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Behind the Headlines: American Zionist Groups at Odds over Zionist Congress Elections

The organization that calls itself “the parliament of the Jewish people” is drawing up plans for an election that critics charge will be an election in name only.

At issue is the makeup of the American delegation to the World Zionist Congress, scheduled to convene next June in Jerusalem.

The congress will decide who runs the World Zionist Organization and will choose half the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental body that disperses money raised for Israel by the United Jewish Appeal.

The WZO constitution, following the practice established by Theodor Herzl at the second Zionist Congress in 1898, mandates that delegates be chosen democratically by those who pay dues and affirm belief in Zionist principles.

In practice, the electorate is the 1 million or so American Jews who are members of at least one of 13 Zionist organizations, which include the American affiliates of Labor and Likud, as well as the religiously based Zionist affiliates of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.

For the 1987 congress, 210,957 ballots were cast of 900,000 mailed out to members of Zionist organizations. Total cost for the Zionist elections was $1.01 million.

This time around, most Zionist organizations are looking for a shortcut.

“Because of the constraints, not least the time and money involved, it’s impossible to hold general elections,” said Moshe Kagan, citing the high cost of resettling Soviet Jews.

Kagan, a longtime activist with Americans for a Progressive Israel, chairs the American Elections Committee of the American Zionist Federation, the umbrella grouping of Zionist bodies that is charged with implementing the election process.

REFORM GROUP WON’T GO ALONG

In the past, Zionist groups have forestalled elections by unanimously agreeing on how to divide up the delegates, generally by following the results of the previous election.

But this year, one group refuses to go along.

“Voting for the WZO is the only way to give individual Jews control over the Jewish Agency,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Unable to approve a slate of delegates in the face of ARZA’s objections, the Area Elections Committee has in recent weeks been discussing other ways to choose representatives that would be “consistent with generally accepted democratic principles,” as required by the WZO constitution.

With the exception of ARZA, members of the elections committee have reached a consensus on a plan, though some details remain to be decided.

It calls for the slate to be selected by an “electoral college” of around 600 members. The vote cast by an electoral college member, in secret ballot, would represent one-quarter of an American delegate to the congress.

The members of the electoral college would be apportioned among the Zionist organizations, which would be charged with choosing their representatives in a democratic manner.

“We’re trying to do our best to preserve as much of the democratic nature of the WZO as possible,” said Kagan.

But Yoffie called the plan “a fraud,” since electors will not vote freely but be beholden to the organizations they represent.

Rabbi Matthew Simon, president of Mercaz, the Zionist arm of Conservative Judaism, agreed that “the overwhelming number of electors may vote for their own Zionist organizations,” even though they would not be required to.

MERCAZ MAY ‘LOSE THE MOST’

That could hurt Mercaz, which won 23,000 votes in the 1987 elections, even though it only had 15,000 members at the time. Such crossover voting is unlikely if the electoral college plan goes through.

“We do not kid ourselves that dozens of electors are going to vote for Mercaz,” said Simon, whose organization now numbers close to 40,000. “We may stand to lose the most.”

But he said Mercaz favors the plan nonetheless. “We’re simply interested in being good Zionists and saving money,” he said.

The one issue that remains on the agenda and is blocking a final decision is how to distribute electoral college representatives among the different organizations.

One position, favored by Simon and others, is to divide them in proportion to the delegates to the last congress.

But that seemingly logical solution has a snag: The 1987 delegation reflected not only the votes received by the parties, but also penalties imposed on some groups for “irregularities” on their membership lists.

The penalties were taken as a percentage of the votes received, the same percentage as an audit of their membership rolls found to be not-valid memberships in the context of an election.

Not surprisingly, those groups who were penalized — unjustly so, they contend — want this slate of delegates to be divided by the raw, unadjusted vote totals recorded last time around.

It has been suggested that ARZA is insisting on full-scale elections because it would likely, as in the previous election, to gain delegates at the expense of the older, more established Zionist groups, such as the Zionist Organization of America and Hadassah.

But Yoffie insists his stand is a matter of principle. He said it had been suggested to him that if ARZA went along with the consensus, “they would find ways to give us more delegates.” But by doing so, he said, “you’re corrupting the entire system.”

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