Focus on Issues: Zionist Congress Will Hail Past As It Looks to Uncertain Future

Some 2,000 Jews from around the world will gather in Jerusalem next week to celebrate the successes of Zionism’s first century – - and to try to figure out where it’s going in the next one.

It’s an open question for delegates to the 33rd Zionist Congress, slated for Dec. 23-26, 100 years after Theodor Herzl launched the first Zionist enterprise in Basel, Switzerland.

Although not officially on the congress’ agenda, religious pluralism, a central focus of Israel-Diaspora relations during the past year will not be far from anyone’s mind.

The Reform movement, newly empowered by winning nearly half of the 145 delegate positions to the congress from the United States, says it will take advantage of having dozens of its members in Israel to advance its agenda.

It will distribute to congress attendees its recently adopted Zionist platform on the centrality of Israel — and lobby members of the Israeli Knesset on religious pluralism.

The Zionist Congress comes at a time of transition for Israel-Diaspora relations and for Zionism itself, which in a century has brought about the creation of the Jewish state and the ingathering of Jews from around the world.

As the needs of a maturing State of Israel and the priorities of Diaspora Jews change, questions about the role each will have in the life of the other loom large for delegates to the congress.

The Zionist Congress is held every four to five years, bringing together Jews to make decisions affecting the World Zionist Organization.

Part of what is at stake is the distribution of world Jewry’s resources, since the WZO has joint authority over the $400 million annual budget of its partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

At least half of that money is contributed by American Jews through the United Jewish Appeal. The bulk of it is spent in Israel for the absorption and resettlement of immigrants. Much of the rest is spent for Jewish-Zionist education around the world.

While the overwhelming majority of American Jews likely don’t know and don’t care about the congress — just 110,000 Jews voted in the U.S. election of delegates to the congress — for those who do, it is important.

“The congress is perhaps the most democratic institution there is” in Zionist life, said Karen Rubinstein, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, which ran the election.

“The congress is the chance for American Zionists to try and shape what the relationship between Zionists here and the State of Israel will be,” she said.

The congress comes as the central apparatus of the Zionist establishment is undergoing a major reorganization, with the bulk of the WZO being folded into the Jewish Agency, and the agency itself is undergoing tremendous belt- tightening.

The move toward consolidation and depoliticization is a direct result of pressure from American Jews, who have been re-examining their relationship with the Jewish Agency.

At next week’s gathering, 29 percent of the delegates will be from the United States, 33 percent from the rest of the Diaspora, and 38 percent are appointed by Israel’s political parties.

Among the key issues to be decided:

The election of chairman of the Jewish Agency and WZO. The congress is expected to seal a deal for Laborite Avraham Burg, the current chairman, to hold the post for two more years and to be succeeded by Likud candidate Salai Meridor;

The delegation of key portfolios within the Zionist establishment;

What responsibilities the WZO will have in the Diaspora and how its representatives will present Israel and Zionism to Jews in Chicago, Ill., Chico, Calif., and Chattanooga, Tenn.

No one yet knows the answers to those questions, insiders say.

But it is certain that representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements will have far more power over how they are resolved than ever before.

They won the lion’s share of votes in the recent Zionist Congress election in the United States.

The Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm, won 70 delegate seats. Mercaz, the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, won 38. Since they are working jointly as an informal bloc, they wield more than two-thirds of the American Jewish delegation’s vote.

The next-largest group of American delegates represents the Religious Zionist Movement, an alliance of Orthodox Zionists from Emunah, Amit and the Religious Zionists of America, which together won 16 seats at the upcoming congress.

The religious movements’ victory represented a shift in power among American Zionists, who historically aligned themselves with Israeli political parties.

“The traditional thinking about Zionism in the United States has shifted from a political ideology to a religious ideology, and that reflects American Jews,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal, which serves as a link between the UJA and the Jewish Agency.

He attributed the lack of interest in the Zionist Congress to the fact that “in the last 50 years, we have `Zionized’ the entire community,” meaning that the congress is no longer the central vehicle for the expression of Zionism.

The Reform and Conservative movements are jousting for control of various WZO portfolios and budgets, just as their political predecessors in power did.

“We expect to assume control over major portfolios, departments of budgets of tens of millions of dollars,” said a confident Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive vice president of ARZA.

Control of various departments and staffs also will enable them to ensure that their point of view on religious pluralism — that the State of Israel should recognize the authority of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy on conversions, marriages, divorces and burials — is promulgated by representatives of the Jewish state working all over the world.

Hirsch said his movement wants to work with the Conservatives to enable the Jewish Agency to become “the primary vehicle advocating religious pluralism” within Israel.

The Conservative movement’s Mercaz is introducing a resolution to the congress that, if passed, will create a new Department for Jewish Unity, which would help advance tolerance among the movements and strengthen relationships between them and Israel, said Roy Clements.

Clements, president of Mercaz, said the resolution would also require the WZO to actively promote equality of legal status for all the Jewish denominations and oppose any Knesset legislation that would delegitimize one movement or another, he said.

Other delegates said they hoped that the tendentious issue of pluralism would not prevent participants from working together.

“I would like to see the congress be a strong showing that we as Jews can all work together, no matter what our ideological and religious beliefs are,” said Sondra Fisch, who will be attending as a delegate for Emunah, an Orthodox women’s Zionist group.

Israel Friedman, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, echoed that sentiment.

“All we want to do is avoid these discussions,” he said, but warned that if the Reform and Conservative movements “force it on us, then we are there to address it.”

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