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Focus on Issues: U.S. Zionist Groups Launch Race over Issues of Jerusalem, Pluralism

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Like a piece of film stuck under a projector light, the face of Yasser Arafat burns through the image of the Western Wall, growing larger until it takes over the entire video frame.

“Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Palestine,” shouts the kaffiyeh-clad Palestinian Authority leader in Arabic before a crowd, pointing his finger for emphasis.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert then appears against a picturesque backdrop of the Old City walls.

“We have to defend” Jerusalem “against the viciousness of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority,” he says.

No, this video, titled “Keep Jerusalem United,” is not campaign material for an Israeli election.

It was produced in New York by American Friends of Likud and sent to 75,000 homes of U.S. Jews registered to vote in the election for the 33rd World Zionist Congress.

The Congress, slated for December in Jerusalem, sets the priorities and policies of the World Zionist Organization. The first such congress was convened 100 years ago by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, an anniversary being celebrated there this week.

The WZO has joint responsibility for the $400,000 annual budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel, its organizational partner. The lion’s share of the budget is spent on immigration and absorption as well as on Jewish and Zionist education. Most of the money is contributed by North American federations and the United Jewish Appeal, and other Jewish fund-raising establishments around the world.

The Congress also elects the joint leadership of the two bodies, currently chaired by Avraham Burg.

The race is now entering its final lap. The roughly 150,000 would-be voters are receiving ballots mailed last week by the American Zionist Movement, the official sponsor of the election.

Participants, who became eligible to vote by responding to the first open registration drive, must return their ballots by the end of September.

The United States will send 145 delegates to the Congress, where 500 representatives with full voting rights will gather from around the world.

The hefty mailings from the AZM included lists of the 10 slates competing for delegate spots and one-page summaries of each of their platforms.

Activists believe that the elections will determine the leadership that will speak on behalf of the Jewish world about the most important issues facing Jews.

Religious pluralism is a priority for several of the slates, reflecting the recognition that many grass-roots Jews who had never before heard of the WZO were galvanized to register because of this hot-button issue.

But from the start, the issue was the centerpiece for ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and Mercaz, U.S.A., the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement.

The two also were the most ardent champions of the elections. Several of the other organizations now running slates, including Likud, resisted until late in the game, instead advocating a power-sharing arrangement that would have averted elections.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, ARZA’s executive director, is feeling confident. “I am cautiously optimistic that we are on the verge of a significant breakthrough for the Reform movement and a dramatic power shift in the North American Zionist scene” and beyond.

Hirsch refused to disclose details of what he described as a sophisticated election campaign strategy to win support.

So far, voters have received a postcard featuring ARZA’s trademark campaign image of a Jewish star fractured into two to reflect the divisions sown by Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel.

“This election is not about Jerusalem,” said Hirsch, reacting to Olmert’s campaign pitch. “It is about sending a message to the Israeli political system that we, American Jewry, will not stand for second-class treatment in Israel.”

Religious pluralism is also highlighted in the platforms of American Friends of Meretz, a new slate called American Zionists for Unity and Tolerance and the Baltimore Zionist District (headed by veteran activist Shoshana Cardin), the Labor Zionist Movement and the World Confederation of United Zionists.

The other slates in the running are: Revisionist Zionists of America, Religious Zionist Movement and the Zionist Organization of America.

In an interview, Olmert, who was in New York this week to promote Likud support in the elections, spelled out why the “battle for Jerusalem” is his party’s rallying cry in an organization not directly involved in Arab-Jewish politics.

“At the end of the day, the World Zionist Organization is the most authoritative spokesman for Jewish affairs worldwide,” said Olmert, who set aside a cigar to talk in his hotel room.

He said the elections are a referendum about the fate of Jerusalem because “the Jerusalem issue is at the forefront of the battle now between us and the Arab world.”

It is “the most sensitive, most complex, most important, most symbolic issue that is on the national and international agenda,” he said, adding that “the most powerful voice” preserving the unity of Jerusalem “is the voice of Likud in Israel and Friends of Likud” in the United States.

Jerusalem’s unity, “without any shared sovereignty in any form,” is “the one thing about which Jews should not compromise,” he said.

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