The Zionist Organization and its parliament, the Zionist Congress, were established by Theodor Herzl in 1897 (the “World” was added to their names later). Their function was to develop and implement a program of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. The Zionist Congress included delegates from a wide range of ideological streams; the bottom line was a Jewish home in our historic homeland (although other locations were considered in the early years), but the nature of that home – even whether it should be a sovereign state – was subject to dispute.
Today’s World Zionist Congress (WZC) appoints the heads of several organizations that control large amounts of property and funds that come from Jewish charities abroad and the Israeli taxpayer. These include the Jewish National Fund (JNF) which manages most of the land in Israel, the Jewish Agency which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, the United Israel Appeal which raises funds, and others.
These organizations are closely connected to the government of Israel, but they are independent bodies. This can be confusing. For example, someone applying to make aliyah to Israel must deal with both the Jewish Agency (the sochnut) and the Israeli consulate.
The most important fact about the WZC is that its sub-organizations spend about $1 billion annually. These organizations, whose utility ended on 14 May 1948, have hundreds of employees (many of whom are politically connected individuals), and hundreds of contractors and programs are supported by them. To the extent that they perform useful functions, they could and should be done by the government of Israel. The waste of funds that come from the high taxes paid by Israelis and the generous donations of diaspora Jews is colossal. Many highly-paid functionaries do essentially nothing, and are there because somebody important owed them a favor.
But in addition to being wasteful, these organizations are dangerous, because they represent an easily-opened door to infiltration by those who not only want to benefit from the fruits of the Jewish state, but to attack it in the process.
Recently many diaspora organizations, particularly in the US, which were originally established to benefit the Jewish people as a whole, the State of Israel, or individual Jews, have been pressured to include representatives of anti-Zionist groups like J Street. In 2012, “Open Hillel” was formed in order to try to change the guidelines of college Hillel houses for acceptable programs, in the words of one reporter, to “legitimize and include groups that advance anti-Israel (and sometimes anti-Semitic) agendas in mainstream Jewish campus life.”
In 2014, J Street applied to become a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and was turned down after an acrimonious debate. Last week, a guy that previously worked for Bernie Sanders, and previously was the State Department’s liaison to Congress to promote Obama’s Iran deal, became Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress.
The WZC has also become a focus of conflict between right-wing and left-wing factions. Delegates from the Diaspora are chosen by elections, while Israelis are apportioned according to the parties in the Knesset. Although the Left was battering at the gates here as well, a new group of American delegates has recently been added, a slate called “Eretz Hakodesh” that appealed to non-Zionist Haredim. It’s platform did not include the words “State of Israel” or “Zionist.” A campaign in the Orthodox and Haredi communities gave the religious and right-wing bloc a slight edge over the Reform/Conservative/Left bloc among the total of 521 delegates (complete results by country are here, in Hebrew).
It’s possible to take comfort in the fact that the American Hatikvah slate, which included such “Zionists” as Peter Beinart, got only ten seats. It’s absurd that they or anti-Zionist Haredim should be represented at all.
The largest delegation from the US is the one representing the Reform movement, with 39 seats. Together with Reform delegates from other countries, they hold a total of 63 seats. Considering that “Reform Zionism” means misinformed American Jews telling Israelis how to run their country (because the US is doing such a good job at home), they too are not in the “helpful” category.
72 years after the founding of the state, Zionism as an ideology is still relevant. But the World Zionist Organization is not.
Indeed, it’s long past time to end this jobs program for shady politicians that didn’t make it into the Knesset, former mayors that were not re-elected, and so forth. The unnecessary bureaucracy only makes life harder for people who must interact with it, like prospective olim. And just like Israel’s bloated unity government with its 36 ministers – at least 18 of which are unnecessary – it is obscene to shovel cash into a black hole when Israelis and diaspora Jews are struggling in a wretched economic environment.