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Flap over Zionist Elections Highlights a Power Struggle

January 1, 2002
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But the flap may have had more to do with a power struggle among American Zionist organizations than with the elections themselves. The issue centers on two U.S.-based Zionist organizations accused of misconduct.

Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America was criticized for “double-dipping” by allowing its leadership to run on B’nai Zion’s ballot.

Hadassah and B’nai Zion are partners in an ideological grouping called the World Confederation of United Zionists.

Because Hadassah opted out of the elections with a special status that guaranteed it a set number of seats, its representation on its partner’s ticket was viewed as duplicitous.

The World Zionist Congress court recommended Dec. 23 that B’nai Zion move half of its six Hadassah-affiliated delegates toward the bottom of the list, giving them little chance of being elected.

In a nonbinding decision, the court also recommended that Hadassah rejoin the American Zionist Movement, the umbrella group for American Zionist organizations, which also runs the American elections for the World Zionist Congress.

The elections, which take place in March, determine who will sit on the World Zionist Congress, a group regarded as the official representative of Diaspora Jewry that determines the policies of the World Zionist Organization.

A seat means influence over the $350 million budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is involved in immigration and absorption and runs religious, political and educational programs throughout the world.

The American elections determine 29 percent of the elected delegates to the Congress, which is slated to convene in Jerusalem in June.

Any American Jew over 18 is eligible to vote by paying four dollars.

B’nai Zion, a nonpartisan Zionist organization, will abide by the recommendation, according to Kalman Sultanik, an officer of B’nai Zion.

Hadassah has not yet decided whether to accept the court’s opinion that it rejoin the AZM, according to Amy Goldstein, director of Israel, Zionist and international affairs at Hadassah.

AZM officials say they are unsure how it will proceed if Hadassah rejects the recommendation.

A meeting of the AZM is slated for next week to present the court’s proposal to members of the elections committee, who have the option to challenge the court.

An ironic twist too is the fact that B’nai Zion is a minor player at the AZM, winning only one seat in the last election.

But each seat has become increasingly coveted over the last several years as Jewish organizations jockey to push forward their own agendas.

Goldstein said the AZM has been trying to convince Hadassah to rejoin ever since the group pulled out in 2000.

But she said Hadassah, the Zionist organization with the largest membership, is functioning fine without the AZM.

Furthermore, she said, “if the largest, most active organization leaves the American Zionist Movement, what does that say about the American Zionist Movement?”

Nothing, says one insider, who notes that Hadassah’s departure coincided with the rise of the religious streams in the AZM. The popularity of the Reform and Conservative movements, in particular, began to threaten Hadassah’s majority status.

In fact, while Hadassah’s defection may be a thorn in AZM’s side, a bigger issue for AZM may be the growing influence of ARZA, the Reform Movement’s Zionist arm.

In the last election, ARZA garnered almost 50 percent of the American votes, followed by the Conservative and then the Orthodox movements. The contentiousness of pluralism in recent years and the mobilization of voters at the pulpits fed the growth of the religious movements.

ARZA’s executive director, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, said there was broad agreement on the decision to challenge Hadassah’s electoral lists.

Still, he conceded that AZM is a political organization with competing political interests.

On some issues, “other organizations will join us — for example, the Hadassah question — and other times we won’t see eye to eye,” Hirsch said. “All such circumstances are normal, positive and to be expected.”

In the end, Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz USA, the Conservative Zionist group, echoed the view of many.

“We’re all looking for the same goal, which is to promote Zionism and support for Israel within the American Jewish community,” he said.

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