JERUSALEM (Dec. 23)
One hundred years after the First Zionist Congress, delegates from all over the world gathered here this week and engaged in passionate debates about the future direction and structure of the Zionist movement.
They came in droves from the Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, and, of course, various parts of Israel. But they also came from countries such as India, New Zealand and South Africa.
While many openly questioned whether the 33rd Zionist Congress would be the last one ever, the frenzy of activity, the flurry of last-minute resolutions and the frequency of behind-the-scenes negotiations made it clear that Zionism is still very much alive.
Much of the business of Zionist congresses, held generally every four years, centers around the election of people to powerful posts within the World Zionist Organization and its partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel.
This congress, held Dec. 23 to 26, was held 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 undergoing tremendous belt-tightening.
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 the Jewish Agency.
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 and Zionist education around the world.
The coveted leadership posts are divvied up among the major Zionist blocs – - usually in deals sealed in closed-door bargaining sessions that take place long before the congress opens.
That was the case this time around as well, except that there were some last- minute surprises.
A raucous meeting early this week of the World Likud Union resulted in some lastminute nominations of people to key Jewish Agency posts.
These moves caught Diaspora Jewish leaders by surprise, and there were indications that these leaders might exercise their right to effectively veto certain candidates after their election.
There was no division, however, over who the next chairman of the WZO and Jewish Agency should be.
Under a deal worked out months ago, the current chairman, Avraham Burg of the Labor Party, was elected unanimously to continue in his post for another two years, until the end of 1999.
He will be succeeded for the following two years by Salai Meridor of Likud, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency’s settlement department.
In an acceptance speech Tuesday, Burg observed that he and Meridor had lived on the same street as children and were now sharing the honor of chairing the premier Zionist institution.
He said his only regret was that he would have to turn over the post a day before the year 2000 begins.
“You will be there in the next century, to start the next century of Zionism,” he told Meridor.
But if there was across-the-board satisfaction with this power-sharing arrangement, there were significant doubts about whether the Likud candidate for the second most powerful Jewish Agency post — that of treasurer — would ever take office.
The current treasurer, Hanna Ben-Yehudah of Likud, who enjoyed the backing of Diaspora leaders, suddenly withdrew his candidacy this week amid the turmoil at the World Likud Union meeting.
In his place, Likud nominated Nicki Caputo, a South African businessman who now lives in Israel.
There were indications that the Diaspora fund-raising leadership, which must give its consent to the chairman and treasurer, were concerned about Caputo’s qualifications.
The concerns come at a time that the Jewish Agency’s survival as an entity funded primarily by American Jewish community federations remains in doubt beyond the next two years.
Some federations have been reassessing their relationship to the agency to see whether it can continue to meet the changing needs of its donors.
The Jewish Agency has responded to these concerns by undertaking a major restructuring plan that aims for more efficiency and less politics.
Diaspora leaders were said to prefer that Meridor himself take the treasurer’s post for the next two years until he assumes the chairmanship.
The election was scheduled to take place by the end of the Congress on Friday.
Meanwhile, there was behind-the-scenes wrangling over who would head the four major Jewish Agency departments.
Under an understanding reached among the various Zionist constituencies, the four posts and their multimillion-dollar budgets were to be carved up among the major blocs of delegates to the Congress.
Labor won control of the aliyah department, which is responsible for helping resettle immigrants to Israel from all over the world.
A bloc led by the Reform movement, which had scored a significant victory in the open election of U.S. delegates over the summer, won control over two other departments — one dealing with Israel-based projects and the other dealing with outreach to Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.
The Reform bloc is seeking control of various departments 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.
The fourth post — education — went to Likud.
Diaspora leaders were said to be concerned about Likud’s top choice for the post, Amos Horev. They were said to be hopeful that Likud’s No. 3 candidate to head the department, Bobby Brown, would ultimately get the post.
Brown is currently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser on Diaspora affairs. He has played a leading role in trying to defuse the religious pluralism crisis, where a committee is currently trying to work out a compromise on conversions acceptable to the Orthodox as well as the Reform and Conservative movements.
The jockeying over political positions was not the only controversy to rock the congress, however.
On Tuesday, students holding a separate Zionist congress barged into a plenary session devoted to youth outreach and demanded the right to take part as delegates in all votes at the main congress.
“We represent the future of the Jewish people,” said Neil Levitan, 18, of England, a Young Judaea activist. “To deny us a vote in the Zionist Congress is to deny a vote to Israel’s future.”
Added Yoav Gordon, 21, also of England and a member of the Betar movement, “If we’re old enough to make aliyah and serve in the Israeli army, we are old enough to vote in the Zionist Congress.”
Major battles were also in the works concerning dozens of resolutions on issues ranging from religious pluralism to farmers’ rights in Israel.
But despite all the fireworks, an air of unity permeated the congress Tuesday night at festive opening ceremonies that featured performances by some of Israel’s best-known artists and an address by Netanyahu.
The multimedia extravaganza began with the lighting of the Chanukah menorah by Batya Arad, the mother of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, who told the Zionist delegates, “Your work is not in vain.”
The ceremony also included a poignant family reunion. A teen-ager who had emigrated from the Russian region of Dagestan watched a video of his mother saying how much she missed her son.
Moments later, she and the rest of the family strode onto the stage to the evident surprise of the young immigrant.