Focus on Issues: Elections to Zionist Congress Hinge on Success of Deal Making
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Focus on Issues: Elections to Zionist Congress Hinge on Success of Deal Making

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The registration forms have been printed for the U.S. election of delegates to the next Zionist Congress.

But whether they will be mailed out is anybody’s guess.

Reform and Conservative Zionists believe that they have the most to gain by an election and that the fight for religious pluralism in Israel will be advanced as a result.

But whether the balloting will be held depends largely on the outcome of a series of complex political machinations — here and in Israel — that would confound most American Jews.

Further, many point to a flourishing Israel and say modern Zionism, now in its centennial year, has achieved its goal of Jewish nation-building and has little relevance.

Nevertheless, Zionist activists here say all Jews who feel a connection to Israel and to the concept of Jewish peoplehood have a stake in the congress, which they term the parliament of the Jewish people.

The congress, which selects the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and sets its policies, was the brainchild of Theodor Herzl, who convened the first one in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. The next one is scheduled for December in Jerusalem.

In anticipation, the Labor and Likud parties in Israel, which historically have dominated international Zionist politics, are working furiously to broker a deal for top posts in the Zionist establishment.

At the same time, the heads of these parties are trying to fashion a political plan that would satisfy the Zionist parties in the United States, particularly those of the Reform and Conservative movements.

An agreement on all these matters would obviate the need for an election in the United States.

At stake are the apportionment of delegates to the congress and the assignment of their portfolios in the WZO and other Zionist institutions.

The WZO, along with the Jewish Agency for Israel, uses funds raised by Jews around the world primarily to rescue and resettle immigrants in Israel and to promote Jewish and Zionist education internationally.

The WZO constitution says each country may decide independently whether to elect its delegate slate.

Both Labor and Likud risk an erosion of power if Zionist elections are held here. Some say this is partly why they are trying to make a deal.

As it is, the United States has much Zionist clout, assigned 152 of about 525 delegates to the congress, with full voting rights. And here, more than anywhere else, the Zionist parties of the Reform and Conservative movements have grown in strength, edging out more traditional Zionist parties, including Labor and Likud affiliates.

Further fueling the tension is the raging debate over the merits of an election. This year, it would be open for the first time to any Jewish person 18 or older. He or she simply must subscribe to the principle of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and pay $2.

Officials of the American Zionist Movement, the federation of 20 Zionist parties and organizations, and other proponents say an election would provide American Jews a unique opportunity: to have a say over the allocation of communal resources and world Jewish policy at a time of widespread disaffection over a Jewish organizational world that is otherwise undemocratic.

“The congress is the parliament of the Jewish people” said Moshe Kagan, head of the election committee. “The Zionist movement is probably the only Jewish organization of renown which still adheres to democracy.”

Said Rabbi Robert Golub, the executive director of Mercaz, USA, the Zionist organization for the Conservative movement: “This is a referendum on where the Jewish people are and what direction we’re headed in.”

Detractors, for their part, say elections are a waste of money. And they call the democracy argument a smokescreen for plans to wage a battle over religious pluralism in Israel in the world Zionist arena, where, they say, it does not belong.

“The elections would be a referendum on religious pluralism and not on Zionism,” said Evelyn Blachor, president of Amit, an Orthodox Zionist women’s organization. “The democratic process would be sadly distorted for people’s use or misuse.”

“Democratic, shmemocratic,” said Israel Friedman, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America. If an agreement can be reached, he said, elections “would be a waste of Jewish money” and a “public scandal.”

The Orthodox Zionists, including Amit, say they would boycott the election because of the injection of religious pluralism.

In fact, they are technically ineligible to participate because they are not members of AZM in good standing, a requirement for participation. They suspended themselves in protest two years ago, when an AZM convention adopted a resolution supporting religious pluralism.

Karen Rubinstein, AZM executive director, estimates that the election would cost about $700,000, at least $400,000 of which likely would be recouped by registration fees.

Although the congress is held every four or five years, the last election for delegates was 10 years ago. In 1992, elections were planned but time ran out due to political foot-dragging.

The congress selects the leadership of the WZO, which makes up half the governing body of the Jewish Agency for Israel. JAFI and the WZO have a joint chairman. The current chairman, Avraham Burg, a prominent member of the Labor Party, has come out against elections.

The Jewish Agency is the primary recipient in Israel of funds raised by the Jewish world’s mainstream fund-raising entities, including the United Jewish Appeal and federations in the United States.

The WZO has an independent budget of $30 million, plus 50 percent control over JAFI’s annual budget of more than $400 million.

The WZO has been under fire for many years, charged with being an outmoded, overly politicized organization that is slated for radical restructuring.

But supporters of the election defend the WZO’s continuing relevance.

For their part, Reform and Conservative Zionists see elections as an opportunity for their rank and file to champion religious pluralism in Israel.

“You want to send a message to the prime minister? Vote for ARZA,” said Hirsch.

Further, Reform and Conservative leaders want to boost their representation to reflect the recent changes in the landscape of Israel-Diaspora relations.

“In the last 10 years, our movements have grown and become even more committed to Zionism,” said Golub of Mercaz.

As it was, in the 1987 elections, ARZA and Mercaz came in second and third with 33 delegates and 20 delegates, respectively.

Only Hadassah, the largest Zionist organization in America, won more, with 35. But Hadassah would not be part of an election mix this time. It has sought and won approval for a special non-political status that would give it a certain number of delegates rather than make it compete for them.

Meanwhile, negotiations continue as a deadline looms. ARZA and Mercaz may, in the end, agree to forgo elections if they can be assured fair representation in the Zionist establishment. If not, they plan to send out the registration forms to their constituents by the end of the month.

The deal also depends on efforts by Labor and Likud to fashion a power-sharing arrangement for the chairmanship of both JAFI-WZO and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael. KKL, the Israeli sister organization of the Jewish National Fund of America, functions as a division of the WZO.

In spite of all the flux, AZM and the election committee is prepared to move forward. Indeed, Kagan is deeply committed to elections and is haunted by the 1992 scenario of running out of time.

He also disdains talk of the expense. “I say the price of democracy is much more important than the cost.”

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