Opinion |

Defund the WZO, Defund the JNF, Defund UIA, Defund JAFI

Packed with cronyism, slush funds and political corruption: Meet Zionism's 'national institutions' to see why every Zionist with a conscience should be agitating to close them down

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Theodore Herzl addresses the First Zionist Congress, forerunner of the World Zionist Organization, in Basel in 1897
Theodore Herzl addresses the First Zionist Congress, forerunner of the World Zionist Organization, in Basel in 1897Credit: פסטיבל הקולנוע הי
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

You may have been distracted in recent days and weeks by a minor political event in the United States, but the real action has been happening elsewhere. After a long and laborious process of elections around the world, the top jobs at the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the other “national institutes” under its umbrella have been dished out.

Okay, well it really isn’t that important. In fact, you can be excused for not having heard about it, and I’m pretty sure you don’t know the name of the faceless hacks who have been appointed. I’m pretty sure you have never heard of Yaakov Hagoel, the new chairman of the WZO, a job once occupied by the likes of Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion.

I’m not even sure how to describe Hagoel, a 49 year-old lawyer of little distinction other than being a mid-level Likud functionary. He’s irrelevant to your lives, and will stay so.

Hagoel is not the story. He’s merely an illustration of how irrelevant and pointless an organization the WZO has long ago become that anonymous time-servers can rise to its top office.

Like Hagoel, there’s a long list of similarly unknown men and a very few women who have been appointed to posts of chairpersons, vice-chairs and department heads of the WZO, its fundraising arm Keren Hayesod (UIA), it’s land-management agency the Jewish National Fund, and other ancillary organizations including the Jewish Agency (JAFI) whose chairman remains Isaac Herzog.

The 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, June 22, 2006.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Some of them will have a budget and employees under their control, some will have little authority but still receive a handsome salary, others will just get a title, and continue with their current day-jobs. You haven’t heard of most of them and you don’t need to.

The WZO, JNF, UIA and JAFI are all organizations which were founded in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century with one mission, establishing a Jewish homeland in the biblical homeland and running the affairs of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, until then.

Most of the powers and responsibilities of these organizations were assumed by the state organs of Israel upon its independence in 1948, but instead of closing the "national organizations" once their purpose had been fulfilled, they were kept alive for political convenience.

The Jewish Agency was put in charge of maintaining relations between Israel and the Diaspora and encouraging Jewish emigration, since the state trying to get citizens of other countries to leave could have been diplomatically awkward with their governments.

Keren Hayesod, or the United Israel Appeal, remained a useful pipeline for fundraising for Diaspora Jews that both finances the Jewish Agency and provides to this day a convenient slush-fund for the pet projects of well-connected Israeli politicians.

The JNF remained in control of wide swathes of state-owned lands, euphemistically called "JNF lands," so that any use of these lands could be reserved for Jews only and the income from its sale or lease went to yet another slush fund, part of which goes to the state treasury, and the rest reserved, like the UIA money for the politicians.

Eighteen new immigrants land at Ben Gurion airport on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight, in cooperation with the Ministry of Aliyah, The Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USACredit: Yonit Schiller

Part of the JNF income finances important forestry service and environmental projects which should be carried out by the government, but preserve the myth that it’s an essential organization.

The WZO is the coordinating body where jobs, sinecures and bureaucratic estates are doled out. It also contains the "settlement division," a secretive department which among other things allows right-wing Israeli governments to carry out and fund various projects in the West Bank settlements, far from prying eyes.

Unsurprisingly, corruption and cronyism and waste has been endemic in these organizations over the past 73 years, which has only endeared them to the politicians, of all the Jewish parties. Which is why none of them have ever campaigned for taking the obvious course of closing them down and transferring their roles and assets to the state, where the management can be properly overseen by the Knesset, the courts and the State Comptroller’s office.

Following the recent elections in Zionist federations around the world, and the Israeli Knesset elections, which determine also the balance of power in the WZO, a coalition of right-wing and religious parties were poised to take control of all the key positions. This provoked an outcry from the left-wing and centrist Zionist parties, the Reform and Conservative movements and a number of unaffiliated "legacy" organizations which were about to be shut out.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a Jewish National Fund event, 2019.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

It was barely reported on in the media, but the question of control over the WZO consumed last month precious hours of Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers who were supposed to be dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

In the end a compromise was found and a wall-to-wall coalition formed. Why did Likud and its allies compromise? Because it’s much easier to appoint a few more vice-chairmans, give them salaries and offices and cars, than to have to deal with an actual opposition who will start to ask awkward questions and heaven forbid question the necessity of these organizations.

Shamefully, the Jewish parties and religious movements notionally committed to liberal values were all happy to be bought off with the excuse of "maintaining control and influence."

We rarely ever hear about these organizations in the media beyond PR puff pieces. In recent years however, the JNF has drawn critical attention, mainly in Haaretz, but in other Israeli and international media as well, for the way it has worked together with settlers groups in east Jerusalem to evict Palestinian families from homes which were owned by Jews before 1948.

A demonstration against the eviction of the Sumreen family from their Silwan home, in front of the Jerusalem District Court, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The left-wing and progressive groups in the WZO claim they need to be there to try and stop these alliances. That’s using a worthy cause to justify a shady deal.

The continued existence of the WZO’s quasi-governmental network of agencies will always enable these kind of cooperations, along with all the rest of the political corruption, the disenfranchisement of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and perpetuate the money-based relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

None of this is good for Israel’s health as a democracy and a society, and for those who insist on presenting themselves as "Zionists," it’s also antithetical to what Zionism was supposed to be.

Instead of being complicit in this, liberal Jewish movements who actually support Israel should disassociate from the WZO, call for the defunding and dissolution of the "national institutions" and a transfer of their assets to the state, so all citizens can benefit from them and a healthier relationship with the Diaspora be built.

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