Competition for progressive Jewish votes is heating up as balloting opens in the World Zionist Congress elections.
The elections, held every five years, offer Jews outside of Israel the rare opportunity to vote on issues there that reflect their values — specifically, by picking delegates to a global “parliament” that chooses leadership for three Israeli quasi-governmental organizations that control approximately $1 billion in annual funding.
While 15 slates are vying for American Jewish votes this year, representing a range of ideologies and interest groups, the choices for liberal American Jews are fewer and the competition fiercer than ever.
At the heart of the competition are two of the most important issues for liberal American Jews: peace based on the two-state solution and religious pluralism.
The Reform slate, which in the previous WZC election in 2015 won 56 of that year’s 145 American seats, has made promoting religious pluralism in Israel its highest priority for years. But this year, the Hatikvah slate, which has only participated in the WZC elections since 2010 (though some of the original partners on the platform have been involved since WZC’s founding), is making a major play for progressive Jewish voters this year by focusing on opposing the occupation, an issue Hatikvah organizers believe can turn out large numbers of first-time voters.
“Hatikvah is the only slate that puts front and center a commitment to a democratic Israel that no longer carries out a military occupation of another people, and to the human rights and security of both Israelis and Palestinians,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization and a member of the Hatikvah slate.
(Voting, open to all who identify as Jewish, continues online until March 11. Go to zionistelection.org.)
The WZC is new territory for many American Jewish progressives. In years past, the Hatikvah slate was made up of four organizations: Ameinu, Partners for Progressive Israel, Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair. This year, the slate added seven partner organizations, among them J Street, National Council of Jewish Women, New Israel Fund, and T’ruah.
“The WZC is not a place where most of these organizations have engaged before,” said Hadar Susskind, the Hatikvah slate’s first-ever WZC campaign director. “It’s frankly something that has been considered by a lot of people sort of old and dusty. But if you don’t engage in this space, then you cede power to the folks who do.”
For the organizations that make up the Reform slate, including the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and the Reconstructionist movement, the WZC has long been a focus of attention and resources. The slate views the World Zionist Organization and the three quasi-governmental organizations — the Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael and the Keren Hayesod — as critical avenues for securing funding for Reform congregations and institutions in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate wields tremendous power and a small percentage of Israeli Jews identify with non-Orthodox denominations.
“Voting in general is the only democratic opportunity that a diaspora Jew has to make an impact in Israel, and to vote for our slate is to support religious pluralism, religious equality, to try to end the monopoly of the chief rabbinate and have greater recognition for Reform and liberal progressive values,” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism at the URJ and president of ARZA.
The Reform and Hatikvah platforms largely overlap on the issues, with both advocating for a two-state solution and promoting religious equality and women’s rights. “I can’t think of anything where we and ARZA would be in disagreement,” said Susskind. As Rabbi Weinberg, president of ARZA, pointed out, the Reform and Hatikvah slates sat together in the previous congress. The two slates are likely to sit together again this year.
To some extent, the differences between the Reform and Hatikvah slates come down to religious affiliation. While last time the Reform slate won 56 seats, the Conservative Movement’s Mercaz slate won 25 seats, and the Orthodox Religious Zionists slate won 24, increasing numbers of American Jews do not identify with religious denominations. Susskind see it as an opportunity to organize progressive Jews “who aren’t Reform Jews.”
Rabbi Weinberg noted that the WZC has little influence on foreign policy or peace negotiations. “I think it would be presumptuous of me to say if you vote for me, I’ll bring a two-state solution or end the right-wing government in Israel. These are things that come from Israeli domestic politics and Israelis need to vote on,” he said.
Still there are areas in which funding decisions do impact, for example, Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Said Susskind: “Is funding flowing to build a fence around a settlement in the West Bank or is funding flowing to a social service agency dealing with refugees and asylum seekers or fighting hunger in South Tel Aviv?”
Right-wing slates are also focusing on settlements – as advocates. The 27-member Zionist Organization of America slate supports the “Jewish People’s Rights to Live in & Settle Judea & Samaria,” or the West Bank. Herut Zionists, the Orthodox Israel Coalition-Mizrachi slate and the Vision slate all support settlement beyond the Green Line in their platforms.
Social media and email listservs are Hatikvah’s primary vehicle for reaching new voters. Susskind hopes that slate members like journalist Peter Beinart, former American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and lawyer for victims of sexual abuse and harassment Debra Katz will use their social media followings to bring in voters. Organizations like J Street and NCJW have used their email lists, which include thousands of eligible voters, to spread the word.
For the Reform slate, too, social media is becoming a larger part of its outreach efforts. But its core constituency can still be found in the 850 Reform congregations across the United States. “Some people are skeptical these days of large establishment organizations,” said Weinberg. “The thing is that we really are poised to make the most impact because of our size.”
With only 56,737 voters in the previous election in 2015, slates across the board are hoping to increase voter turnout.
“We’re not going out there to convince people to change their views on Zionism or two-state solution or Israel,” said Susskind. “This isn’t a win-an-argument election, this is a [get out the vote] election. We are going to bring primarily new people into the WZC voting process.”