Haviv Rettig Gur

A glowing endorsement from Haaretz

It’s not every day that Haaretz publishes a glowing endorsement of the new direction in which we have taken the Jewish Agency.

Of course, it didn’t mean to. This was supposed to be a damaging article about inefficiency in my organization. But the facts it has uncovered -– however negatively they were spun by cynical editors at “Israel’s New York Times” –- are a badge of honor for us.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the piece. It asserts that Jewish Agency executives take home vast salaries while employees lower down (me, for instance?) are being remorselessly trampled upon and fired.

We are proud of the findings that prove that executive salaries are modest and the agency is much more efficient than in the past -– and we’re not surprised by Haaretz’s unprofessional spin.

Executive salaries

Natan Sharansky, according to the piece, earns $214,000, “30 percent more than Benjamin Netanyahu,” Israel’s prime minister who earns just $164,000. Our director-general Alan Hoffmann, at $197,000, earns “double that of a director-general of a government ministry.” These salaries are bloated, Haaretz maintains, because they are higher than those paid in government.

But the comparison to government pay is so irrelevant that it’s hard to believe the reporter meant it sincerely. Government salaries are kept low everywhere in the free world, and in no country are the top salaries of the largest nonprofits comparable to those in government.

For example, the president of the United States earns $400,000, less than the salaries of the top executives in all major American charities and foundations — including among the major Jewish federations and foundations.

In Israel, too, the top executives in the nonprofit world all earn far more than their parallel positions in government -– more, in fact, than the prime minister.

Why does Haaretz single out the Agency, when even the government doesn’t stick to the government pay scale when it seeks to hire from a professional candidate pool? For instance, when it wants to hire a top health-care manager to run the Health Ministry, it pays a salary pegged to the compensation of hospital managers. And when the Justice Ministry seeks for its director-general post a top attorney capable of regulating Israel’s state legal bodies, it pegs his salary to that of a senior judge.

Organizations like ours compete in a professional marketplace. We don’t compete with the government for our senior staff, but with other Jewish nonprofits.

Compare our salaries to any large organization doing comparable work – -even to organizations half our size –- and you’ll find that we are among the most frugal of the major Jewish organizations when it comes to executive compensation.

Don’t take my word for it. Look it up –- as Haaretz would have if it was interested in serious journalism.

Some other compensation-related inaccuracies (just for the record):

  • The headline suggests the salaries are actively growing (“…its executive paychecks swell”) while the budget shrinks. This is a lie. No senior staff member in the Agency has had a pay raise since 2005. The salary of the chairman hasn’t gone up in 15 years. In 2010, all senior staff took a voluntary 10% cut to help offset the financial hit from the global economic downturn.
  • Misha Galperin’s compensation in 2010 included one-time relocation costs that are the standard and acceptable practice in the Jewish (and also non-Jewish) charity world in the United States. His pay and benefits are equal to what he earned in his previous position as the chief executive of the Washington, DC, federation. Haaretz knew this. For our part, we are proud to have attracted one of the finest and most celebrated executives of the American Jewish philanthropic world to help build for the Agency –- for the first time –- an indigenous world-class fundraising operation. Those of us who are new to the organization are still surprised to discover that the Agency didn’t already possess such capabilities.
  • Yona Bezaleli did indeed make a very high salary in 2010, more than the chairman himself. The reason is simple: His contract was drawn up in 1957, and included small but automatic incremental increases in salary. When you work under that contract for 54 years, you retire with a sizable salary. Mr. Bezaleli retired at the end of 2011. Needless to say, no one else in the organization has such a contract.
  • Legal counsel Mark Ismailoff’s compensation in 2010, which Haaretz notes “was about 15 percent higher” than “that of a judge in Israel’s Supreme Court,” actually included one-time retirement benefits that had been accruing from previous years. Haaretz knew this too.

Staff cuts

As Haaretz notes correctly, the Jewish Agency shed 180 staff since 2009, more than a quarter of our standing workforce.

But here’s the rub: We shed those 180 staff without sustaining a drop in programming. We now work in more countries with more projects and reach more people than in 2009. Aliya figures are steady (slight rise in 2010, slight drop in 2011, January 2012 another slight rise), MASA has grown, campus shlichim are active in more than 50 campuses (compared to 19 in 2009). In the past year, we took responsibility for the transit camp for Falash Mura olim in Gondar, Ethiopia, and built a youth village program for Eritrean and Sudanese refugee children who had been wallowing in Israeli prisons while the government searched for solutions. These expansions and new initiatives were expensive and complex –- and we accomplished them while shedding one-quarter of our workforce.

Donors aren’t stupid. They’ve always known we do good work, but they didn’t believe we did it efficiently. In a global philanthropic marketplace that’s more competitive than ever, you can’t expect donors to trust you if you’re hanging on to so many salaries without justification. We have done to the Agency what should have been done to it long ago.

And the donors -– even if not the journalists -– are starting to notice. For the first time in many years, the Boston Jewish federation has decided to join the Jewish Agency as a donor to a major new program of six-week internship and study programs in Israel –- a longer and richer experience than the 10-day Birthright trip, but without delaying academic studies for the 10-month MASA program.

More on that soon.

We are proud of the new Jewish Agency

So how did Haaretz manage to take our demonstrably frugal salaries and turn them into a scandal?

According to the reporter, he heard complaints from inside the organization. Maybe you noticed these elusive individuals in the piece. There were three “employees,” some “cynical staffers,” one “agency operative” (can’t say I’ve ever met anyone in the building with “operative” on their business card). I hope you’re noticing the trend: they’re all anonymous. Untraceable. Mysterious figures shrouded in, well, mystery. I doubt the editor can even track them down and find out –- for example -– if they’re some of the people who left the organization without leading to any drop in programming for their having gone.

I don’t want to speculate about the motivations for publishing a piece that obsesses about the Agency’s lavishness on an issue where the Agency is now one of the most frugal and transparent of major Jewish organizations. A few weeks ago, Haaretz wrote that the Student Authority was being shut down due to a unilateral Jewish Agency pullout. We’re still waiting for the apology – or the shutdown.

Dramatic reforms are bound to make enemies of the sort that turn over every stone to expose your faults. We welcome criticism, but journalists have a responsibility to make that criticism fair. It’s a shame that a newspaper would so eagerly lap up the bitter grumbling of those who wish that the Agency went back to what it was.

Today, when a donor gives a dollar, a euro, a peso or a ruble to the Jewish Agency, it goes farther, does more and is tracked better than ever before, and better than in most Jewish organizations doing comparable work.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Haaretz. They’ve already done the research.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.