The 35th World Zionist Congress is going to take place in Jerusalem, June 19th–June 22nd, 2006. Does it really matter a jot? Not one bit.
The Zionist Organization was set up by the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 to represent the ideals and goals of Zionism and to try to establish a Jewish homeland. Its governing body set up the Jewish Agency, which was in effect the government of Israel in waiting.
In 1948 when the State of Israel was founded and a democratically elected government was installed, the full panoply of bureaucratic departments came into being. You would have thought that the Jewish Agency, the Zionist Organization (now renamed The World Zionist Organization), would quietly disappear. Why wouldn’t the State take over their functions?
But in the true tradition of Eastern European bureaucracy, the Jewish Agency and the WZO continued to exist, supposedly to ensure the integration of Israeli Zionism with World Zionism. At the time many people thought it ridiculous. Indeed the first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, argued that a Zionist was someone who came to live in Israel and anyone else was not.
And just as government portfolios were allocated according to political party votes, so too the Jewish Agency allocated portfolios according to political parties.
Why did one need an Israeli Government Department of Education plus a Jewish Agency Department of Education for the Diaspora, plus a Jewish Agency Religious Department of Torah Education for the Diaspora (because one couldn’t trust or wouldn’t work with the other) and a Department of Education in the World Zionist Organization? All with their buildings and offices and civil servants and cars and drivers and secretaries and tea ladies and doormen and place men and layabouts, all drawing salaries and pensions and travel expenses and very costly junkets around the Jewish world as perks of the job and compensation for spending so much time sitting behind desks and reading newspapers and drinking coffee and doing damn all. Some people argued that instead of unemployment benefits this at least gave the unemployable a sense of importance and value.
So in time honored fashion, instead of scrapping them, they tinkered. In 1952, the Knesset gave the Jewish Agency responsibility for aliya, immigration, absorption and settlement. Then in 1970, they changed the structure so that half the members of the expanded Jewish Agency were representatives of the WZO; 30 percent represent the UJC (U.S.); and 20 percent represent organizations affiliated with Keren HaYesod from the rest of the world. The Jewish Agency would deal with immigration from countries of persecution and the WZO would deal with immigration from affluent countries. In 1979 the WZO was given responsibility for Diaspora education and youth.
The Israel government may have all the talent and all the departments and embassies around the world to handle all this stuff, but for some reason we still need a Jewish Agency and the WZO. Boy with such an ingenious solution you wonder how any Jews ever won any Nobel Prizes. It’s a good job they don’t run the army that way.
So what are the WZO and the Jewish Agency in practice? Bloated, over-funded, cash cows. And everyone tries to milk them both as much as possible. Members of Diaspora communities sign up for membership of parties and these parties, according to their numbers, are allocated portfolios and money, mullah, dosh. As with all such party-based structures corruption was rife, numbers were massaged, people who had never heard of the WZO were simply added as members through their synagogue or some other organization that affiliated and then affiliated its members automatically. The pretence of democracy is an even bigger pretence than elsewhere. With recent changes, the Diaspora membership has shifted away from parties and more towards social, welfare and religious groupings. So America, and more specifically its secular and Reform blocks, have the votes to ensure that most of the money goes to their institutions.
The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel avoid the WZO like the plague. They relate to and negotiate with the government of the country they live in, not with an organization they see as a hangover from the ideological battles and secular anti-religion of the early days of Zionism. It is only the Centrist Orthodox who is scrambling around to salvage what they can.
As a student I was immensely grateful for all the free trips and useless conferences the Jewish Agency used to organize to justify its existence. If the price of a free trip to Israel was having to listen for hours to boring placemen pontificate, it was worth it. Though I used to get into trouble when I couldn’t stand it any more and started heckling or making chicken noises.
Later, as a headmaster, I experienced the Jewish Agency sending teachers to the Diaspora. This was a good idea in principle, except they were chosen according to political affiliation and personal favor. Usually the teachers were on junkets to enjoy themselves, pretty useless educationally. There were, of course, wonderful exceptions, few and far between.
So what the heck was the WZO for? Ask yourself what it is that keeps Diaspora Judaism alive? It is religion and education in its widest sense. But why send money to Israel to have them decide how and to whom to send what’s left of it back??
At this moment Diaspora Jewish organizations are desperately scraping around for people to affiliate to the WZO so that their votes can be used at the upcoming conference (when more millions will be wasted paying for useless delegates to come to Israel) to get their hands on WZO allocations.
Why do I think you shouldn’t join? Because by joining you are helping perpetuate a meaningless organization. Care about Israel? Support Israel. You’re a Zionist? Israel needs you. Make the country more efficient. You want money in Israel? Argue your case with the Government. You want money in the Diaspora? Raise it.
The argument goes that they’re going to throw money at the Diaspora anyway so why not get some of it. But by going through the WZO you are lending your name to corruption. Better give your affiliation fee directly to a charity of your choice rather than have it shrunk by leeches sucking most of it into their expense accounts.
The idealist will avoid tainted money. The purist will get involved directly with causes he or she cares about. The answer is to scrap the system not to perpetuate it.