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WZO Elections Send a Message on Pluralism — but Who’s Listening?

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America may be thousands of miles from Israel, but some here hope that the results of recent World Zionist Organization elections send a powerful signal to Israeli leaders about American Jewry’s commitment to religious pluralism in Israel. Of the 145 delegates up for grabs in balloting for the U.S. slate to the WZO’s 35th Congress of the Jewish People, 89 went to parties representing progressive religious movements — Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist.

“This is a victory for the Reform movement, both in America and abroad,” said Scott Dubin, campaign manager for The Association of Reform Zionists of America, which easily won the elections, taking home just over 38 percent of the 75,686 votes cast. That gives ARZA 55 delegates to the June congress in Israel.

“It’s a victory for those who want to shape Israel’s agenda, to see an Israel where non-Orthodox marriages are recognized, non-Orthodox conversions are legitimate, and non-Orthodox rabbis can perform these ceremonies,” Dubin said.

The second-biggest vote-getter was the Religious Zionist Slate, which won 24 percent of the votes and 35 delegates. It was followed by Mercaz U.S.A., the Zionist organization of the Conservative Movement, which won 22 percent and 32 delegates.

Rounding out the list were:

Zionist Organization of America, 3.4 percent and five delegates;

Hatikva, a liberal coalition of Ameinu and Meretz, 3.3 percent and five delegates;

Likud, 2.2 percent and three delegates;

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, 1.3 percent and two delegates;

Green Zionist Alliance, 1.3 percent and two delegates;

Herut USA, 1.3 percent and two delegates;

Dor Zion, 1.2 percent and two delegates;

Russian American Jews for Israel with .85 percent and one delegate; and

American Zionist Coalition, with .7 percent and one delegate.

This was the third straight election that ARZA won, though its number of delegates has dropped from 70 in 1997 to 61 in 2002 to 55 this year.

In the past ARZA ran on a slate with the Reconstructionist group, which ran on its own for the first time this year. Even taking this into account, this year’s results represent a net loss of four seats for ARZA.

The Religious Zionist Slate, meanwhile, has gained seats in each of the last three elections, going from 16 in 1997 to 29 in 2002 to 35 this time.

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.

The WZO provides 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.

U.S. Jewry’s desire for religious equality in Israel “will no doubt be a message that will be given,” said

W. James Schiller, president of the American Zionist Movement, the U.S. affiliate of the WZO that ran the elections. “How it will be received and how it will be translated, I don’t know — other than that, in past years, there has been movement to benefit both the Reform and Conservative movement in Israel.”

However, some question whether anyone in Israel pays attention to the WZO. Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel’s Meretz-Yahad Party, has called the body 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.”

A total of 75,686 votes were cast for 12 slates this year. Although 88 percent of registered voters actually voted, the actual number of votes represents a drop from 2002, when 88,753 people cast ballots, and an even steeper fall from 1997, when 107,832 people voted.

“There is some disappointment here in the Masorti movement,” as the Conservative movement in Israel is known, said Rabbi Andrew Sachs, director of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. “Not only in the lower numbers of people who voted, but also in the apparent disinterest of the American Jewish community to financially support, or to help out on any kind of grand scale, the Reform and Conservative movements here in Israel.”

The liberal movements in Israel have spent decades fighting for parity in a religious milieu dominated by the Orthodox establishment.

Last year, Israel’s High Court granted full recognition to so-called “leaping converts” — non-Orthodox converts who study in Reform or Conservative academies in Israel and complete their conversions abroad.

Non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel have not been endorsed. Israel also hasn’t sanctioned marriages by non-Orthodox rabbis.

“Everybody in the Knesset understands the importance of the Jewish community in America,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York. “Everybody is always interested in their point of view. On the other hand, I think the Knesset looks at the way of thought of the people who live in Israel and this is what determines” policy.

Even so, Sachs said, the results can’t hurt.

“There’s no question that having larger number of representatives from the denominations as delegates will go further toward ensuring that the allocations to the denominations here in Israel are not reduced,” Sachs said. But he added, “It is, perhaps, a reflection of the apathy of the American Jewish community that so many fewer people voted.”

The AZM election committee will meet in coming weeks to look at how to increase participation in future elections.

“We thought that” interest in Israel’s political situation “would yield a good return,” Karen Rubinstein, the AZM’s executive director, said after voting concluded late last month. “We’re certainly going to be sitting down and looking at it in terms of why the numbers are going down.”

Taken as a whole, the election results highlight the shift the Zionist movement in the United States has made in the past 10 to 15 years, from a movement dominated by ideological parties to one dominated by religious groups, she said.

Several observers said this may have to do, at least in part, with the fact that the religious movements have inherent recruiting grounds to get out the vote: their synagogues.

Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz USA, said the results were particularly noteworthy in a year when religious equality issues aren’t roiling Israel.

“There wasn’t the public feud in 2006 on ‘Who is a Jew’ around which to rally the troops,” he said. “Nevertheless, the fact that we still emerge as the largest block in the American Zionist movement is a statement that needs to be heard in Israel.”

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