NEW YORK (Oct. 14)
The battle for religious rights in Israel has triggered a historic shift in the power balance in the World Zionist Organization, the entity which gave birth to modern Zionism 100 years ago.
Using religious pluralism as its rallying cry, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm captured 47.7 percent of the vote in the elections for the 33rd Zionist Congress, which is slated for Jerusalem in December.
In doing so, it more than doubled its support since the last Congress in 1992.
The Conservative movement’s Zionist branch also doubled its numbers in the world Jewish parliament, claiming 26 percent of the U.S. vote.
U.S. Jewry represents 29 percent of the Congress.
In practical terms, the victory means that the Reform, along with the Conservative, will capture key leadership positions within the WZO establishment.
They will also wield significant influence over the $400 million annual budget of the WZO’s partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel.
At least half of that money is contributed through the United Jewish Appeal by U.S. Jews. Most of those who affiliate with a movement are Reform and Conservative.
Meanwhile, the showings of the classical Zionist organizations, including the U.S. affiliates of the Likud and Labor parties, were stunningly weak, prompting Reform Zionist leaders to declare that those groups had “sung their swan song.”
The Reform leaders greeted their own victory with the proclamation of a new, “values-based Zionism,” based on the “principle of mutual respect” between Israel and the Diaspora.
“The new Zionism will not allow the subjugation of our traditions and democratic heritage,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and Philip Meltzer, its president, said in a statement.
“Religious pluralism has been placed at the center of the concerns of American Jewry.”
Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of the Conservative’s Mercaz, echoed the proclamation of change.
“American Jewry has spent the last 50 years building the state of Israel and the next 50 years we will be building and shaping the Jewish society of Israel, based on pluralism and tolerance.”
“This is not just the province of Israelis,” he continued. “It’s a Jewish state and Israel must be prepared to listen to what the Diaspora is saying.”
For its part, American Friends of Likud won just 1.9 percent of the vote, in spite of pouring what were reported to be enormous sums into the election, including the cost of sending videotapes to more than 70,000 homes.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert had personally campaigned for his party, trumpeting it as the best defender of Israel’s security.
Likud’s share was little more than the 1.5 percent of a brand new slate out of Baltimore, called American Zionists for Unity and Tolerance, headed by Shoshana Cardin, the respected chair of the United Israel Appeal.
Other results included:
The Labor Zionist Movement, with 3.4 percent;
The World Confederation of United Zionists, a coalition of classical Zionist parties, less than 1 percent;
The Zionist Organization of America, headed by Morton Klein, won 2.9 percent.
The elections drew nearly 150,000 registrants last spring, of whom roughly 111,000 voted by mail this fall in a contest between 10 slates.
The Reform sweep reflects ARZA’s success in capitalizing during the registration process on mounting anger by many non-Orthodox U.S. Jews over controversial conversion legislation pending in the Israeli Knesset.
That initiative, which would codify the de facto Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel, had come to be seen as a symbol of systemic delegitimation of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.
ARZA officials broadened the election far beyond a little-known WZO into a referendum on the rights and legitimacy of Reform Judaism and on the need for tolerance and diversity in the Jewish state.
And in the campaign, they emphasized the unusual opportunity they were offering American Jews to have a voice in internal Israeli affairs.
“We always saw the elections as a way to influence the wider discussion,” Hirsch of ARZA said in an interview.
“And American Jews rendered their verdict in black and white,” he said. “It was a vote of no confidence in the government policies on Israel-Diaspora affairs.”
For Karen Rubinstein, the executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the umbrella Zionist organization that administered the elections, the outcome reflected “who had access, who had the ability to reach large numbers of Jews.”
It also showed which issues “caught the public imagination and resonated.”
Golub of Mercaz said the overall election was a clear win for “the liberal, progressive forces representing the overwhelming majority of American Jewry and the American Zionist movement.”
The relatively strong showing of the left-wing American Friends of Meretz, with 4.5 percent, appeared to buttress his claim.
The rabbi noted that it was also a vote for religious-based Zionism.
The Orthodox group, the Religious Zionist Movement, drew an impressive 10.8 percent. That means that the three main religious streams combined garnered roughly 85 percent of the vote.
The elections results have triggered a stepped-up, behind-the- scenes jockeying for positions and deals within the WZO and Jewish Agency, all of which will culminate at the Congress.
Already, Labor and Likud have made a deal to rotate the chairmanship of the WZO and Jewish Agency, currently held by Laborite Avraham Burg.
The deal calls for Burg to hold the post for the next two years, to be succeeded by an as-yet unnamed Likud member.
But ARZA, with its new strength, must weigh in on the arrangement. It supports Burg but has indicated it would “reserve judgment” on a Likud candidate.
A major sticking point is how delegates will be assigned to Hadassah, a powerful member of the WZO that opted out of the elections.
Instead, it had requested 35 delegates based on its previous representation. Some powerful parties within the WZO executive have sought to reduce the overall size of the U.S. elected delegation of 145 by the number of delegates assigned to Hadassah.
But ARZA rejected that idea.
“It will be perceived as an attempt to steal the election,” said ARZA’s Hirsch. “It would be a naked power play that could bring down the American Zionist Movement.”
In fact, the AZM also opposes such a move on constitutional grounds. The WZO constitution calls for the U.S. delegation to reflect 29 percent of the Congress’ elected delegates, and Hadassah delegates would not be elected.
The rest of the Diaspora represents 33 percent of the Congress, while Israel is allocated 38 percent of the delegates.
The Jewish Agency budget is spent mostly on immigration and absorption as well as Jewish and Zionist education in the Diaspora.
If Reform has its way, it will step up the agency’s support for progressive Jewish education and tolerance programs inside Israel.
An ideal platform for ARZA to pursue this agenda would be the chairmanship of the newly created Israel Department which would oversee these programs with an estimated budget of $60 million.
Current Jewish Agency funding for programs of the three religious streams and programs promoting tolerance and Jewish unity in Israel is $17.5 million annually.
Meanwhile, officials with American Friends of Likud said they had no comment on the outcome.
Sources at a WZO executive meeting this week said a suggestion came from Likud quarters that the election process be referred to the WZO comptroller to determine whether it was fair.
That prompted Ehud Haviv, the comptroller, to issue an off-the-cuff preliminary oral report that was “positive.”
Reached in Jerusalem, he said he told the executive that about three weeks ago he had met with AZM election officials and their contractors, including the computer service counting the ballots.
He said while his inquiry was not complete, he told the executive that “my initial impression was positive” regarding “the technicalities and legalities of the process.”