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Hadassah Says It Won’t Take Part in Future World Zionist Elections

January 31, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In a surprise move, the largest Zionist organization in America, Hadassah, has decided not to participate in future elections for the World Zionist Congress.

In a statement announcing its decision, the group’s national board said, “The human and financial resources expended on these costly and politically divisive elections are better invested in the concrete tasks which are the hallmark of Hadassah’s practical Zionism.”

The World Zionist Congress convenes approximately every five years and determines the direction of the World Zionist Organization. American delegates are elected through a complicated system that is based largely on membership in Zionist organizations.

The WZO is responsible for the promotion of aliyah and Zionist education worldwide. Its leaders also act in partnership with leaders of Diaspora fund-raising organizations in the governance of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Hadassah President Carmela Kalmanson described her organization’s move as “serving notice” to the WZO that it is time for radical reform in its structure and constitution.

Most forcefully, it is calling for change in the system by which delegates to the World Zionist Congress are chosen. Such reform has been promised for years, but has not yet materialized, Kalmanson said.

She explained that ideas discussed in the past include an electoral college system or one in which elections would be scrapped altogether and organizations would be represented at the congress according to their membership rolls.


Hadassah’s fellow Zionist organizations reacted with shock and dismay to the news of the decision not to participate in future elections.

“It’s a very serious blow to the future of the Zionist movement,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

He said that if the democratic process of choosing delegates is abandoned, “it will mean the death” of the WZO, which will “cease to exist as anything other than a shell.”

He said the legitimacy of the WZO “lies in its ability to reach the masses through the democratic process.” He pointed out that a quarter of a million American Jews participated in the last elections.

But Kalmanson maintains that past elections for American representatives to the congress have been “neither democratic nor fair.”

Indeed, the voting for the 1987 congress was marked by controversy. Penalties were handed out to numerous organizations for infractions such as padding membership lists, multiple ballots cast by the same person and other irregularities.

Observers point out that Hadassah’s showing in the elections has been declining.

In the 1987 balloting, the organization lost 21 seats from the previous election. This was in no small part due to the decision of the Reform and Conservative movements to enter the Zionist arena.

In the 1987 vote, Mercaz, the Conservative Zionist movement, which was running for the first time, picked up 20 seats, while ARZA gained 19 seats over the last time it ran.

“One can’t help but take note of the fact that Hadassah has renounced democracy at the moment in history when it is beginning to lose its electoral dominance,” Yoffie said.


Kalmanson dismissed this suggestion, saying that “whether we have one vote more or one vote less is not the issue.”

She said that not only were the elections cumbersome and expensive, costing the WZO an estimated $1.5 million, but the debate the elections engendered was acrimonious and “painful.”

Though Hadassah officially endorses religious pluralism, Kalmanson said many in her organization are unhappy that the Reform and Conservative movements have chosen the World Zionist Congress and the delegate elections as a major arena for the battle over “who is a Jew.”

She said that controversy, which involves whether Israel should recognize non-Orthodox converts as Jews, remains a “side issue” to the overall Zionist enterprise.

Zelig Chinitz, executive director of the WZO-American Section, would not comment on the ramifications of Hadassah’s decision.

But Simon Schwartz, president of the American Zionist Federation, said that there is a “possibility” that Hadassah’s move will trigger a change in the WZO election bylaws and constitution.

As it stands now, he said, “the constitution and bylaws require the holding of elections unless there is 100 percent agreement” on the part of American Zionist organizations to waive them.

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