In the late 1980s I started to become aware of how the Zionist political world works. As I became more involved in Zionist activities as part of the Conservative Movement’s aliyah movement, Tnuat AM, I started dealing with budgets and consequently politics. I was surprised to learn that the Conservative Movement received relatively little funding for their Israel programs because they had almost no presence in the Zionist pseudo-government.
The organization “Mercaz,” representing Conservative Judaism within the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Zionist Movement and the Jewish National Fund, was founded in 1978 and in the 1980s had only a few hundred members. Before this, the Conservative Movement was not represented at the the World Zionist Congress which is the parliament of World Jewry where the World Zionist Organization holds elections and department appointments are made. Based on the strength of their membership, organizations such as Mercaz are allocated a specific number of voting delegates and positions of authority within the World Zionist Organization. From one Congress to the next, those delegates and department heads determine the status, funding, and programs granted to movements and programs around the world.
Most of the Conservative Jews I knew were members of Hadassah, a secular labor Zionist organization founded 66 years before Mercaz. These Hadassah ladies might send their children to Israel on USY Pilgrimage or Ramah Seminar, but their membership in Hadassah gave subsidies to other people’s children travelling with Young Judea. It was clear to me that most Hadassah members were helping others at their own expense way more than they realized.
It has been suggested in the midst of the current Hadassah Hospital crisis that many Hadassah members are not worried about — or even aware of — what the organization is currently facing. A well-known author and lifetime Hadassah member told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Hadassah is “very much a social as well as charity thing. I don’t think most of them think that much about what’s going on in Israel or in New York, or about what the Hadassah high council is doing.” In my experience Hadassah ladies certainly aren’t aware of the political consequences of their membership or how their dues and contributions are really being used.
The Madoff crisis in which Hadassah lost $90 million should have been a wake-up call to Hadassah members to hold their leadership more accountable for the organization’s finances and overall management and decision-making. The leadership had already been calling for a dramatic change in the organization’s relationship with Hadassah Hospital and a year before the Madoff crisis broke, Hadassah cut their annual funding of the hospital from $40 million to $25 million. After Madoff this was cut further to $19 million per year. However, when the Hospital continued to be mismanaged and run in deficit, the women’s organization continued to bail them out to the tune of an additional $800 million in the last ten years.
The hospital was not held accountable. The rich Americans always bailed them out. And again, their own children suffered. Haddasah cut off Young Judea, their youth movement and camp, as well as most of their educational and programming efforts targeting young women, which had been a focus of the organization several years earlier.
The current crisis which has all but closed the hospital down, came when two Israeli banks would no longer extend the hospital credit and therefore suppliers would no longer work with the institution. Additionally, the hospital could not afford to pay salaries in January. As a result doctors and other hospital staff have initiated work sanctions. According to reports in the Israeli media, the hospital has a debt of over $250 million with an annual deficit of over $70 million. With all this coming to a head, the hospital filed for bankruptcy in early February after Hadassah, once again, agreed to provide the hospital with an infusion of cash ($28.3 million) over the next three months to pay its staff and suppliers.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has called Hadassah Hospital’s financial crisis “a serious failure,” because the hospital continued to accumulate debt, guessing that there may have been no motivation for them to get their house in order “perhaps out of the assumption that someone would pay.”
The American Hadassah members have always bailed Hadassah Hospital out, but by doing so, they have not done anybody any favors. Hadassah no longer has a youth movement, they have cut their programming and educational activities, they have closed many offices and fired staff. The jewel in the crown of the organization, Hadassah Hospital, which has been sucking the life from everything else, is now bankrupt.
Beyond the fact that the American Jewish women and youth have suffered because of Hadassah’s mismanagement, now the Hadassah Hospital crisis with require the resources of the Israeli government and, in Netanyahu’s words, “the public will pay.”
Jewish tradition teaches us that the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone to help them self. This is not what Hadassah did. It is not good for either American Jewry nor for Israel, to have a situation where Diaspora Jews are supporting Israel without accountability. Whether this support is given to a charitable institution or to a segment of the population that depends on charitable gifts to survive, such a situation is not good for Israeli society.
American Jews need to take more responsibility in what organizations they join and where they make contributions. Israel has a very broad spectrum of institutions and organizations and as the world becomes smaller, the effect that these bodies can cause can reach right back to the donor and their children. Take the time and effort to learn which efforts are most in line with your vision of creating a better world. Don’t just support an organization because it helps Israel. Find out how it helps and who it helps. We have many amazing and good opportunities to better our society. The first step is for donors to act more responsibly.