Identity, Israel, Mishegas, Politics, Religion

A Primer on the World Zionist Organization: No more than an arena for dividing the spoils

Ron Skolnik is the Executive Director of Meretz USA, a 501c3 educational nonprofit affiliated with the World Union of Meretz, whose Israeli affiliate is the Meretz-Yachad party holding six three seats in the Knesset. Originally written for Israel Horizons.
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
— George Orwell, “1984”, Part 1, Chapter 1

Consider this a primer in the underside of Zionist politics. At first blush, not the most riveting topic in the world. But don’t reach for the delete key just yet – unless you really aren’t concerned about how decisions get decided, deals get dealt, and money gets divvied up. And, to tell you the truth, it’s an incredible Orwellian tale, if you take the time to navigate the labyrinth.
You see, unbeknownst to most Jewish Americans, even those active in the Zionist world, the democratic nature of the Zionist movement is under severe attack – in the name of democracy and Zionism!
For those who don’t have the patience, here’s a three-bullet executive summary:

  • The World Zionist Organization (WZO) has a hand in policy and controls millions of dollars.
  • The World Zionist Organization is controlled by its 500+ elected delegates.
  • The large Zionist organizations with the lion’s share of delegates want to consolidate control of the WZO by dismantling the electoral process.

Now to fill in the details:  The World Zionist Organization is the international umbrella and operational arm of the Zionist movement. Its various departments support Zionist education, the cultivation of young leadership, and settlement (link in Hebrew only) throughout Israel – unfortunately including the West Bank and Golan Heights.
According to the latest reports, the WZO holds approximately $85 million in assets and works off a budget of $12-$14 million dollars a year. Just as important, the WZO has a 50% share in the running of the Jewish Agency, whose annual budget is close to $300 million.
The WZO is made up of, and controlled by, delegates from countries around the world. The American delegation, making up 29% of the WZO, is second in size only to that of Israel, at 39%.
According to its constitution, the WZO is a democratic body: “The delegates [to the WZO] shall be elected in each electoral area (country) in accordance with a method consistent with generally accepted democratic principles” (Article 19); the American Zionist delegation has indeed been elected in this manner for many years, and Meretz USA has been an active participant in the electoral process.
But some seem to feel that Zionist democracy has outlived its usefulness or no longer serves their interests. At the June 2009 meeting of the “Zionist General Council” (a.k.a. the “Va’ad HaPo’el”) – the highest decision-making body between the quadrennial meetings of the WZO Congress – a coalition of large political groupings (I’ll call them the “status quo powers”) managed to engineer a constitutional amendment that undermined the very definition of democracy: The need to ask the support of the electorate at regular, guaranteed intervals.
Under this anti-democratic amendment, a 75% majority in any country would be allowed to declare “extenuating circumstances,” cancel elections in that country, and re-appoint the delegates who had been chosen in the previous election – in this case, in 2006.
Fortunately, this amendment was overturned several weeks ago by the “Zionist Supreme Court” (yes, there is such a thing), which termed it “null and void” since it “contradict[s] … accepted democratic principles.”
Uncowed and undaunted, the large Zionist organizations – who have little to gain by new elections, but much to lose – chose a new tack. But get ready, because here it gets complicated.
Seizing upon an article in the WZO constitution that allows elections to be skipped if only a single slate of candidates is brought forward, the “status quo powers” rammed a decision through the American Zionist Movement (AZM) that prohibits the submission of candidate lists by Zionist organizations – like Meretz USA. Instead, it obliges all the organizations to become part of a “stand still agreement” in which each organization receives the same number of delegates as were elected in 2006. That is, even if the organizations – like Meretz USA – don’t agree and do wish to run.
Through the wonders of legal alchemy, the AZM has established the new legal principle of “non-consensual consent,” while simultaneously reenacting the 75% clause that had just been declared unconstitutional! (Meretz USA and others have submitted an appeal.)
Truly a work of Orwellian proportions.
No American, of course, wishes to be perceived as being undemocratic. So the “status quo powers” have offered a number of arguments to explain why democracy needs to take a vacation:
“Too expensive,” said representatives of some large, well-funded organizations.
“Elections won’t change anything, anyway,” argued others, who, with a straight face, pleaded their adherence to democratic principles.
Most tragic-comic was the courageous Zionist who maintained that elections should be waived to protect the Zionist movement. After all, reasoned the delegate, how would it look if we held elections and almost no one went to vote?
No one can read the minds of the “status quo” delegates, and no one can say for sure what their real political motivations are. But according to “Mercaz,” the Zionist organization representing the Conservative movement, it’s all about the money.
“In order to advance the goals of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in Israel and around the world,” reads a recent column in the Conservative movement magazine, “it is imperative for Conservative Jews to support MERCAZ in the upcoming elections. To date, Conservative Jewry’s involvement in the WZO under the MERCAZ banner has netted the movement’s institutions … more than $30 million in allocations.”
This candid appraisal of the system is in no way meant to denigrate Conservative Judaism, nor that movement’s legitimate and praiseworthy struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. Nor should it be understood that the Conservative movement’s use of the WZO is any more pecuniary than that of the Orthodox or Reform religious streams, or many of the other Zionist organizations that are represented there.
But with the American Jewish community becoming increasingly estranged from organized Zionism (the number of votes in AZM elections has been in freefall), it is imperative that the Zionist movement rid itself of the culture of backroom deals and allocations if it is to recapture the imagination of the broader public.
The enormous success of J Street over the past 18 months has demonstrated that there are many ostensibly unaffiliated American Jews who are thirsting to engage with Israel. If the American Zionist Movement seeks to connect with the people it wishes to represent, from all political persuasions, it must first re-embrace democracy. It needs to endorse elections as a tool for inclusion, involvement and legitimacy.
And it needs to help purify Zionist politics of the perception that the WZO is no more than an arena for dividing the spoils.

26 thoughts on “A Primer on the World Zionist Organization: No more than an arena for dividing the spoils

  1. What a phenominal joke. And a waste. I can respect it when friends I respect like chillulWho talk about the points and ideals of Zionism. But the reality is so far from the ideal. The whole structure is offensive. Israel as an independent country cannot be part-ruled by Diaspora Jews. The denominations should not be exploiting a governance body to protect their funding.
    I have a proposal: dismantle the WZO and dedicate all of it’s revenues to face-to-face peacemaking initiatives like the international community funded in Ireland. Pay to repatriate all the settlers in fatty houses within Israel proper. Take a few million Israelis out of poverty. Imagine what else we could do with $85 million dollars in assets, $14 million a year, and a 50% control of the Jewish Agency.

  2. I thought WZO was a thing of the past. It looks like the duties of the WZO can be transfered to the Israeli government and NGOs. Ultimately, the Israeli government is responsible for what happens in Israel and should not be undermined by a quasi-governmental organization not held solely accountable by Israeli citizens. Some operations of the WZO can be transfered to NGOs and those NGOs will be responsible for their own funding.

  3. If the American Zionist Movement
    This is an oxymoron. Zioinsts live in Israel.
    Imagine what else we could do with $85 million dollars in assets, $14 million a year, and a 50% control of the Jewish Agency.
    Agreed. Put that money to taking people in Israel out of poverty, and put it to investing in infrastructure, education, and enivronmental initiatives in Israel.

  4. Before everybody starts yelling, I understand and sympathize withDAMW’s point, it just seems a bit strange that tens of millions of dollars are going to organizations of Diaspora Zionists, instead of toward helping those who live in Israel.

  5. At what point does the fulfillment of the Zionist dream stop requiring ongoing begging from Jews and others who do not live in Israel?

  6. helping those who live in Israel.
    Israel is not a charity case. It has a substantial tax base, and a large budget, and diaspora Jews should stop giving it money and let it get along on its own.

  7. Jonathan and David: Zionists are members of the WZO. Just like Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Reform Jews are members of the URJ.

  8. Oh, and the WZO is not responsible for “settlement in Israel including…the west bank etc.”. It is responsible for settlement in Israel (hardly) *and* the west bank etc., where most of the money goes.

  9. I have strong feelings that Israel should stand on its own two feet and not rely on all this money from abroad. The Zionist organizations, the WZO, the JNF, the JAFI, etc, did a great job in building up the country so the point where it now can be self-sufficient.
    And yet, Zionism has always been a project of world Jewry, the idea being that we all benefit – across the diaspora, whether you’re a political Zionist or a cultural Zionist, or not a Zionist at all – from a living Jewish homeland.
    Although, maybe the idea that the diaspora has a role in nurturing Israel’s success and (please god) improvement be shifted from inspiring support of the Zionist organizations to inspiring support of individual causes in Israel, dependent on the particular diaspora Zionist’s passions.

  10. Israel is not a charity case. It has a substantial tax base, and a large budget, and diaspora Jews should stop giving it money and let it get along on its own
    Fine. I can’t disagree that diaspora Jews should let Israel go along its way. ((I’m not one of these Jewschool commentators who think that it’s anti-democratic to say that American Jews shouldn’t have a key role in shaping Israeli policy.))
    But if, say, the Cleveland Jewish community wanted to donate $5 million to an Israeli NGO that feeds the poor, you would say to reject the money?

  11. “Zionism has always been a project of world Jewry”
    even when world Jewry rejected it, out of hand, before all the years of political manipulation and alleged cohort with nazis?

  12. even when world Jewry rejected it, out of hand, before all the years of political manipulation and alleged cohort with nazis?
    I think it’s a little more likely that people saw that the Zionists were accomplishing something worthwhile and possible, and decided that golus shouldn’t be the only option for the Jewish people.
    And of course, you’re free to disagree with their decision, but I think you should give the majority of the post-WW2 Jewish community a little more credit.

  13. CW: the project is done. Now get back to investing money in your own community’s projects.
    Amit: It depends on what the project was.
    If it was just to set up a Jewish country that could run its own affairs, then sure.
    If the project was to build an free Jewish society that exemplified the teachings of the Prophets (like the Declaration of Independence claims), then the project is for sure not done yet.

  14. “Israel is not a charity case. It has a substantial tax base, and a large budget, and diaspora Jews should stop giving it money and let it get along on its own”
    I agree and disagree with this. Israel does have a substantial tax base, etc. etc….but having lived there for a few years and worked in an Israeli NGO which was supported almost entirely by Diaspora Jews, I think it’s very important that people give to fund NGOs.
    The level of accountability within the government is nowhere near the level it needs to be. Such a huge amount of the resources are sucked into the settlement project and military defense that it is all but impossible to track where the money is going and how to get things better.
    Not all organizations are equal, but without the funding of many diaspora jews vital Israeli institutions that have done tremendous amounts to support the environment (SPNI, Adam Teva v’Din, etc….) and Human Rights (ACRI, Moked, etc….) these democratic institutions which preserve Israel and help to provide a light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t exist.
    Is WZO the answer? Maybe not…but maybe with different leaders (or leadership structure), they could be.

  15. Israel is not a charity case. It has a substantial tax base, and a large budget, and diaspora Jews should stop giving it money and let it get along on its own.
    Amit, I agree that diaspora Jews should stop funding Israel (and that the United States should stop funding Israel), but whenever you make this assertion (which I think you’ve done more than once) I always wonder with what authority you do it. I feel fairly confident in saying that that medinat Israel hopes very much that the US (and the diaspora orgs) will not withdraw funding, since Israel benefits tremendously from the money it receives from chutz la’aretz.
    Again, I agree with your first point. It’s just that when you make this assertion, I tend to hear something like “stupid non-Israelis! When will they realize that we don’t want their money?” Which, of course, is emphatically not what the govt of Israel seems to actually think – it very much does want the money.

  16. THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER
    I concur with the critics protesting the dismantling of the democratic process within the World Zionist Organization – whatever the “practical” reasons.
    There is considerable confusion between the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organizations. Jewish Agency budget = 300 Million$ (going down all the time – mainly for Aliya and education) and the WZO (14 million $ – mainly for educational purposes).
    The central question in the discussion on ZIONISM is the misunderstanding of ITS TWO DISTINCT ROOTS. One root is POLITICAL ZIONISM (Herzl). Its finite aim was to achieve a state for the Jews. That aim has been achieved. Today, the political challenges facing Israel are the responsibility of the Government of Israel. Agreed, we need pro-Israel lobbies as never before but political Zionism is History. Yes, Diaspora Jews can voice their opinions but they do not have a vote. The RED LINE is Israel’s right to exist as a JEWISH STATE.
    The other root of Zionism is CULTURAL ZIONISM (Achad Ha’Am). This view maintains that Israel as a JEWISH STATE exists in order to ensure the continued CREATIVE survival of the Jewish people wherever they may dwell. (Achad Ha’Am never assumed that all Jews would make Aliya). That aim is an infinite aim. It concerns Jews everywhere (if they choose to be concerned – which many do not).
    What does it mean for the Jewish people – “a Jewish state”. Indeed there are differences of opinion. The world wide (Diaspora and Israel) forum for that discussion is the World Zionist Organization. Is it functioning properly – my answer is “no”. Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater – my answer is “no”.

  17. The other root of Zionism is CULTURAL ZIONISM (Achad Ha’Am). This view maintains that Israel as a JEWISH STATE exists in order to ensure the continued CREATIVE survival of the Jewish people wherever they may dwell. (Achad Ha’Am never assumed that all Jews would make Aliya). That aim is an infinite aim. It concerns Jews everywhere (if they choose to be concerned – which many do not).
    We can see that the Jewish state does the exact opposite. Judaism is becoming an empty shell for Israel activism more than ever before. Better – for Ahad Haam’s purposes – to dismantle the Jewish state, and keep the Universities and other institutions of learning in Palestine under someone else’s rule.

  18. “Take a few million Israelis out of poverty. Imagine what else we could do with $85 million dollars in assets, $14 million a year, and a 50% control of the Jewish Agency.
    —Kung Fu Jew · January 22nd, 2010 at 1:43 pm”

    How ’bout that? With $85 million we could give 1 million Israelis $85 each. Sure it sounds small, but keep in mind that’s about 300 shekels. There’s a start out of poverty.

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