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Zionist Congress rattled by bombing

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, makes a speech at the 34th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on June 18. (Brian Hendler)

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, makes a speech at the 34th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on June 18. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, June 18 (JTA) — The opening of the 34th World Zionist Congress didn’t turn out exactly as expected this week, as elections for officers and debates regarding Israel as a Jewish and democratic state were put on hold when a bomb exploded on a crowded Jerusalem bus. Neither did remarks by Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, who sparked a furor Tuesday when he said he prefers an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who might not be Jewish according to Jewish law than “to someone who prays three times a day but stays in Brooklyn.” “It was a slap in the face,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of World Mizrachi, as well as the head of the delegation of the Religious Zionists of America. “It was inflammatory and cruel, and the worst part is that this isn’t the time to be throwing bricks at each other,” said Ganchrow, who was among those who rushed the convention center stage in protest after Chesler’s remarks. “Not when we’re being blown up on buses.” The news of Tuesday’s suicide bombing, which killed at least 19 Israelis, clearly rattled the delegates to the Zionist Congress, which is touted as the parliament of the Jewish people, bringing together delegates from all over the world. But so did Chesler’s remarks, which many saw as inappropriate given the sense of Jewish unity the congress was trying to promote. The 750-seat congress convenes every four to five years to negotiate the policy of the World Zionist Organization, which makes up half the decision-making power of the Jewish Agency. That means influence over the agency’s $350 million budget, which focuses on immigration and absorption, as well as worldwide religious, political and educational programs. In addition to discussing Jewish solidarity with Israel, a major debate was expected over whether and how to forge consensus over a resolution about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Some saw the opportunity to push for the acceptance of religious pluralism and the acceptance by Israel of non-Orthodox religious streams. Against this backdrop came Chesler’s remarks, which were critical of Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s handling of converts and Russian immigrants who come to Israel under the Law of Return, which enables citizenship for anyone with a Jewish grandparent. “We should salute each and every immigrant who comes to Israel under the Law of Return and we must battle against the discrimination of the Jews from Russia who are being transformed into second-class citizens,” Chesler said. His remarks caused an immediate uproar, prompting him to issue a statement, saying, “I do not seek argument but rather cooperation between the religious streams.” He added: “The Zionist movement must be progressive, open, liberal, and unite everyone together around it. Arguments are entirely legitimate, but we must ultimately all work together.” A national officer of the American Zionist Movement said he believed Tuesday’s actions, both on the streets and in the convention center, would not affect the central debate over pluralism. “Pluralism is a word which has created differences in the American community,” Isaac Blackhov said. “Israelis do not understand it the same way as Americans, and it has an entirely different connotation.” Blackhov said he believed the word pluralism would be deleted from almost every resolution the Congress debates, because of its ambiguity. But for Rabbi Uri Regev, the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents the Reform movement in Israel, the fact that the largest number of Congress delegates come from synagogue-related organizations could mean that religious pluralism is the burning issue that must be discussed. The Chesler comment created a “raucous” scene, he said, but raised the one issue that is critical to Israel’s future character. “This isn’t just about raising money for kindergartens, and trauma centers and ambulances,” Regev said. “We’re trying to discuss and discover and ultimately decide Israel’s future.” Bonnie Lipton, national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said she had hoped Tuesday’s suicide bombing attack would unite the organization. “There still was an outbreak of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior,” she said, referring to Chesler’s comments. “It’s made even more offensive, given the terrible tragedy.” Elana Gershen Finkelstein, a New Jersey delegate for Mercaz USA, which represents the Conservative movement, said she believed Tuesday’s attack “quieted the whole conference down.” “There are differences, but the background in which we have these discussions changed,” she said, seated with her mother before a memorial service to victims of terrorism, planned before Tuesday’s attack. “There are life-and-death issues.” WZC delegates had hoped to visit the site of the attack, but were stopped for security reasons. While some people expressed anger at being turned away, others said they understood the inconvenience of having busloads of people at a crime scene. Lipton, who was at one of Hadassah’s hospitals in Jerusalem when victims of the suicide bombing were brought in, said she believes delegates may have a delayed reaction to the attack. She said he hoped that future sessions would be more unified. “There is an intense need to try and bring the Jewish people together,” she said. “There is impatience and frustration over the way we focus on our differences, rather than concern ourselves on what we have in common, which is survival of the Jewish people.” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed. “The real issue is the security of the Jewish people, and the answer is Jewish unity,” Hoenlein said. “If you lose sight of the critical issue, then all this is counterproductive.” Ganchrow said the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, told him two weeks ago that the congress would reaffirm Jewish unity and solidarity, without raising “all that pluralism nonsense.” “We come here to be a part of the Jewish people,” he said. “We know there are things that divide us. Let’s not debate what’s irreconcilable.”

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