December 12, 2003
By NACHA CATTAN
After months of heated political battles, the Jewish Agency for Israel has managed to thwart efforts to cut its funding from American charitable federations.
Faced with shrinking donations from federations and changing needs abroad, the federations' national roof body, the United Jewish Communities, had spent the past year in a messy tug-of-war over whether to redistribute some Jewish Agency funds to its other overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Instead, the UJC committee charged with allocating federation dollars overseas decided to maintain the current ratio of sending 75% of the overseas funds to the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental agency in Israel, and 25% to JDC, an American-based nonprofit relief organization.
In response to the shortfall in contributions from federations, the allocations committee, known as ONAD, approved a plan this week to raise an extra $20 million from charities to be split equally between the Jewish Agency, which focuses on facilitating immigration to Israel, and JDC, which provides humanitarian support to Jewish communities worldwide. The $20 million would be raised over and above an expected $187 million for the Jewish Agency and $43 million for JDC.
While most federations praised the decision, critics on all sides are arguing that the allocations committee and system need to be overhauled.
The chairman of UJC's allocations committee, Steven Klinghoffer, strongly disapproved of his committee's decision. "I think based on yesterday's actions, the future of ONAD is in doubt," he said. Klinghoffer, who said he is stepping down from his position for reasons unrelated to the recent decision, had promoted a proposal to redirect $13 million to the JDC, and attempt to raise additional dollars for Israel.
An increasing number of participants in the allocations committee are growing dissatisfied with the process itself. Critics say that it politicizes and polarizes a discussion that should be about humanitarian needs on the ground and determining the collective responsibility of the Jewish people. Instead, critics say, the process has deteriorated into a grudge match between backers of the Jewish Agency and JDC — and not enough is being done to secure donations for both organizations from local federations.
Officials at JDC had argued that their organization should receive more funding given the drop in immigration to Israel and the rise of poverty in Argentina, the former Soviet Union and Israel. The Jewish Agency countered that given the crisis in Israel the funding should remain the same to help victims of terror, improve social programs and aid the vulnerable new immigrant population.
Pressure to maintain the status quo came from Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.
"Undertaking substantial, detailed planning and needs assessments comes face to face with what is understandable, but nevertheless a real competition between the JDC and [the Jewish Agency], which makes needs assessment complicated," said John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.
"I'm a firm believer of 'If it ain't broke don't fix it,'" said Richard Wexler, a lay leader of both the Jewish Agency and the federation system. "But this process is broke."
This week's funding decision was approved by 13 out of 18 federations represented on the allocations committee, as well as the Jewish Agency and JDC. Boston's federation voted against the plan, and federations in Phoenix, Cincinnati, Columbus and Milwaukee abstained.
Barry Shrage, head of the Boston federation, said he voted against the resolution because $6 million of the requested $20 million would come from funds that individual federations designate for specific programs abroad. "Cutting down on those kinds of programs is entirely counterproductive," Shrage told the Forward.
Jewish Agency and JDC officials welcomed the push for more dollars. But federation and Jewish Agency leaders said that the money could only be raised with improved and expanded fundraising campaigns targeting local federations.
Some observers are viewing the allocations decision with skepticism, noting that it is unenforceable and that federations have fallen short even of core recommendations in the past.
One unnamed charity executive suggested that representatives of the Jewish Agency and JDC be removed from the allocations committee and be granted only a consultative role. But another said that it is the battling federations that get in the way of progress.
A member of the allocations committee who asked to remain anonymous criticized not only the overall process, but also the latest committee resolution to maintain the 75-25 split. "The process was hijacked by political considerations," allocations committee member said. "The discussion focused on the political reality of keeping the Jewish Agency happy. It's unlikely the process will live to see another cycle."
The current system is strong but simply needs some tinkering, countered Larry Jackier, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
Despite their critiques of the current system, Ruskay, Wexler and most other charity leaders reached by the Forward were pleased with the latest allocations decision.
Jewish Agency officials praised the recent UJC decision. "It was a reasonable compromise," said Carole Solomon, chairwoman of the board of the Jewish Agency. "It was an affirmation of both the critical needs in Israel and other parts of the Jewish world."
With reporting from JTA.
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