NEW YORK (Jul. 9)
American Zionist organizations greeted the results this week of the American elections for the 31st World Zionist Congress with either elation or bitterness.
The Conservative and Reform Zionist slates, which were the undisputed big winners, welcomed what they viewed as an American Zionist imperative for increased religious pluralism in Israel.
But the Students for Israel list, the Americans for Progressive Israel (API) and the Religious Zionists of America (RZA) strongly protested the heavy penalties imposed on their election slates, which translated into a loss of mandates in the 152-seat American delegation to the Congress in Jerusalem this December.
Traditional parties like Hadassah and the Zionist Organization of American (ZOA) lost considerable numbers of mandates from the 30th Zionist Congress, but Hadassah praised the support given to the Reform and Conservative Zionists and noted that religious pluralism was also at the center of its platform. The ZOA issued a statement expressing disappointment at its losses.
The Friends of Labor slate, the only traditional Zionist party to gain mandates in this election, claimed a victory for the Labor Zionist movement.
CONSERVATIVE, REFORM LEADERS PLEASED
Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the first delegate on the MERCAZ Conservative Zionist slate, applauded his party’s gains. MERCAZ, which ran a slate for the first time, won 20 mandates.
“They (the gains) reflect not only the growing sentiments among Conservative Jews to strengthen democratic and pluralistic elements within Israel, but also the readiness to fight actively for that goal,” Schorsch said.
Rabbi Eric Yoffee, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), agreed, “The Zionist community is sending a clear message about religious rights in Israel,” he said. ARZA received 33 mandates, a gain of 19 from the previous elections that make it the second largest delegation of American Zionists to the 31st Congress.
Representatives of the American Labor Zionist movement applauded the results as a victory for the forces of moderation.
Phyllis Sutker of Chicago, who coordinated the Labor-Na’amat U.S.A. campaign, said, “The dramatic increases recorded by ARZA, MERCAZ, and the increased strength of Labor, who together make up the forces of moderation, shows that the American Jewish community wants to send a message to Jerusalem on issues which effect its future.” That message seems to have gotten through to some Israeli leaders. Akiva Lewinsky, the Labor candidate for chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executive, phoned Friends of Labor Israel to express his satisfaction. “I hear the message calling for change, moderation and pluralism and I see the partners with whom the changes can be implemented,” he said.
Ben Cohen, chairman of the American Zionist Federation (AZF), which administered the American elections, indicated that many of the votes were reactions to the proposed changes in the Law of Return that would invalidate Conservative and Reform conversions, and which were again defeated in the Knesset Wednesday.
“This is a declaration of independence on the part of diaspora Zionists expressing their own opinion,” he said. He added that the results indicated that American Zionists are moving away from traditional Israeli partisan politics and forming their own agenda.
But some were less pleased with the election results and expressed disenchantment with the American Zionist movement as well as the manner in which penalties were imposed during this election.
The Progressive Zionist List received one mandate and lost three as a result of a 74 percent penalty. The list has filed an appeal which will come before an grievance panel called the Zionist Tribunal.
Arich Liebowitz of the Progressive Zionist List said the slate was penalized for having too many gift memberships, yet he noted he had understood that these memberships were permissible. “Every Zionist organization gives gift memberships,” he said.
Cohen said the issue of gift memberships will be decided by the tribunal Although the rules do not specifically prohibit the gifts, one requirement for eligibility is that all members of Zionist organizations must have dues paid up to date.
ORTHODOX LEADER CLAIMS ‘HEIST’
RZA, one of three parties that formed a coalition on the Religious Zionist Movement slate, was penalized 93 percent of its votes. That translated into a 56 percent penalty for the slate (calculated according to the RZA’s proportion of members to the whole slate).
Rabbi Louis Bernstein, RZA chairman, called the penalty “the biggest heist since the Brink’s bank robbery.” He would not say, however, why the heavy penalties were imposed on his party. The AZF also refused to disclose to reporters the rationale for the penalties.
“We don’t view this as an election matter at all. We view this as an assault on Orthodoxy,” Bernstein said. He said he has “not been given a chance to respond” to the charges. Bernstein said he has not decided on an appeal to the Zionist Tribunal because he is skeptical about its objectivity. The tribunal is composed of one member of each Zionist organization in the election.
The divisiveness between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and the intense focus on religious issues caused concern within the ZOA. Milton Shapira, ZOA president, said “the single issue of religious equity in Israel dominated the campaign.
“…We are concerned that the infusion of religious issues within the Zionist movement may well lead to an increased polarization of the Zionist movement, thereby weakening Israel’s base of support in the diaspora. As strong advocates of religious pluralism, ZOA believes that solutions should be found without fragmenting the Jewish people.”