In 1929, when the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) was created it was, in effect, the administrative arm of the World Zionist Organization to implement the 1919 Balfour Declaration and establish the "Homeland for the Jewish People in Palestine."
JAFI’s initial activities focused on creating additional communal settlements (kibbutzim) and cooperative settlements (moshavim) throughout the land of Israel. It facilitated Jews coming to Israel and provided specific assistance to Jews from countries of distress. Before the end of World War II it worked in covert ways to by-pass the British authorities, who were interested in restricting the number of Jews in Palestine prior to the founding of the State of Israel. Once Israel was established in 1948, the Jewish Agency focused on aiding the fledgling state in areas where the government could not fully respond. However, the political parties represented in the Knesset also played a role in the governance of JAFI through the WZO.
JAFI continued to support existing settlements and to initiate the founding of new ones. Since there was no government ministry dealing with new immigrants, the JAFI Department of Immigration and Absorption provided these much needed services.
The young state benefited from the support of diaspora fundraising campaigns as contributions were received through the United Jewish Appeal (the predecessor of the United Jewish Communities) in the United States, and the Keren Hayesod in the rest of the Jewish world. For decades thousands of Jewish contributors were able to feel part of the building of the Jewish state through these organizations, and the programs implemented by JAFI were understood to be meeting the crucial needs of the Jewish people in Israel.
JAFI has been governed by those who decide on the services to be provided and who then allocate the available funds for implementing the programs.
Following successive changes over the years it was formally reconstituted in 1971 and its governance was composed of three partner organizations: World Zionist Organization, WZO, (50 percent), the United Jewish Communities, UJC, (30 percent) and the Keren Hayesod, KH, (20 percent).
The governance of JAFI was structured and managed by three entities: The Executive, the Board of Governors, and the Assembly, the largest governing body, all consisted of the proportional representation of the partners.
As Israeli society matured, questions began to be raised about the purpose and function of JAFI both in Israel and around the world. Those raising funds were more critical than the members of the WZO who were the institutional Zionists and were invested in maintaining the formal organizational structure and their political connections to the Zionist political parties.
In the late 1980s it became apparent that there was no longer a need to invest funds in the founding or maintenance of settlements. If they were no longer financial viable they should not continue to exist, and if they were able to function as successful business enterprises they did not need supplementary funds.
Following the immigration of Jews from Arab countries, and the former Soviet Union, and the end of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, there were very few Jews who are in countries of distress and cannot freely immigrate to Israel. At the present time the only two Jewish communities that continue to live in difficult situations are the Jews in Cuba and Iran.
During the last 10 years there have been drastic reductions in the overseas allocations of the Federations of North America through UJC to JAFI and this has been a reflection of the questioning of the need for JAFI’s continued existence as an instrument of the Zionist movement.
The key issue today is whether the organizational structure that was so necessary when Jews were in countries of distress is needed today. Should JAFI be promoting aliyah from the "free countries" in the west or can independent non-profits do a better job? Is a large organization necessary to deal with Jewish Zionist education or can this be accomplished by a non-profit organization that can operate more effectively and efficiently?
In a standoff, the community leadership continues to raise these questions and the institutional Zionists argue for the continued existence of an out-dated organizational structure.
Following JAFI’s Assembly and the Board of Governors’ meetings in late June, the dust is beginning to settle. Although it was reported that there were sweeping changes to JAFI’s relationship to the Israeli political system, this was somewhat exaggerated and I sense there was more playing with smoke and mirrors than actual renovations to rehabilitate an ailing institution.
This also holds true for the final approval of Natan Sharansky’s appointment as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency.
Each of the constituents represents different groupings of interested players. For example, the WZO, consists of individual members who represent various Zionist ideologies and political parties. The UJC is composed of representatives from the member Federations, and KH represents its donors from Jewish communities around the world. Although there have been changes in the procedures for nominating and appointing the Chairperson of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, the question is what continues to be the role of the WZO and Israeli political parties in JAFI’s governance processes.
In essence, nothing has basically changed. The proportional representation on the newly created nominating committee is the same as all the governance bodies of JAFI (50 percent; 30 percent and 20 percent) as decided in 1971.
The Zionist organizations and the Israeli political system continue to have a strong voice and influence on the decision making of JAFI, as witnessed by the fact that there was one candidate for the Chairmanship last month. JAFI needs to be recreated to meet the needs of the Jewish people in the 21st century and not through a simplified cosmetic process.
The World Zionist Organization – Jewish Agency (Status) Law needs to be amended to reflect both the nature of the Jewish people in the world today and the reality of the modern Jewish State. It is time to redefine the formulation of the governing process and to create a truly world wide voluntary organization. Not one that is "grounded in the American system of volunteerism," as Rabbi Dick Hirsh pointed out in a recent article, but one that truly represents the changing nature of our reality as a Jewish people and our present needs and challenges.
The Jewish Agency’s greatest asset is the fact that there are Jews from all over the world and Israel that not only raise funds but also allocate those funds to meet the pressing and emerging needs of our people. It is now time for us to release ourselves from the albatross of an archaic institution that cries out for reorganization. JAFI needs to evolve into an instrument of the Jewish people that can provide leadership and services where and when needed.
The major change is that Israel’s voluntary sector is now more developed, and there are organized, functioning non-profit organizations that have strengthened Israel’s social fabric. They did not exist in the past and JAFI filled a very important void that was quasi-governmental. Today, though, JAFI should separate entirely from the Israeli government and evolve into an independent international non-profit registered in Israel. (This requires a change in the law since JAFI’s present functions are legislated.)
The new JAFI would then become a think tank and foundation that would focus on responding to challenges faced by the Jewish people in Israel and around the Jewish world.
Services would be outsourced to other non-profit organizations, such as Nefesh B’Nefesh, which has refined and improved the aliyah process for new immigrants from Western countries.
Creative and innovative departments like the Department of Jewish Zionist Education should become independent non-profit organizations and do not need to be functional arms of JAFI.
When cleaning house we do not only get rid of the dirt but we also make room for the new additions to our home. The challenge facing JAFI is to become a "Foundation for the Jewish People" and provide the innovative leadership utilizing the full potential resources of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world. It will be a terrible waste if historic institutional commitments prevent JAFI from filling its own destiny to lead the Jewish people and respond to our needs in the future.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow.