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Anthrax Scare Impedes Ballots for Upcoming Zionist Elections

While the terrorists mailing out anthrax may not have been targeting Jews, they have managed to affect the elections for a group known as the "international Parliament of the Jewish people."

Registration forms for the World Zionist Congress elections are traveling through the same Washington post office where anthrax was found last month, and some are still being disinfected and quarantined.

It is not clear just how many registration forms have gone unprocessed as a result of the anthrax scare.

However, many observers are blaming the larger preoccupation with anthrax and terrorism — which has distracted American Jews from Israel, particularly internal issues in Israel — for the low interest in this year’s Zionist elections in the United States.

The elections take place in March and determine who will sit on the World Zionist Congress, a group regarded as the official representative of Diaspora Jewry that determines the policies of the World Zionist Organization.

The WZO is significant because the group controls half the seats on the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has a $350 million budget that focuses on aliyah and absorption, Jewish education and partnerships between Israel and Diaspora communities.

With a Dec. 14 registration deadline looming, fewer than 50,000 American Jews — one-third the number who signed up in the last election four years ago — have registered for the World Zionist Congress elections.

The American Zionist Movement — the umbrella for American Zionist groups that oversees the U.S. elections — has requested that the deadline be extended by six weeks and expects to receive an answer from the world body on Nov. 29.

All Jews over 18 are eligible to vote as long as they register ahead of time. Voters choose party slates rather than candidates.

The American elections determine 29 percent of the elected delegates to the Congress, which is slated to convene in Jerusalem in June.

The last elections in 1997 drew more attention than usual because they came amid fighting over the status of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. The liberal movements encouraged their rank and file to express their concerns by participating in the elections, and they did so in record numbers.

As a result, the liberal streams won 74 percent of the American vote, the majority going to ARZA/World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

The remaining votes were divided among Religious Zionists of America, which represents Orthodox Jews, and several secular Zionist groups aligned with Israeli parties, such as Likud and Labor.

The 1997 victory led to increased visibility and political clout for liberal Judaism in Israel as well as increased Jewish Agency allocations to Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel.

It is not clear whether this year’s low registration will erode the liberal movements’ clout in the World Zionist Organization or will be distributed evenly among the various slates.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, says he is still hoping to get as large a Reform turnout as in 1997.

"The fact that a lot has happened in the world doesn’t diminish in any way the importance of these elections, which will determine who will most influence the long-lasting discussions in the Jewish world: the nature of Zionism, the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations, the questions of religious pluralism," he said.

The Reform movement’s campaign platform is still about religious pluralism. A two-page advertisement in the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine declares that "Ultra-Orthodox politicians are threatening Jewish unity and Jewish continuity" and urges Reform Jews to register for the elections.

However, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, acknowledged that congregants are less interested in religious pluralism and the Zionist elections than they were in 1997.

"Our congregational leaders and rabbis are working hard" to get out the vote, "but it doesn’t resonate not because people don’t care about these issues but because other things are grabbing their attention," Yoffie said.

Still, the elections are not at the top of the movement’s agenda either. At the Reform movement’s biennial convention in Boston next week — expected to draw more than 5,000 participants — only six of the almost 200 workshops will address Israel or religious pluralism.

And Yoffie said the issue of religious pluralism will not come up in his sermon, considered a centerpiece of the convention.

Yoffie said it is "hard to judge" whether Reform will lose seats or clout in the election.

"Obviously I hope we don’t lose strength," he said. "The danger here is that this will be interpreted as meaning that" religious pluralism is "of no importance to American Jews, which is simply untrue."

"Nothing would be more disastrous now than for Israel to re-enter the religious wars and start passing coercive religious legislation," he said. In the past, legislative efforts such as ones to recognize only Orthodox conversions for converts from abroad drove a major wedge between Israel and American Jewry.

With religious pluralism less central — and with some seeing it as divisive at a time when Israel is in crisis — the Conservative movement’s Mercaz is promoting broader platform than pluralism this year, said Rabbi Robert Golub, the group’s executive director.

This year, Mercaz is promoting the elections as a way to support Israel and Zionism, Golub said. "Our primary slogan is, ‘Cast a vote of support for Israel, register to vote,’ " Golub said.

He said that Mercaz is concerned that low participation in the election could be interpreted as a sign that American Jews are not interested in Israel.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, an umbrella for several Orthodox groups including the Orthodox Union, said the low registration rates don’t reflect people’s interest in Israel or religious pluralism, but simply the fact that they are distracted by other issues.

The Religious Zionists of America, which favors Orthodox control over religious matters in Israel — such as conversion and marriages — won 12 percent of the American vote in 1997.

Ganchrow said that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he unsuccessfully urged the World Zionist Congress to postpone the elections.

"Now is not the time for the Conservative, Reform and Orthodox to be jockeying for position," he said. "Now’s the time for unity."

With the election’s moving ahead, Ganchrow is working hard to get out the vote. He said his group has been much more active in registering people than it was in 1997 when as president of the O.U., he had to "beg someone for a contribution to make a flyer" publicizing the elections.

Ganchrow recently spoke about the elections on a New York radio station that does Jewish programming and will send out 130,000 registration forms this week.

"I don’t know how successful we will be but it’s not for lack of trying," he said.

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