New Israeli regime sparks concerns in Jewish Agency

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JERUSALEM — Israel's change in leadership has infiltrated the highly political world of the Jewish Agency, which is holding its annual meeting here this week.

With the recent election of Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, next year's re-election of Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg, a left-wing Laborite, is no longer assured by an agency that seeks and benefits from a close relationship to the prime minister.

Also, the reported agreement by Netanyahu to assign Natan Sharansky, the new minister of industry and trade, to head a ministerial committee on immigration, absorption and the diaspora, has some in the agency worried.

Sharansky is a member of the agency's Board of Governors, but he has made clear his frustration with the agency and his desire to curtail its mandate and transfer some of its responsibility for aliyah (immigration) to the government.

Agency insiders say that would unravel a sacred partnership between world Jewry and Israel and is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Coalition agreements between Netanyahu and Israel's three religious parties, which have been viewed by some as a threat to religious pluralism, also have surfaced on the meeting's agenda.

A resolution slated to be acted upon this week urges the government to refrain from amending or passing legislation that would "estrange major parts of the Jewish people from their linkage to the nation, to their culture and the Jewish state."

At the opening of the Jewish Agency assembly, Netanyahu indirectly spoke about religious pluralism, calling for tolerance between secular and religious Jews.

"We are one people," he said, explicitly mentioning the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements.

The mere mention of the three streams by Netanyahu was "very encouraging" for Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

But, he added, "I would hope [Netanyahu] realizes that the enactment of legislation in accordance with the coalition agreements" with the religious parties "would have a devastating effect on Israel-diaspora relations."

Another issue looming over the assembly is the future of the World Zionist Organization, which is now independent but whose budget — roughly $30 million — is funded by the Jewish Agency.

The Jewish Agency is the single largest recipient in Israel of funds raised by the annual campaign of Jewish federations and the United Jewish Appeal. Annual contributions are about $230 million, a little less than half of the agency's $450 million annual budget.

About half of the agency budget goes toward immigration and absorption.

Prior to the assembly, the WZO's Zionist General Council voted for a series of significant structural reforms.

But Burg told the assembly delegates in his keynote address that he would like to see the WZO combined with the Jewish Agency into an entity he would call "Bayit," the Hebrew word for home and an acronym for "Israel-diaspora covenant." He has called on other world Jewish organizations to join this partnership.

He said the old distinctions between Zionists and non-Zionists that dictated the organization of the current structures of the Jewish Agency and the WZO are no longer relevant.

All Jewish forces must be mobilized to battle the common enemy of assimilation, he said.

"We must change the Zionist world in order to ensure the Jewish future and so that our children, in 15 or 20 years, will have an organizational instrument to maintain the Israel-diaspora dialogue," he said.

Last year, strapping Jewish Agency deficits attributed to flagging contributions from the diaspora forced the agency under Burg to adopt a radical five-year austerity plan to cut $500 million from the budget.

Burg's recovery plan depends upon a commitment of an additional $230 million from the diaspora over the five years, a sum that is far from assured.