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Focus on Issues: Slogans, Ballots and Intrigue; Time for Another Zionist Congress

May 21, 1997
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“In one very important election concerning Israel, only Americans can vote,” blares the blue- and-white form in bold black letters. “Send for your ballot today.”

The race is on.

All across the country, rabbis are calling on their congregants to vote in the upcoming election of representatives to the 33rd World Zionist Congress.

But what’s at stake depends on whom you talk to.

If the Zionist arms of the Reform and Conservative movements have their way, the Zionist Congress election will be a referendum on religious pluralism in Israel.

Whether they succeed, however, will depend on the strength of a recently mobilized opposition, including the American affiliate of Israel’s Likud Party and the Orthodox Zionist organizations.

They argue that religious pluralism has no place at the table of the congress of the World Zionist Organization. While some want to advance an agenda tied to the peace process, others want to see a more traditional focus on aliyah and Jewish identity.

The political intrigue surrounding the elections exploded in the wake of a recent unconfirmed Israeli newspaper report that Likud was seeking a secret deal to garner support from the non-Zionist Lubavitch movement in its efforts to prevent a Reform and Conservative landslide in the U.S. elections.

In the last election 10 years ago, the Reform and Conservative organizations came in second and third, edged out only by Hadassah, the international Zionist women’s organization, which has taken itself out of the running this year.

One hundred years ago, Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founder, convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. It was hailed as the first international parliament of the Jewish people. The State of Israel was only a dream and the hall was filled with memorable and passionate debate on Jewish destiny.

Today, with Israel a fait accompli, the task of rousing masses of Jews to participate in that debate is a daunting challenge.

Most American Jews have little understanding of the role or the workings of the WZO, and even if they do understand it, many believe it is irrelevant to contemporary Jewish life.

But that has not stymied the Reform movement’s Association of Reform Zionists of America or the Conservative movement’s Mercaz.

Both are using the elections as a battleground on which to wage their fight against the official Orthodox monopoly of religious life in the Jewish state.

These organizations say the election provides a chance to seat people in positions of power who will allocate more of world Jewry’s resources to Conservative and Reform institutions and programs in Israel.

Probably the biggest boost to their campaign to date was the Israeli Knesset’s recent preliminary passage of legislation to codify exclusive Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

The Knesset initiative has hit a nerve among non-Orthodox Jews throughout the country — and some are responding through the election process.

Registration forms are streaming into a Westwood, N.J., post office box at a rate of about 15,000 a week now. From there, a computer service is creating a central registry of voters in the election, which is being administered by the American Zionist Movement, a federation of about 20 organizations.

Any Jew over 18 who says he or she believes in basic Zionist principles, such as the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, is eligible to register, receive a ballot and cast a vote by mail in the fall. It costs $2.

But unless the current registration deadline of June 1 is extended, the total is unlikely to top 75,000.

One person campaigning hard under the pluralism banner is Rabbi Amy Memis, of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, in Glenview, Ill., which sent out mailings to all of its roughly 1,000 member-households.

Memis, a member of the national ARZA board, said many of her congregants see the election as a chance to respond to the conversion legislation, which would formally delegitimize Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel.

“There is a sense that we need our voices heard,” she said. Her congregants believe this is an opportunity to say, “Yes, we are Jews.”

The pluralism message also has galvanized three generations of a Massachusetts family.

Amy Sands is a Jewish family educator at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Natick, Mass., which sent out 700 election mailings to its members.

At Sands’ urging, her businessman father, Morton Grossman, sent out 350 additional mailings.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate what we believe in for Israel,” pleaded Grossman in a personal note accompanying the mailing. “Vote as if it is your vote and it is your country.”

The WZO, said Sands, provides “an opportunity for Jews all over the world to have a say in worldwide decisions” about Jewish identity, Israel-Diaspora relations and aliyah.

“Without pluralistic representation,” she said, “this election will put a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora.”

“With the vote,” she added, “we’re trying to make a statement that the Knesset will listen to.”

Sands’ son, 23-year-old Joshua Narva, described himself as intensely invested in the election as a Conservative Jew.

“This is an issue that strikes at the core of how a Jew is defined,” he said.

The Zionist Congress, scheduled for December in Jerusalem, will select the leadership of the WZO and will help set its policies and priorities.

The WZO has the power to implement those priorities with its joint authority over the $400 million budget of its partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

That $400 million is contributed by the central Jewish fund-raising establishments around the world. The lion’s share is spent for the resettlement and absorption of immigrants. Much of the rest is spent for Jewish-Zionist education.

About $1 million is allocated each to projects of the Conservative and Reform movements and about $500,000 to those of the modern Orthodox.

However, proposals for sharply stepped-up funding have been discussed in recent weeks between the United Jewish Appeal and Conservative and Reform leaders.

But despite the unusual opportunity the election provides for democratic expression in the Jewish world, political infighting persists.

Several of the Zionist organizations, most in opposition to ARZA and Mercaz, are pushing for an extension of the June 1 registration deadline so they can have more time to rally their ranks. A decision is expected soon.

Meanwhile, rumors about an alleged Likud-Lubavitch deal are intensifying the election drama.

The Lubavitch denied last week’s reports of the deal in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Still, it sparked protest in the two non-Orthodox movements, at the same time that they seized on it as a tool to mobilize their own constituents.

They also exploded at Hadassah, which the story suggested was in cahoots with the anti-pluralistic Lubavitch.

For her part, Hadassah President Marlene Post cried foul and vehemently denied the charges. Close to 90 percent of her members are Reform and Conservative, she pointed out, adding that many had called her to express concern about the alleged Lubavitch alliance.

Hadassah, the international women’s organization, remains a powerful entity in the WZO, but has opted out of the elections process, charging it is divisive and a waste of money.

Nonetheless, their mandates were being used to influence the elections process by a coalition allied with Likud against the interests of ARZA and Mercaz. Hence, the charges of a Lubavitch connection.

Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz, said of Likud’s purported decision to turn to the non-Zionist Chasidim: “It shows how desperate they feel and what a mockery they make of Zionism.”

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of the executive committee of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the Lubavitch community’s world umbrella organization, said he had issued a written denial to Ha’aretz because there was no basis of truth to the report. And in a telephone interview this week, he said he stood by that denial.

For their part, Likud leaders denied any deal with any movement, but acknowledged their eagerness to cooperate with “all Jews.”

As the campaign has gotten underway, “a whole bunch of Orthodox of all stripes are coming to us, finding our banner most comfortable,” Rodny Sanders, director general of the World Likud movement, said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv.

The party is “trying to get as many Jews as possible to vote,” he said, adding that Likud’s campaign is based on what he described as the most important issue facing world Jewry today — protecting Jerusalem’s united, Jewish status.

And he echoed the view of other, more veteran Zionist parties, when he said he does not believe that religious pluralism belongs on the world Zionist agenda.

“Likud is not anti-Reform,” he said, “but the WZO is not the stage for the issue.”

This infuriated Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, who said this indicated “how out of touch they are with world Jewry.”

“The WZO, along with the Jewish Agency, is the primary body engaged in Israel- Diaspora relations,” he said. “That makes it a place for American Jews to have a say and a role, and what American Jews care about now is pluralism.”

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