Under Herzl’s Gaze, Zionist Congress Emphasizes Need to Empower Youth

On a sun-drenched window ledge, three young European delegates to the Zionist World Congress sit poring over resolutions on anti-Semitism and Zionist education, debating which ones to oppose and which to support. Dana Landau, 21, from Zurich, and Jeremy Uhr, 25, and Ilan Tojerow, 29, both from Brussels, are among the younger generation of faces at the Congress. Committed and intelligent, they wonder, like many of their fellow delegates, how to keep the World Zionist Organization relevant and results-oriented in the 21st century.

“The Zionist movement is living in the past,” said David Borowich, chairman and founder of Dor Chadash, a New York-based group that seeks to build ties among young Israelis and American Jews. “What are we revitalizing? What is the Zionist movement?”

A vote at the last Congress four years ago decided that future gatherings would set aside 25 percent of seats for delegates age 30 or under.

At a plenary session held at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, many delegates spoke in favor of giving the younger generation more clout.

“We stand here and we talk about renewal and pay lip service to you. We have 25 percent of the delegates, but the decisions are made at the (Zionist) executive, and there is no voice there for youth,” said a younger delegate from Canada, Tomer Sadetsky. “We have to find a way to make us involved in the real decisions.”

Sadetsky was echoing frustration shared by other delegates about how decisions and policy are set in the organization. Many grumble over what they describe as a bloated bureaucracy with little accountability.

“It will be passe if it keeps being business as usual. The only way to make it real and meaningful for those who do not come to the congress is to have a more democratic and open process,” said Michael Cohen, co-founder of the Green Zionist Alliance.

About 2,000 delegates and observers have gathered in Jerusalem for the four-day congress. The first congress — held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland — launched the modern Zionist movement.

The organization’s original goal was to establish a Jewish homeland. In recent years its main functions have been providing roughly half of the decision-making power for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which controls a $350 million budget.

Half of the agency’s board of governors are from the organization, as are many of its committee members.

The presence of the Zionist movement’s charismatic founder, Theodor Herzl, loomed large at this year’s Congress — on posters and large screens.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the group, speaking of the gap between Herzl’s dream and the modern State of Israel.

In “Alteneuland,” the book in which Herzl imagined an idealized homeland for the Jews, “Herzl envisioned a utopian state. The State of Israel is not one, because in our world there is no utopian reality,” Olmert said. “In many ways, the State of Israel has exceeded Herzl’s vision; in other ways it is still remote.”

Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian immigrant nominated by Olmert to sit on the Zionist Executive, the WZO’s executive body, might have surprised Herzl.

Long involved with Ethiopian absorption efforts on behalf of the Jewish Agency, Molla is expected to be voted in during elections that were scheduled for Thursday. If he wins a seat, he would be in charge of Zionist education and the struggle against anti-Semitism.

“I hope to be a loyal emissary of the Jewish nation,” Molla told JTA as well-wishers congratulated him.

Also to be elected Thursday are the new head of the Jewish National Fund, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency and the common chairman of the WZO and Jewish Agency. Zeev Bielski, the current chairman of the two organizations, is running uncontested.

This congress continues the marked growth of delegates from the religious streams. Factions aligned with the traditional Zionist parties used to be dominant.

Rabbi Richard Hirsch, former executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, said it was only natural that Diaspora Jews align themselves with what they feel connected to — their religious streams.

“People in the Diaspora have no relationship to the political parties in Israel, especially when those political parties are always breaking up and changing,” he said.

Hirsch, who once held a senior position in the WZO, said the organization was “badly in need of repair.”

Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was representing the Conservative movement, which had one of the largest delegations.

Despite her movement’s success in WZO elections, she said apathy about the movement was a major problem.

“It’s very hard to get the Jews in the Diaspora to understand what the congress is all about and what the WZO is all about,” she said.

What got votes out was the idea that the more seats the Conservative movement’s Zionist wing would win, the more money would be allocated for programs in Israel that the movement supports.

“The money in the end is what this thing is all about,” she said.

In the busy lobby of the convention center, Jews from around the world mingled — long-haired, teenaged youth movement members from Argentina, retired delegates from the United States and Australian activists.

Taking in the scene was Avrom Krengell, a lawyer from Johannesburg who heads the South African Zionist Federation.

“For us there is symbolic value is seeing 2,000 Jews come together and renew their commitment to Zionism, Israel and the Diaspora,” he said.

For those from South Africa and other countries where anti-Israel sentiment has been high in recent years, the congress can be a place to draw strength.

“In the Diaspora, where there is a feeling of detachment and isolation,” he said, “this is a place that can give strength to our participants.”

But for the young European delegates, the future of Zionism in their countries is not clear. The three that sat in the window reviewing resolutions point out one that they hope will pass: It calls for Israeli envoys to work with youth movements abroad. In recent years, they said, hardly any emissaries have been sent and funded by the WZO.

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