Israel Society & Culture: Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)
World War II and the Struggle for the State
The Jewish Agency after 1948
Department in U.S.
Into the 1990s and Beyond
The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) is an international, non-governmental body centered in Jerusalem which is the executive and representative of the World Zionist Organization, whose aims are to assist and encourage Jews throughout the world to help in the development and settlement of Erez Israel. The term “Jewish Agency” first appeared in Article Four of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which stipulated that “an appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the administration of Palestine in such economic, social, and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine.” The article went on to recognize the Zionist Organization as such an agency “so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate.” Indeed, the two were coterminous from the time that the Mandate was ratified by the League Council in July 1922 until the enlarged Jewish Agency came into being in August 1929. From that date until the establishment of the State of Israel, this body played the principal role in the relations between the National Home and world Jewry on the one hand and the Mandatory and other powers on the other. In May 1948, the Jewish Agency relinquished many of its functions to the newly created government of Israel, but continued to be responsible for immigration, land settlement, youth work, and other activities financed by voluntary Jewish contributions from abroad.
Even before the Mandate became effective, discussions had begun in a joint committee of the Zionist Organization and the Board of Deputies of British Jews with a view to broadening the base of the Jewish Agency by forming a new body representing both Zionists and non-Zionists. It had become clear that the Zionist Organization alone could not command the resources required for building the National Home. As a symbol of Jewish nationalism, it was unacceptable to the non-Zionists whose support was being sought. The appeals to them by the Foundation Fund, established in 1921 as its fund-raising organization, had proved ineffectual. There was also the hope that a more representative body would have greater authority in its dealings with the British government and the Palestine administration, neither of which had sought the advice and cooperation of the Zionist Organization to any large extent.
In 1923, Chaim Weizmann, the president of the Zionist Organization, was authorized by its general council to set up such a representative body. Weizmann found in Louis Marshall, long-time president of the American Jewish Committee, a willing counterpart, but it took six years of intermittent negotiation before the new body came into being. While both the principals strove single-mindedly toward their goal, others were not easily convinced that the two parties could work together. The Zionists resented the tendency of the other side to see in the National Home merely a philanthropic enterprise. The non-Zionists were skeptical of the Zionists’ capacity to subordinate their organization and its nationalist aims to a new body more representative of world Jewish opinion. Marshall had pointedly announced the American Jewish Committee’s intention to “cooperate for certain specific purposes which do not include the establishment of an independent Jewish state or commonwealth.” At one time, the negotiations nearly foundered over the American Joint Distribution Committee ‘s sponsorship of the project for the resettlement in the Crimea of Russian Jews displaced by the Revolution. The project was bitterly opposed by the Zionists, both for ideological reasons and because it threatened to divert funds from Palestine.
After this controversy died down, much of the residual anti-Agency feeling in Zionist ranks was overcome by economic necessity: the National Home was sorely in need of greater financial support. The 15th Zionist Congress meeting in 1927 set up a Joint Survey Commission, under Sir Alfred Mond (later Lord Melchett), to formulate a concrete program for cooperation. After a survey in Palestine, its report was submitted in October 1928. The 16th Congress, meeting in Zurich in August 1929, endorsed the proposals by a vote of 230 to 30. There followed the constituent meeting of the council of the enlarged Jewish Agency: a body described by Marshall as “coextensive with the Jewish people everywhere.” Among the non-Zionist delegates (40% of whom were Americans) were such figures as Albert Einstein, Sholem Asch, Leon Blum, Sir Herbert (later the first Viscount) Samuel, and Lord Melchett.
The Agency’s constitution provided for parity between Zionists and non-Zionists on its three governing bodies: the 224-member council, the administrative committee, and the executive. The president of the World Zionist Organization was to serve as president of the Jewish Agency unless three-quarters of the council voted otherwise. Officers elected at the first council meeting were Chaim Weizmann, president, Louis Marshall, chairman of the executive, Lord Melchett, associate chairman, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, honorary chairman, and Felix Warburg, chairman of the administrative committee.
Notwithstanding its founders’ hopes, the Jewish Agency never succeeded in functioning independently of the World Zionist Organization. The parity principle proved unrealistic. Non-Zionists in the Diaspora, without organizational backing (the American Jewish Committee was determined to stay out of the Agency structure even though its officers filled the most important posts), had difficulty in recruiting their quota for council meetings. The “non-Zionists” in Palestine were Zionist in all but formal affiliation. The Zionists later sought to have the parity provision abolished, and this led to some ill feeling. The deaths of Louis Marshall and Lord Melchett shortly after the founding meeting removed much of the motive power behind the Jewish Agency idea in their respective communities, and the worldwide depression impeded the raising of additional money for Palestine.
At the same time, Arab apprehensions were aroused by the apparent reinforcement of Zionist power, and the 1929 riots in Palestine accelerated the Mandatory disinclination to foster the Jewish National Home. Following the inquiry by the Shaw Commission into the causes of the 1929 disturbances, the British government, through its secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Passfield, issued a White Paper which called for severe limitations on Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. Pressure by the Jewish Agency, including the resignations of Weizmann and Warburg, led Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to provide assurances which virtually nullified the White Paper.
The Jewish Agency maintained an executive in Jerusalem and another in London (a New York branch superseded the latter when the center of diplomatic and Jewish activity shifted to the U.S. after World War II). The Jerusalem executive organized the movement and absorption of immigrants, fostered settlement on the land, took part in the development of the Jewish economy, and promoted educational and social services in cooperation with the Va’ad Le’ummi (National Council of the Jews of Palestine). The Agency’s political department in Jerusalem negotiated with the Palestine administration, while the London executive maintained contact with the colonial and foreign offices. The Agency was represented at the sessions of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations when Palestine was being discussed. Together with the Va’ad Le’ummi, the Agency supervised the Haganah, the clandestine Jewish defense force.
The major political effort of the Jewish Agency was concentrated on inducing the Palestine administration to interpret liberally the “economic absorptive capacity” by which Jewish immigration was regulated. With the rise of Hitler, its exertions resulted in the legal immigration of 62,000 persons in a single year, 1935. Under the Haavara (“transfer”) agreement with the German government, some $25 million in German Jewish assets were transferred to Palestine. During the same period, the Agency assumed responsibility for the Youth Aliyah program designed to bring children to Palestine from Nazi Germany.
These developments kept the Jewish Agency structure together for nearly a decade despite internal stresses. But the arrangement barely withstood the strains generated by the recommendations of the Peel Commission (sent in 1936 to investigate the causes of the disturbances) to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. While the 20th Zionist Congress, meeting in Lausanne in August 1937, endorsed the principle of partition by a narrow margin, the non-Zionist section of the Jewish Agency council, which subsequently convened in the same city, strongly opposed it. But the partition proposal was carried by the Zionists instructed to vote en bloc, and Felix Warburg, who had succeeded Marshall as the senior American member of the executive, died while negotiating a compromise.
The Arabs also opposed partition, and Britain reversed its position in the wake of still another committee of inquiry (the Woodhead Commission). Following the failure of a round-table conference called by the British government as a last attempt to reconcile Jewish and Arab views, the Mac-Donald White Paper was issued in May 1939. This temporarily restored unity of action in the Agency. The American non-Zionists now submitted a plan to Weizmann for its reorganization, but the crisis leading to World War II prevented the convening of its council in Europe, and no further joint meetings were held.
World War II and the Struggle for the State
With the adoption by the Zionists in May 1942 of the Biltmore Program calling for a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, effective non-Zionist participation in the Jewish Agency came to an end, and it once more became identified with the World Zionist Organization. As such it fought the White Paper restrictions on land purchase and immigration, mainly by organizing “illegal” immigration of survivors from Europe in the face of determined British opposition, throughout the war and until the eve of statehood. At the same time, the Agency took the lead in mobilizing the resources of the yishuv on behalf of the Allied war effort. David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the executive from 1935, called on the yishuv “to fight the White Paper as though there were no war and to fight the war as though there were no White Paper.”
The defeat of the Axis and the disclosure of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe brought the Agency to the forefront of the struggle for statehood. Its defiance of the British authorities led to the arrest of members of the executive, along with other leading figures in the yishuv, on June 29, 1946. On the diplomatic front, the arena shifted from Palestine (where the executive stated the Jewish case first to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry of 1946 and later to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) to London, and to New York where Moshe Sharett and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver were the chief Jewish Agency spokesmen in the deliberations leading to the UN General Assembly’s partition resolution of November 29, 1947. In the interim period until the declaration of independence, the Agency and the Va’ad Le’ummi set up a National Council of 37 and a National Administration of 13, which, on the declaration of independence, became the State of Israel’s provisional legislature and government. With the creation of the state, the Jewish Agency transferred its political functions to the provisional government and leading members of the Jerusalem executive, led by Ben-Gurion and Sharett, moved over to the Cabinet.
The Jewish Agency after 1948
On March 11, 1948, Arab terrorists bombed the headquarters of the Agency, killing 11 and wounding 86. The explosives were believed to have been hidden in a car stolen earlier in the day from United States Consul General Robert Macatee. Guards spotted the car being driven by its usual Arab driver who disappeared after the bombing. The explosion wrecked the offices of Keren Hayesod. The building also housed the Jewish Agency and Haganah headquarters.
The Zionist General Council decided in August 1948 that the Agency should continue to deal with immigration to Israel, absorption of immigrants, land settlement, and the channeling of world Jewry’s support to the state. This decision was approved by the Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1951, which adopted the “Jerusalem Program” and was incorporated in the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency (Status) Law adopted by the Knesset on November 24, 1952. (The law considered the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency to be identical.) On July 26, 1954, a formal covenant was signed between the Israel government and the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency, recognizing the latter as the representative of world Jewry in relation to the functions cited above. These were carried out through the following departments: immigration, absorption, agricultural settlement, Youth Aliyah, economic, organization, information, external relations, youth and He-?alutz, education and culture in the Diaspora, and later Torah education and culture in the Diaspora. The members of the executive, elected by the Zionist Congress along party lines, headed the departments.
The first five of these departments played key roles in the settlement of the immigrants. The immigration department operated a network of facilities in Europe and elsewhere for processing the migrants at points of origin and in transit. It arranged for medical examinations and other formalities and supplied transport, at times chartering ships and aircraft. The department of absorption received the newcomer on arrival, provided initial grants of cash and household goods, sent him to a camp, village or town, and allotted him housing accommodation. It also provided Hebrew instruction in its ulpanim, offered vocational training courses and, with the economic department, made loans to artisans and small businessmen. It provided health insurance and welfare services during the first few months in the country, operated hostels for professionals, and planned the rehabilitation of hard-core social cases. For some years, the Agency shared with the government the cost of housing construction in immigrant areas.
The Youth Aliyah program, originally conceived to care for orphaned or unaccompanied youngsters from Nazi-dominated Europe and elsewhere, adapted itself to the new conditions by also providing for children of immigrant families unable to give them a decent home and education. Where previously the great majority of the children had come from Europe, in later years about 80% of the 12,000 youngsters under Youth Aliyah care at any one time were of non-European origin. As in the past, most were placed in kibbutzim or in children’s villages where they divided their time between schooling and agricultural training. Foster care and occupational training in trades other than agriculture were also provided.
In 1949, the Department for Education and Culture in the Diaspora was established to help replace the loss of centers of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust. At its ?ayyim Greenberg Teachers’ Seminary in Jerusalem, Diaspora Jewish youth, mainly from Latin America, were trained as Hebrew teachers, while Israelis were sent abroad to supplement local personnel in schools, camps, and youth organizations. This activity was stepped up considerably after the events of 1967 called for development of greater Jewish consciousness as well as Hebrew study in the Diaspora. Furthermore, advice and literature were sent to Hebrew-teaching schools, and seminars were organized in Israel for high-school age students of Hebrew.
A parallel Department of Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora was established in 1951 which promoted similar activities along Orthodox lines and provided for the training of sho?atim, mohalim, and ?azzanim from the Diaspora. Its principal educational center in Israel is the Rabbi Gold Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem. Israeli teachers were trained for work abroad at Bar-Ilan University. The department also sent emissaries and textbooks abroad.
The Youth and He-?alutz Department was established in 1940 and in 1946 the Institute for Youth Instructors from Abroad was founded in Jerusalem. Many kibbutzim cooperated in its schemes in providing work and instruction as part of the course. Between 1946 and 1967 more than 3,500 instructors studied there. The department was thoroughly reorganized in 1968 to meet the influx of youth from the West after the Six-Day War. Four sections were established for the training of youth in North America, Latin America, Europe, and “English-speaking” countries by means of emissaries. As part of this project the Arad and Emissaries Institutes were established in Israel. A students’ division was also added to the department to cope with the 1967 volunteers who remained in Israel to study at the institutes of higher learning. The department developed a wide range of summer programs in Israel for youngsters from abroad.
Foremost in annual budget and personnel was the Department of Agricultural Settlement, with a staff of some 1,500 at the peak period and expenditure of as much as $50 million in a single year. It established 480 new villages after 1948, comprising some 32,000 farm units, furnishing them with equipment, livestock, and irrigation installations, as well as expert instruction. Their aggregate production in the late 1960s constituted 70% of the country’s total agricultural output.
During the first years of the state, the Agency performed the tasks connected with mass immigration creditably, at times brilliantly. It succeeded in accommodating the record number of 239,000 immigrants who came in 1949, so that none remained without a roof over his head for a single night. In 1950, some 169,000 newcomers arrived and 174,000 in 1951. Among the earlier waves were the inmates of the European DP camps and those forcibly detained in Cyprus, Yemenite Jews ferried to Israel in “Operation Magic Carpet,” and hundreds of thousands from Eastern Europe and North Africa. In 1951, Iraqi Jews were evacuated in “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.” Nearly the whole of Bulgarian Jewry, more than half the Jews of Yugoslavia, as well as 40,000 from Turkey and 18,000 from Iran, went to Israel during those first three years. The Agency accommodated the mass influx first by utilizing abandoned Arab housing, then setting up tented camps in various parts of the country, later superseded by ma’barot (“transit camps”) consisting of one-room shacks. While the tent dwellers were wholly supported by the Jewish Agency, the ma’barot were located near towns where the newcomers eventually found jobs and could thus dispense with direct Jewish Agency support. In 1951, the 123 ma’barot had a population of 227,000.
By the time the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Status Law was enacted, however, immigration had dwindled, and the Jewish Agency’s future was being widely questioned. The expectation that the World Zionist Organization would become the principal link between Israel and the Diaspora proved unrealistic. Non-Zionist groups maintained their primacy there, especially in the United States. Israel, moreover, was also anxious for immigration from the free lands of the West, and the Agency failed in creating such a movement on an appreciable scale. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion took the Zionist movement to task on these and other counts, and his sallies damaged its prestige. Differences of opinion over foreign policy with the Jewish Agency chairman and World Zionist Organization president, Nahum Goldmann, widened the rift between Israel’s political leaders and the Zionist movement. However, the Agency successfully coped with the resumption of immigration from Eastern Europe and North Africa in 1955–57 and 1961–64. It evolved the ship-to-settlement plan bringing immigrants directly to permanent homes in villages or development towns. The rural settlement area of Lachish, with its cluster of villages built around an urban industrial and administrative center, won renown as a model of integrated planning.
The election of Moshe Sharett to the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency Executive in 1960 marked the beginning of an effort to instill new vigor into the Jewish Agency by broadening its base. Both he and Goldmann, who continued as president, wished to see non-Zionists co-opted to the executive and to break the exclusive hold of the Zionist parties. In 1960, a new constitution was adopted which opened membership to territorial or interterritorial Zionist organizations, as well as to national and international Jewish bodies accepting the Jerusalem Program. Although associated groups from seven countries were represented at the 25th Congress in 1960, the constitutional reform had little practical effect. The 26th Congress in 1965 went further by resolving to co-opt several prominent non-Zionists as members of the executive without portfolio. Thus, the executive reverted toward its former composition, but without the underpinning of non-Zionist representation in the constituent bodies. The question of non-Zionist participation meanwhile had come up on another level. In 1960, an American body was created to supervise disbursement in Israel of funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal, in compliance with U.S. government regulations on tax-deductible gifts to charitable organizations. The new body was named the Jewish Agency for Israel, Inc. (changed to United Israel Appeal, Inc. in 1966). Its board of directors was composed in equal parts of organized Zionists, non-Zionists, and persons drawn from both camps who were active in fundraising. The Jerusalem executive of the Agency was appointed by this body as its official agent for implementing the programs for which American funds were allocated. To monitor these expenditures, it maintained an office in Israel.
Department in U.S.
The Jerusalem Executive, in turn, was represented in America by a body known as The Jewish Agency – American Section, Inc., which consisted of those members of the Executive who resided in the United States. These included Zionist leaders elected to the Executive along party lines as well as nonparty members co-opted in accordance with the decision of the 26th Zionist Congress. Unlike their colleagues in Jerusalem, the American members of the Executive did not head Agency departments, but some of them were responsible for the activities of certain departments in the Western Hemisphere. As an agent of the Jewish Agency, Jerusalem, The Jewish Agency – American Section, Inc. was required to register with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.
The following is a summary of income of the Jewish Agency for the period from Oct. 1, 1948 to Mar. 31, 1963: Gift funds, $653.6 million (54.1%), German Reparations, $173.1 million (14.3%), income from assets, + sundries, $53.9 million (4.5%), allocations from public bodies, $32.1 million (2.7%), Israel Government participation $169.6 million (14.0%) and earmarked contributions, $124.9 million (10.4%).
Of the gift funds, about 80% came from the United States. Assets on March 31, 1963 (registered in the name of Keren Hayesod) were put at $307 million, liabilities at $201 million. The Agency’s income from donations by world Jewry increased dramatically after the Six-Day War, enabling it to finance costs of welfare and other services on behalf of immigrants, hitherto borne by the Israel government.
In the second half of the 1960s, proposals were heard from within the movement to separate the Jewish Agency once more from the World Zionist Organization structure. The reason this time was not related to non-Zionist participation. The proponents of separation felt that the mixture of practical tasks with ideology was detrimental to both; that by leaving the concrete tasks of immigration resettlement to the Agency the Zionist Organization could concentrate on winning the Diaspora to its ideology. However, the 27th Congress (June 1968) did not adopt these proposals. Instead, it approved reforms proposed by Louis Pincus (who had become chairman upon Moshe Sharett’s death in 1965), which consolidated the various departments in the interests of efficiency and reduced the membership of the executive. Nahum Goldmann was not reelected as WZO president, and the office remained vacant. The Congress also adopted a new, more outspokenly Zionist, Jerusalem Program, and decided to set up a nonparty aliyah movement.
While the 27th Congress was in session, the Israel government announced the creation of a new Ministry of Immigrant Absorption thus assuming direct responsibility in this sphere. The Jewish Agency’s department of immigration and absorption continued to register and bring over the immigrants, look after ulpanim and reception centers, and care for needy newcomers. A joint government-Jewish Agency authority was charged with delineating the respective areas of competence, and the modus vivendi agreed upon provided for continued Jewish Agency responsibility primarily for immigration abroad, with the ministry dealing with most areas of absorption in Israel itself. The government, however, stopped short of a complete takeover in this area with the knowledge that the financial contributions of world Jewry, and of American Jews in particular, must be disbursed by nongovernmental bodies to be entitled to exemption from income taxes. At the same time, a renewed effort was made to give the Jewish Agency fresh vigor and legitimacy by broadening its base and by giving, in the words of its chairman, Louis Pincus, “world Jewry, which raises the funds for Israel, a direct say in the way the funds are spent.” Under a plan approved by the Zionist General Council in July 1969, the structure and functions of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization were to be separated in much the same manner as provided for by the 1929 agreement to set up the enlarged Jewish Agency: the Jewish Agency was to deal with “practical” work in Israel and the World Zionist Organization with Zionist, educational, and organizational tasks in the Diaspora. Like its predecessor, the reconstituted Jewish Agency was to consist of three parts – an assembly, a board of governors, and an executive – and once again 50% of the members of the assembly were to be designated by the World Zionist Organization. A vexing problem that had plagued the original Jewish Agency, namely the designation of non-Zionist members, was to be obviated by having the second 50% of the membership designated by the principal fund-raising organizations functioning in the Diaspora on behalf of Israel. This plan was finalized in 1970 and thus after 40 years of activity, the Jewish Agency in effect reverted, in its organizational form, to the ideas that first created it.
Into the 1990s and Beyond
Since the mid-1980s, the Jewish Agency (JA) and World Zionist Organization (WZO) have sought ways to redefine many of their traditional programs and modes of operation as well as to effect a new division between them. This process emerged in response to changes in Israel-Diaspora relations, but it was also shaped by ongoing tensions and differences in the relative strength of the constituent groups of these bodies. As a result, major transformations occurred.
Far-reaching programmatic and operational modifications have been made to streamline bureaucracy and bring about cost efficiency. In 1988 alone, 559 budgeted personnel positions were terminated in the JA. By 1990, one third of all JA employees had been made redundant. Traditional Agency departments: Aliyah, Youth Aliyah, Rural Settlement, and Project Renewal were restructured. Another three departments, Torah Education & Culture, General Education & Culture, and Youth & He-?alutz, formerly solely in the domain of the WZO, have come under the budgetary and programmatic aegis of a newly created JA/WZO Authority for Jewish Zionist Education. Initially it was envisaged that the budget of the Authority would be about $50 million a year approximating the aggregate of the separate departments, but the 1993 budget allocated only $33.9 million.
In 1993, the departments of Rural Settlement and Renewal & Development were merged into a combined Department for Rural and Urban Development. This culminated a process which began at the June 1991 Assembly. The new department was mandated to operate on a time and resource limited project base.
Budgetary constraints also forced a gradual reduction in the total number of youngsters in the care of the Youth Aliyah Department from 19,000 in the fiscal year 1986/87 to 14,000 in 1992/93. This cutback was made despite the massive inflow of immigrants and the deteriorating economic state of broad sections of Israeli society. Here, as in the case of rural settlement and urban renewal, the economies of scale followed on studies conducted by consultants appointed by the JA Board of Governors.
Several catalysts together generated the changes. Among these were an extended world business slump, demands that funds raised in the Diaspora be used domestically, and the unforeseen enormous costs of financing aliyah from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. The personalities of the leaders of the WZO and the JA, and the divergent political, public, and business cultures from which they hailed also contributed to the shifts. Overriding all these components was the difficult structural and philosophic interface between two systems – the political WZO and the philanthropic/communal JA.
Almost all the leadership elites of the JA reside overseas and are appointed to their positions, whereas the majority of WZO officials live in Israel and are elected through political parties.
Jewish communal life in the Diaspora revolves around the maintenance of educational systems, welfare institutions, synagogues and other functions, all of which require funding; this calls for a highly complex fundraising capacity. Lacking the means to levy taxes, the compelling issue facing those structures is the mobilization of funds. Since fundraising is not a democratic activity, cost efficiency is arguably at the top of campaign considerations. The role of major contributors is thus perpetuated, which in turn coalesces into an oligarchy.
In the WZO, leadership is by demonstrated electability. While Zionists are critical of what they term dominance by people of wealth, community leaders in the Diaspora are equally critical about what they term the exaggerated politicizing of Israeli-Zionist leadership and the attendant political coloration of policy.
In 1971, the Reconstituted Jewish Agency was composed of representatives of institutional Jewish life in the Diaspora, e.g., the communal federation system and the fund-raising community, who joined the existing structure – which had been made up exclusively of Zionists – in a fifty-fifty partnership. Subsequently, the creation of JA governing bodies – an Executive, a Board of Governors, and an Assembly – separated the JA from the WZO’s governing bodies – an Executive, the Zionist General Council, and Zionist Congress. (By statute, however, certain positions, particularly those of the chairman and the treasurer of the Executive, remained common to both.) The result was that the JA became an autonomous organization in which the leadership of Diaspora communities initially acquired equal responsibility, and later supremacy in determining policy and budget.
Until February 1988, the Jewish Agency Executive, like that of the WZO, worked both ideologically and operationally as a collective. This meant that the chairman functioned as the “first among equals,” with decisions taken as a group. In response to the demand by Diaspora members of the Board of Governors, particularly the Americans, to institute a corporate managerial style, each head of department within the JA tacitly agreed in 1992 that the chairman of the Executive may operate, when necessary, with decision-making authority. In addition, prior to February 1988, the director-general of the JA merely had a coordinating role. Subsequently, all department directors-general, and the secretary-general of the JA, are professionally responsible to the director-general.
Certain checks-and-balances were incorporated into the JA system. Fifty percent of the representatives in the 398-member Assembly of the JA (convened annually) are elected for a four-year term by the Zionist General Council. The remaining members are appointed by the United Jewish Appeal (30%) for a one-year term, while Keren ha-Yesod (20%) appoints representatives for a four-year period. The chairman of the WZO Executive also serves as chairman of the Assembly which determines basic policy and goals, reviews and acts upon budgets, determines priorities and directions of future budgets, adopts resolutions and elects the Board of Governors. The 75-member Board of Governors, which meets in between Assemblies to determine policy, manage, supervise, control, and direct operations and activities, is composed according to the same key as the JA Assembly.
The challenges met during the 1980s and 1990s by the JA have been its greatest since the early days of the State of Israel. The twin chapters of immigration from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia appear to have had an exhilarating effect on Jews around the world, effecting a great increase in fundraising and wrenching it out of the doldrums of eroding incomes. In the first years of the 21st century it was operating in nearly 80 countries through over 450 emissaries with a budget of around $400 million. Avraham Burg served as chairman of the Executive from 1995 to 1999, succeeded by Sallai Meridor (1999) and Zeev Bielski (2005).
The Jewish Agency announced an initiative in February 2015 to increase its involvement with the Arab, Druze, and Bedouin minority communities in Israel. Participants in the Jewish Agency’s Global Tikun Olam Initiative, which sends Israeli individuals around the globe to volunteer in underserved communities, have stereotypically been Jewish. However, the agency aims to expand these opportunities to minority groups in Israel, eager to become further integrated into Israeli society.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Sam Pope Brewer, “Arabs Blast Block Of Jewish Agency,” New York Times, (March 12, 1948).
Sam Sokol, “For Jewish Agency, Israeli Arabs an increasing priority,” Jerusalem Post, (February 23, 2016).