The debate over how to choose American delegates for this summer’s Zionist Congress has taken an unexpected twist following the World Zionist Organization’s rejection of a plan backed by most Zionist groups here.
The ruling by the WZO’s Central Election Board in Israel is being hailed as a victory by the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
ARZA had been a vocal opponent of the plan backed by other Zionist groups, which would have had an “electoral college” select delegates to the congress. Instead, it favored holding full-scale elections to select the delegates, in which each member of a Zionist organization would be entitled to vote.
Most other Zionist groups opposed holding full-scale elections because of the expense. Elections held to select American delegates to the last congress in 1987 cost more than $1 million.
The Zionist Congress, which convenes every four or five years, selects the leadership of the WZO and half that of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Now that WZO officials have rejected the electoral college scheme, ARZA has apparently shown a new willingness to consider allocating delegates without elections, according to several people who attended a meeting of the American Zionist groups where the issue was discussed.
Appealing for unity, Jacques Torczyner of WZO’s American Section argued that “the Zionist movement owes it to itself to unite and come with a strong delegation to the congress.”
Since there is not enough time left to hold elections and since the proposed electoral scheme has been vetoed, the time has come for the Zionist groups to decide among themselves how to allocate their delegation, he said.
NOT ENOUGH TIME FOR ELECTIONS
To the relief and satisfaction of those at the meeting, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of ARZA, appeared open to discussion.
Under WZO procedures, elections need not be held if there is 100 percent agreement on how to allocate the delegates.
Yoffie indicated that his group would decide how to proceed at a board meeting Sunday.
“The one thing I can tell you is there won’t be any retreat from the principle of democracy,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
But he added, “if there’s not enough time for an election, it puts us all in an awkward position, because we have to come up with some way to distribute delegates.”
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said.
Yoffie had strongly opposed the electoral college system disallowed by WZO’s election board. Under that system, each Zionist organization would have been allotted representatives to an electoral college in proportion to the number of delegates it had in the last Zionist Congress.
ARZA objected publicly to continuing the old proportion of representation, and members of other Zionist groups voiced the same reservations privately.
Apparently, the Central Elections Board in Jerusalem agreed.
Judge Felix Landau ruled that “in the electoral college scheme proposed, there is no direct link between the voters and the members of the electoral college.”
“That’s precisely what we’ve been saying all along,” said Yoffie, who argued that the electoral college proposal was “nothing but a tool to perpetuate the status quo.”
JUDGE’S PLAN REJECTED
Landau proposed that the elections be carried out through ads in American Jewish newspapers. Voters would send in a coupon indicating their adherence to the Jerusalem Platform of Zionist ideology, their choice of a Zionist movement and a social security number for verification purposes.
But this plan was quickly rejected at Monday’s elections committee meeting in New York. Among the objections was that the plan would satisfy neither of two requirements in the WZO constitution: that the elections be held by secret ballot and that only members of Zionist organization be allowed to vote.
The American groups, other than ARZA, have appealed the ruling to the Zionist Supreme Court.
Yoffie expressed regret that the elections committee had not looked into other possible ways to hold elections that might not share the flaws of Landau’s plan.
“If the issue was coming up with something simpler and cheaper, I think we could have done it. But there was little interest on the committee to do it.
“Our feeling is that by appealing to the Zionist Supreme Court, the time factor now will make it extremely difficult to hold an election,” he said.
Whatever the final outcome, the debate over the elections has had an impact far beyond the process itself.
Rabbi Richard Hirsch, the American-born head of the international movement of Reform Judaism, is continuing his campaign for chairmanship of the WZO and the Jewish Agency, challenging current Chairman Simcha Dinitz of the Labor Party.
It is a campaign launched originally to protest the failure to call elections. But the campaign expanded into a platform to reform the often convoluted and politicized WZO and Jewish Agency system.
Some argue moreover that ARZA is relying on “Hadassah-bashing” to advance the campaign.
Yoffie has charged that the women’s Zionist group colluded with Labor to prevent full-fledged elections, so that they could preserve their representation at the congress, which was eroded in the last round of elections by ARZA and the Conservative Zionist movement, Mercaz.
“That’s an outright lie,” Hadassah’s executive director, Beth Wohlgelernter, said of Yoffie’s claim, which he refuses to retract.
Deborah Kaplan, the group’s national president, blasted Yoffie for “publicly disparaging Hadassah in his lame attempts to achieve political position and even more of the scarce resources of the WZO and Jewish Agency for his own parochial interests.
“We are certain that the overwhelming majority of the Reform movement and ARZA itself would not subscribe to his undignified tactics,” she said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.