As It Prepares for an Election, WZO Seeks to Assert Its Relevance

Earlier this year, Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel’s Meretz-Yahad Party, called for the establishment of an assembly of Jewish lawmakers from around the world to address issues of consequence to global Jewry. Beilin’s call echoed an idea two years earlier from Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who recommended creating a “second chamber” of the Knesset to provide a forum for Diaspora Jews to advise the State of Israel on matters of import to world Jewry.

Such calls leave proponents of the World Zionist Organization scratching their heads. After all, they say, their organization has been doing all those things for more than 100 years.

“This is the congress of the Jewish people,” says Karen Rubinstein, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the WZO’s U.S. wing.

Elections got under way last week for U.S. representatives to the WZO’s 35th Congress of the Jewish People, to be held in Israel in June. Balloting will run through Feb. 28.

Twelve different slates are running for 145 available slots. Two new groups are among those contending: the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, running for the first time on its own slate; and RAJI: Russian American Jews for Israel.

Founded at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, the WZO — whose original goal was establishing a Jewish homeland — has convened more than 30 times to debate issues facing the Jewish people.

Among the WZO’s most important functions, its members make up roughly half of the decision-making power of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Half of the agency’s board of governors are from the WZO, as are many members of its committees.

“The people who go and vote in this congress represent world Jewry,” says David Borowich, founder of the Dor Zion slate, which is running for spots in the WZO Congress. “They have a chance to put forth new ideas. They influence the leadership of the Jewish Agency. You may say, ‘Why is this important?’ The Jewish Agency has a budget. That money can be going to broad programs and big ideas.”

The Jewish Agency boasts an annual budget of some $350 million and dispatches its emissaries around the world.

But with a functioning Jewish state governed by a democratically elected Parliament, some wonder whether the WZO has outlived its usefulness.

The WZO “is a pathetic vestige of the organization founded by Theodor Herzl, which was most relevant in the years leading up to the founding of the State of Israel,” Beilin wrote in a Ha’aretz Op-Ed earlier this year. “Instead of being disbanded in 1948, with the establishment of the state, it continues to exist as an anachronistic framework, which represents a tiny fraction of the Jewish people.”

He added that the content of the WZO congresses “is of no interest to the Jewish community around the world.”

WZO officials, along with members of the dozen American slates running for seats in the upcoming congress, acknowledge that the organization has flaws, but bristle at the notion that it ought to be replaced.

“So they want to change the name of the structure, and by changing the name believe they are changing the purposes?” asked Mel Salberg, past president of the AZM and now its American election committee chair. “I don’t see giving up a structure and an organization that has served Israel and served the Jewish people.”

Still, in the United States at least, interest in the WZO has been limited.

Of the estimated 5 million to 6 million American Jews, just 107,832 voted in the elections for U.S. representatives to the Zionist congress in 1997. The number fell to 88,753 in 2002.

“We have not had, in the past, the kind of response to this that we would like,” Rubinstein says.

But some observers say the figures may be misleading. Some 50 percent of U.S. Jews aren’t affiliated with synagogues or other Jewish organizations, says Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement, which cuts the number of potential voters down to 3 million. Of this figure, roughly half are children, cutting the number again to 1.5 million potential voters.

One need not be a member of a Jewish organization to vote; individuals older than 18 who accept the fundamental beliefs of Zionism can register and vote through the AZM at www.congressofthejewishpeople.org. Registration costs $7 for adults and $5 for students.

The AZM will be launching a radio and Internet campaign in coming weeks to educate American Jews about the WZO’s activities and encourage greater awareness and involvement.

The WZO also has passed a rule stipulating that 25 percent of each slate’s delegates be under age 30, a step aimed at addressing the WZO’s aging membership and ensuring future leaders.

Hatikva, a slate of progressive Zionist groups, has put forth candidates including the well-known Jewish entertainer Theodor Bikel and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service and a former candidate for New York City mayor.

At least one group in the running hopes realpolitik offers some free publicity: Likud’s U.S. arm thinks that Ariel Sharon’s recent decision to leave the Likud to form a new party could boost the electoral fortunes of the Likud’s U.S. branch.

“The fact that we are in the news and the name of our slate is ‘Likud,’ I think it definitely helps,” said Ari Harow, executive director of American Friends of Likud. “For the past couple of years, nobody really knew what the Likud stood for. For the first time in a number of years I think there’s some ideological clarity.”

Also running to represent the United States are the Green Zionist Alliance; Herut, North America: The Jabotinsky Movement; Hatikva: The Progressive Zionist Coalition; ARZA: Association of Reform Zionists of America; the Religious Zionist Slate; Dor Zion: Bnai Zion, World Confederation of United Zionists and Dor Zion; MERCAZ USA: the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement; the American Zionist Coalition: Baltimore Zionist District and Fuel for Truth; the Zionist Organization of America; and Likud.

In the last WZO election in 2002, ARZA/World Union, the Reform movement’s slate, came out on top, with 42 percent of the vote, followed by the Conservative MERCAZ USA with 22 percent and the Religious Zionist Movement with 20 percent. Coming in fourth with less than 4 percent of the vote was Meretz USA.

The religious streams’ success in WZO elections began in the late 1970s when ARZA made its first big splash, AZM says. Since then, other religious movements have been trending upward as well.

Observers say one reason the religious streams are dominating the ideological groups in these ballots is that the religious groups have a built-in platform for spreading their message: synagogues.

Systemic shifts have contributed as well.

“The main things is that Zionism in America historically was seen as separate from the synagogues,” says MERCAZ USA’s Golub. “Today, the ideological Zionist groups have declined dramatically because we’re now dealing with an existing State of Israel, and the ideological battles have shifted to Israel.

He added, “In the Diaspora, the religious movements have embraced Zionism, certainly since the 1967 war, and since the affiliated community is found in the synagogues today, that’s where you’re going to find the bulk of Zionists and the bulk of Zionist activities.”

The WZO also passes resolutions on issues that range from support for religious pluralism in Israel to allocating money to encourage aliyah to developing rural settlements on the Israeli periphery.

NEXT STORY