Zionist Elections in U.S. May Now Take Place Online

Embracing the technology of the 21st century, American Zionists may be able to register and vote via the Internet to elect their next delegation to “the parliament of the Jewish people,” the World Zionist Congress.

But not everyone is rooting for this technological advance.

While most agree it would boost voter turnout in the 2002 election, some are resisting nevertheless, fueled by fears that online registration and voting would be vulnerable to sabotage or corruption.

The American Zionist Movement, an umbrella organization for more than two dozen groups, and its election committee are now hammering out the myriad logistics of the election, which will take place in the first quarter of next year.

At stake is more than representation in the World Zionist Organization and a voice among the 500 elected delegates who will attend the 34th World Zionist Congress, slated for next summer in Jerusalem.

There’s also the composition of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s 120-member Board of Governors — half of whom come from the WZO — and input about how the agency should spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on issues such as aliyah and immigrant absorption.

The WZO’s most recent election, held in 1997, was touted as the most democratic vote of its kind in the U.S. Jewish community.

It drew slightly more than 100,000 voters, from some 150,000 registrants. But the AZM was criticized for not doing enough to publicize the election and attract a greater turnout.

To improve turnout this time around, the AZM came up with the twin strategies of increased advertising and online registration and voting, said the organization’s executive director, Karen Rubinstein.

Together, they could propel turnout into the hundreds of thousands, Rubinstein said.

“The belief here is, the more people know, the easier it is to do something like registering, then the more registrants there will be,” she said.

At the forefront of the opposition is the leading vote-getter in the 1997 election, ARZA/World Union: The Association of Reform Zionists of America.

It won 70 of the 145 seats allocated to U.S. Jewry last time around and may be able to muster enough votes to block the move. But other AZM members say they are seeking a compromise. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.

ARZA supports using the Internet to publicize the election and allow Jews to download the registration application, said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the group’s executive director.

But to require entry of credit card and social security numbers may jeopardize voter security — and the integrity of the entire election, Hirsch said.

“The Internet is a powerful tool for reaching people, but there are many, many people who do not like Zionists and do not like Israel, and would like nothing more than to compromise these elections,” he said.

But some of ARZA’s rivals sense other motives.

They charge that Hirsch wants to discourage higher turnout in order to maintain the electoral bulge his delegation won in 1997.

Requiring voters to obtain an application, either in person or off the computer, fill it out and mail it in guarantees that fewer will do it.

As Hirsch himself concedes, “the more steps it takes, the more you depress participation.”

But, he added, if the elections are not considered fair, “the consequences would be tremendously damaging. We lean toward erring on the side of caution.”

The company with whom the AZM intends to contract, Election.com, has reportedly guaranteed a virtually glitch- free election, or it will cover the costs of a second vote.

“There are risks involved with online registration and voting. But my organization and I are convinced that the company has the kind of experience built up over some years to overcome any potential problems,” said Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz USA: The Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement, which garnered 38 seats in 1997.

“In our view, the advantages outweigh all of the risks. It also gives a very positive image to Zionism, that Zionism is a very forward-looking philosophy and movement,” Golub said.

The other contentious issue is the timing of the registration period. At this point, it will stretch from September or October through December.

Some are concerned that if the registration begins just prior to the High Holy Days, it may give an advantage to the Reform movement. Reform temples might be more permissive about allowing registration and campaign talk while in the pews, compared with the more traditional movements.

To this, Hirsch responded: “My advice would be to focus on your own message and campaign, and don’t obsess over what particular day gives a competitor a greater advantage. Hard work is the most important factor.”

Aside from the registration process and period, also unclear is what the main campaign issues will be.

In 1997, ARZA and Mercaz rode a wave of resentment toward those forces in Israel opposed to religious pluralism.

Today, the topic has taken a back seat to peace and the security of Israel.

If the Palestinian intifada continues through the winter, observers suggest it could translate into big gains for American Friends of Likud.

Likud leader Ariel Sharon is currently steering Israel through the crisis as prime minister.

“This will be a chance par excellence for American Jews to make their voices heard in support of the State of Israel and its current government,” said Salomon Vaz Dias, executive director of American Friends of Likud, which won only three seats in 1997.

“There’s certainly more value in that than in the issue of religious pluralism,” he said. “It’s important that people vote on a Zionist issue and not on a religious issue. They should vote for what’s good for Israel and world Zionism, not what’s good for the synagogues.”

As for the World Zionist Organization itself, some observers question its relevance today, a century after Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland.

Defenders like Hirsch say it’s important symbolically, if nothing else.

Amid a renewed push by the Arab world to equate Zionism with racism, the election illustrates “that the essence of Zionism is democracy, based on fair and full representation,” he said.

“And in an era when the Zionist idea is being challenged by anti-Zionists on one hand and post-Zionists on the other, to have the broadest possible participation in an election is a powerful message.”

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