JERUSALEM, DEC. 12 -- Leading American Jewish organizations this week staged a full-scale rebellion against Israel's political establishment over control of the Jewish Agency, the public body that dispenses more than $400 million in philanthropy and patronage here each year.
It was the latest round in the growing conflict between Israeli leaders and their American brethren, who are frustrated with Israel's tradition of using charitable contributions from abroad to feed and lubricate its partisan political machines and who fear the trend toward Jewish fundamentalism here.
The battleground was the 31st World Zionist Congress, where the Americans managed to scuttle two Israeli candidates chosen to oversee the agency who had strong support here. Instead, they forced through a third choice -- former Israeli ambassador to Washington Simcha Dinitz, who has a limited political constituency in Israel but is well known and well liked by major fundraisers in the United States.
The Americans, with support from Dinitz's Labor Party, then rammed through a resolution calling for "complete equality for all streams within Judaism." The measure was basically an endorsement of religious rights for Reform and Conservative Jews, whose rabbis and followers are treated as heretics by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment here and are denied public funding.
The rightist Likud political bloc sided with ultra-orthodox representatives in opposing the move.
The five-day congress ended just before dawn yesterday in a mini-riot on the dais. Likud supporters, frustrated by the alliance between American Jews and Labor, threw flower pots and exchanged blows with their rivals, and the meeting was adjourned without a final division of top posts on the governing body that oversees the agency.
Nonetheless, the session was a clear triumph for the Americans, who showed a determination to exercise political clout commensurate with the millions of dollars they pour into Israel each year. It also was a further example of the wide gap that divides American Jewish leaders from their Israeli counterparts on many issues, a gap that was on public display earlier this year when the two groups tangled over Israel's role in the Jonathan Pollard spy scandal.
"The American Jewish leaders wanted to utilize this opportunity to take a broom and sweep clean," said Seymour Reich, president of B'nai B'rith International headquartered in Washington. "The process in Israel is very political and too closely identified with the parties. Israelis have always suggested we're in a partnership. If they really mean it, there should be no objection to our expressions of concern."
For their part, many Israelis resented the American power play, arguing that if Americans want to influence the machinery here they should, in the words of one congress delegate, Yitzhak Korn, "fulfill the supreme commandment of Zionism and make aliyah" -- move to Israel.
The small number of Jews immigrating from western nations, a sore point with Israeli Zionists for decades, was emphasized again at the congress by those opposing the American reformers. "They cannot sit in New York or Paris and simply pay up," said Korn. Zionism was supposed to conquer Jewish communities overseas, he argued, but instead "the communities are conquering Zionism. They're turning the whole thing upside down."
The Jewish Agency was founded in 1929 as a government-in-the-making by Zionists committed to creating a Jewish state in the British mandate of Palestine. It funneled contributions from Jews abroad into land purchases, economic development, education and health and laid the groundwork for the independent state to come.
When Israel came into being in 1948, the agency was retained as a semiprivate body to receive funds from overseas donors who would not have been entitled to charitable tax exemptions had they sent money directly to the government of Israel. The agency funded and oversaw Israel's economic miracle in the 1950s, when more than 1 million Jewish refugees were absorbed from the diaspora.
But as the flood of immigrants became a trickle, critics contended the agency gradually became a gigantic patronage plum -- "a wasteful political hothouse where second-string Israeli party politicians have responsibility for massive charitable funds from Jews abroad," said Eliezer D. Jaffe, professor of social work at Hebrew University here.
For mostly political reasons, many of the agency's departments parallel government ministries. For example, the agency has an immigrant absorption department headed by a Likud partisan that parallels the government's own Ministry of Absorption, which is headed by a Laborite.
Like Cabinet ministers, agency department heads are entitled to chauffeur-driven Volvos, lots of overseas travel and relatively lucrative pensions, all of which are sources of resentment both here and abroad.
American fundraisers, who this year will send about $420 million to Israel in charitable contributions, have gradually become fed up with the patronage system. Under the leadership of Baltimore businessman Jerold Hoffberger, one-time owner of the Baltimore Orioles, they began to push for changes.
They exercised an effective veto over several Likud candidates for posts on the agency's governing body. Yoram Aridor, who later gained notoriety for presiding over Israel's triple-digit inflation as finance minister, was rejected. So was Ariel Sharon, whom Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir tried to foist on the agency after Sharon was ousted as defense minister following Israel's troubled invasion of Lebanon.
They also forced into retirement the Likud chairman of the governing body, Aryeh Dulzin, because of his alleged role in a bank scandal.
This time it was Labor's turn to get burned.
The party put up a 70-year-old veteran politician, Akiva Lewinsky, as Dulzin's successor. But the fundraisers said no because of Lewinsky's age and his image as a backroom political operator. Labor then began rallying around 45-year-old Nissim Zvili, an agency department head with strong credentials in the party but no standing abroad.
The fundraisers pushed for Dinitz, a man they knew and loved from his time as ambassador. With their support, he edged out Zvili at a party caucus session, then swamped the Likud candidate, Cabinet minister Gideon Patt, in the main election.
Laborites chafed at the American putsch. "Lewinsky was a good man who was the victim of frustrations and impatience," said Uzi Narkiss, the Labor head of the agency's information department. "It is correct to say that everything in Israel is too political, but it is too easy to demand of Israel something that Israel cannot deliver. It means that people who have a Reagan at home demand from us a Kennedy. I don't blame them, but I don't know if they are realistic."
But while Labor and the fundraisers fought over Lewinsky and Zvili, they had other issues to unite them. Reform and Conservative Jews comprise the bulk of American Jewry and donate most of the money, yet they suffer second-class status in Israel. This time they decided to fight back, waging a massive campaign for seats at the Congress and coming to Israel united and angry.
Essentially, they wanted a share of the positions and funds that the agency metes out, and a resolution giving them status equal to the Orthodox. They teamed up with Labor, which has supported them in the Israeli parliament by voting down legislation that would delegitimize the movements, to elect Dinitz and to pass the resolution on religious equality.
The victory is far from complete. The chaotic end of the congress means that Dinitz and his Likud counterparts will gather privately next week and redivide the spoils, with the possibility that American Jews may not get the share they sought. But many believe, nonetheless, that a clear message was sent to the Israelis that further reforms are inevitable.
The Los Angeles Times reported from Jerusalem:
At least six more Palestinian youths were wounded by Israeli army gunfire Saturday as demonstrations, strikes, and protests spread to new areas of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip during a fourth straight day of violence.
The military command said that officers met with Arab mayors and notables from the occupied areas "to try and reestablish civil order and bring life back to normalcy" after one of the worst spates of bloodletting here in recent years.
The casualty toll for the four days includes at least six Palestinians dead and about 60 wounded, according to official figures. Palestinian sources said there were two additional dead and scores more injured.
Army reinforcements were deployed in most major towns and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were captured by Israeli troops during the 1967 Six-Day War and are still administered by a combination of military and civilian Defense Ministry officials.