver, then the JAFI Budget & Finance Chair, entered into discussions with Joe Kanfer and Kathy Manning on ridding the Agency of the WZO. Joe was particularly interested. A plan developed -- we would present WZO constituencies -- Rabbinic, Zionist Movement, Hadassah -- with a plan that would preserve their perquisites while eliminating the WZO "ownership" role. Everyone was on board, enthusiastically as I recall. We scheduled our first meeting with the Rabbinic Movement leadership. Meeting in one of this sub-sub basement conference rooms at the Inbal, the room was packed with the rabbinic leadership. Before we could explain the embryonic plan, and without knowing any of the particulars, the Rabbis, many our close friends, attacked us with a zeal they rarely displayed at JAFI meetings. Joe Kanfer quickly turned tail (he may have ended up arguing against the plan as well). This plan was never discussed again.
And, then, not much later, Pearlstone appointed Jane Sherman to lead a "negotiation" with WZO. Jane, an incredible philanthropist in her own right, joined with Cleveland's Steve Hoffman, in some form of "negotiations" with WZO, the results of which, to oversimplify, set JAFI and WZO up for where they are today -- WZO still controls close to 70% of the voting members on the JAFI Board, received millions in cash and stock (the "golden shares" of which have paid WZO millions in dividends, and allowed it to ignore pleas to assist Holocaust survivors) and gave up -- that was all -- the Chair of the JAFI Executive. WZO now not only continues to control a super-majority of seats on the JAFI Board but directly competes with the Jewish Agency...everywhere. It should be noted that when Sherman and Hoffman first presented this "settlement" to the Jewish Agency, Jane demanded it be approved "without amendment or the deal will fail." So much for "negotiation." (At first, even resisting correcting typos for fear of killing the "deal.")
And, so, here is where we are today. WZO in undeniable direct conflict of interest with the Jewish Agency yet still controlling the votes within JAFI. And no one doing anything at all about it.