World Zionist Congress roiled by left- and right-wing protests, in sign of Independence Day tensions


(JTA) — Tensions over Israel’s future have roiled a convening of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, in a harbinger of a season of Diaspora Jewish participation in Israel’s fierce political fights.

First, left-wing and centrist delegates to the group, which determines policy for an arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, rallied in front of Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sweeping proposal to weaken the judiciary. Then, delegates from right-wing groups sought to block voting on resolutions critical of the Israeli government, in a gambit that generated tense scenes from within a body whose deliberations rarely attract public attention.

The tensions spilled over into Friday when the right-wing Knesset member who leads the committee focusing on the judiciary legislation, Simcha Rothman, was briefly cornered by protesters before being whisked away by police.

The incidents offered a sign of how the coming days and weeks might play out in Israel, as thousands of Diaspora Jews make their way to the country for events tied to Israel’s 75th birthday. The birthday comes soon before the days during which Israel’s right-wing government is expected to resume the judiciary legislation, which both proponents and critics say has the potential to change Israel forever. Protests are expected to be fierce.

The World Zionist Congress is the periodic assembly that determines policy for the World Zionist Organization, the arm of the Jewish Agency that aims to act as a bridge to the Diaspora. Among its functions is providing materials for Jewish schools across the globe and influencing the priorities of large, international Jewish organizations with substantial budgets. It also votes on symbolic resolutions about Israel’s character and future.

About 100 delegates in the World Zionist Congress took part in what participants said was a spontaneous march opposing the judiciary legislation on Thursday. They wore T-shirts provided by UnXeptable, a protest movement organized by Israeli expatriates.

“We are out here today because the current efforts of the Israeli government to undermine democracy and promote division threatens to tear us apart and not only cause divisions within Israel; it attacks the Diaspora as well,” said John Furstenberg, the vice president for Australasia for Mercaz, the Zionist arm of the Conservative/Masorti movement, who was a one of a number of speakers at the rally outside the Supreme Court. “We cannot stand idly by and say nothing whilst we see our enemies worldwide taking joy from our distress.”

Delegates to the World Zionist Congress protest against the Netanyahu government’s proposed changes to the courts, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, April 20, 2023. (Josh Drill)

Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said delegates from 10 countries participated in the rally. She said she expected more in the coming days, particularly around the General Assembly being held by the Jewish Federations of North America, which is already being assailed by critics of the government for featuring Netanyahu and which is expected to draw 3,000 attendees. Katz is scheduled to be a featured speaker at a massive demonstration planned for Saturday night, which will mark 17 weeks of anti-government protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands of participants.

“All of us who are here believe in the original Zionist vision for this country, and we feel like the current government is losing its way,” Katz said. “And so how do you counter that? You counter it by sharing what the vision really is.”

A second confrontation took place during the congress itself, when a bloc of centrist and left-leaning groups advanced a number of resolutions that would have enshrined the Israeli Declaration of Independence as policy, protected LGBTQ rights and backed those who oppose Netanyahu’s court reforms.

Anticipating that the symbolic resolutions would pass, right-wing groups at the Congress successfully used parliamentary maneuvers to delay voting, though they did not succeed in pressing for individual votes that would have taken many hours and forced delegates to reveal their positions. The votes will now take place online, preventing a repeat of the shouting matches that took place on Thursday, and are expected to result in criticism of Israel’s government.

“This is a victory for the center-left-liberal bloc that will result in the passage of resolutions against the government’s policy, without concessions,” WZO Vice Chairman Yizhar Hess said in a statement about the decision to hold the votes online. “The right tried from the very beginning to prevent there being votes at this Congress. They failed at the beginning. They failed again today.”

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