Reform Candidate Pressing Ahead with His Bid for WZO Chairmanship

Rabbi Richard Hirsch’s chances of being elected chairman of the World Zionist Organization are not much better than Ross Perot’s.

But unlike the Texas billionaire, the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism is not a quitter.

“I am continuing with my candidacy,” Hirsch told a news briefing here Wednesday.

Hirsch is trying to wrest the chairmanship away from Simcha Dinitz of the Labor Party, who has held that position for the past four years.

While Hirsch concedes he has little chance of winning the election for chairman, which will take place during the World Zionist Congress on Monday, his bid is a continuing thorn in the side of WZO officials.

At the heart of the battle is the way delegates to this year’s congress have been selected. The Israeli delegation, which comprises 38 percent of the congress, is divided in proportion to the returns in Israel’s Knesset elections.

Diaspora representatives in the past have been elected by members of various Zionist organizations unless all sides reached a mutually acceptable agreement on how to divide a country’s delegation.

This year, however, the Association of Reform Zionists of America did not agree with the dozen other American Zionist groups on the U.S. delegations.

But despite the lack of consensus, elections were not held. In protest, Hirsch announced his candidacy.

The Reform movement took its case to the Zionist Supreme Court, which agreed that delegates should be elected democratically.

However, the court approved a compromise proposal set forth by the American Zionist Federation and deemed elections for this year’s congress unnecessary.

OPPOSITION BLOC FORMED

During his campaign, Hirsch emphasized that voting at the Zionist Congress is conducted by secret ballot. Nonetheless, he is expected to get few, if any, votes from Labor or from Likud, which has agreed to support Dinitz in exchange for retaining control of the WZO’s treasury post.

In addition, the right-wing Tsomet party has aligned itself with the National Religious Party and the international Orthodox Mizrachi movement, in what will be the third largest bloc in the congress. The Orthodox delegates are not likely to cast their ballots for a Reform rabbi.

The Reform movement has formed an alliance with Shinui and Ratz, two factions of the leftwing Meretz bloc, which is part of the Labor-led governing coalition.

Hirsch said his candidacy has been hurt by the lack of elections.

“With elections, the opposition has the opportunity to introduce itself and highlight the issues. Elections also allow the voters to make a change in leadership. As it stands now, the odds are greatly against us,” he said.

Since the last congress, he noted, “many things have changed within the Zionist movement. Allegiances have shifted and different issues have come up. According to this year’s formula of choosing delegates, we have an almost exact replication of representatives as the last congress.”

Hirsch said that “although the WZO prides itself on being the most democratic representative organization in the Jewish world, this year’s congress will not reflect this.

“Of the 584 delegates who will vote on Monday, only nine were elected. And the 190 Israeli delegates were chosen according to the results of the general elections on June 23. I don’t know of a single Israeli who went to the voting booth knowing he was also casting a vote for delegates of WZO,” he said.

DINITZ EXPRESSES SURPRISE

When asked by a reporter about his feelings toward Dinitz, Hirsch said, “He is a distinguished leader of our people with a long history of service. I hope he continues this service, but perhaps in another job.”

Soon after the briefing, Dinitz released a statement saying he was “surprised at the things said in the press conference.

“About half of the delegates are new, and for the first time students will be among the representatives,” he pointed out.

In response to Hirsch’s charge that he had refused to meet with the ARZA-Shinui-Ratz bloc, Dinitz stated, “The Labor movement is prepared, as it has always been, to carry out negotiations with leaders of the Reform movement, Ratz and Shinui, so that they can participate in the wall-to-wall coalition that already exists.”

The argument, he added, “was never about democracy but about the electoral process that should be employed when talking about voluntary organizations. The Reform movement appealed to the court, and we accept the court’s decision.”

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