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Reform Jewry Fields Own Candidate for Chairman of Wzo, Jewish Agency

January 23, 1992
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The Reform movement, angry that there will be no election of U.S. delegates to this year’s Zionist Congress, has decided to fight back in the classic democratic tradition.

It is fielding its own candidate, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, to challenge the re-election of Simcha Dinitz as World Zionist Organization chairman.

The WZO chairman automatically becomes chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency that, among other things, funds the immigration of Jews to Israel.

Hirsch is the first candidate for the post since 1948 not representing either Labor or Likud. And his platform stresses the need to divorce the workings of the WZO and the affiliated Jewish Agency from the squabbling of Israeli politics.

“Those who spend the Jewish people’s charitable gifts to Israel must be democratically elected,” Hirsch said in a statement from Jerusalem.

The American-born Hirsch, who immigrated to Israel in 1973, is no newcomer to Zionist politics. He serves as head of the WZO Action Committee, which sets policy between congresses.

But Hirsch is given little chance of being elected, barring an alliance with Likud, which has not yet announced a challenger to Dinitz, who is a Laborite. Such an alliance would likely prove problematic for both sides.

Likud would have a hard time explaining to its Orthodox coalition partners in the Knesset how it elevated a Reform rabbi, who heads the World Union for Progressive Judaism, to the high-profile WZO post.

And the Reform movement might have difficulties explaining to its liberal constituency the need to grant the conservative Likud an expanded role in WZO and Jewish Agency management.


Currently, the two bodies are run by a wall-to-wall coalition, which balances Dinitz’s chairmanship with Likud’s Meir Sheetrit as treasurer.

It is the Zionist Congress, held every four or five years, which selects the coalition. The leadership of the WZO and half that of the Jewish Agency are chosen along political lines.

Delegates to the congress represent the various Diaspora Zionist organizations and Israeli political parties. Founded by Theodor Herzl as a parliament-in-exile of the Jewish people, the congress is still touted as the sole democratically elected body of the Jewish people.

And while the establishment of the Knesset as a real parliament has turned the Zionist congress into pretty much of a sideshow, the congress’ selection of half the leadership of the Jewish Agency gives it a serious say in how the $600 million being raised annually in the Diaspora for the State of Israel is spent.

This year’s congress is scheduled for June, though there is talk now of postponement in the event that Israeli elections are held this summer.

The Israeli delegates to the congress, representing 38 percent of the body, are divided in proportion to their seating in the Knesset. How Diaspora delegates are chosen is the source of the present dispute, and Hirsch’s candidacy.

In the recent past, the American delegation — representing 29 percent of the congress — has been chosen either by unanimous agreement among the various American Zionist organizations or by full elections, in which all members of the organizations were eligible to vote.

But this year, all the groups except the Association of Reform Zionists of America decided the money needed for elections would be better spent helping immigrants from the former USSR.


The last Zionist elections, in 1987, polled over 200,000 voters at a cost of over $1 million. This year’s plans are not finalized, but the proposal under discussion would involve only a few hundred electors at a similarly streamlined cost.

ARZA, however, charges that Hadassah conspired with Labor to derail the elections, fearing the loss of further seats to ARZA and Mercaz, the Zionist movement of Conservative Judaism.

Dinitz, a Labor representative, was elected in 1988 with the crucial support of Hadassah, which last year announced it would boycott the congress if elections were held this year.

“This is an effort by the old-line Zionists to prevent the religious groups from coming to power,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of ARZA.

By old-line Zionists, Yoffie was referring to both the non-partisan groups like Hadassah, which saw its representation drop significantly after the last elections, and the American affiliates of Likud and Labor, which are weaker now than ever.

“In essence, it’s an effort to do away with democracy forever, because it’s clear to them that if Zionism remains democratic, the religious Zionist movements will assume center stage,” he said.

Hadassah denies the charge, saying its only concern is that Zionist dollars be spent wisely.

Until 1977, Mizrachi, the Orthodox Zionist movement, was the only religious Zionist slate. But since then, ARZA and Mercaz have grown rapidly, leading to expectations that were an election to be held, they would increase their current 35 percent share of the U.S. delegation.

For its part, Mercaz has so far refused to endorse the Reform bid.

“It is a principle of Mercaz that we do not enter into agreements with Israeli political parties,” said Rabbi Matthew Simon, its president.


By contrast, the Reform party has lined up support of the Center-Shinui Movement in Israel and is wooing the support of the Citizens Rights Movement, both left-of-center Knesset factions.

Beyond that, “we’re looking for all parties to support our candidate for chairman,” said Yoffie. He hopes that Hadassah will put aside its ongoing feud and recognize that Hirsch’s platform echoes its demands for depoliticization.

While Dinitz has been criticized by some Diaspora leaders as an ineffective manager of the Jewish Agency, conversations with several longtime veterans of Zionist politics failed to find one who thought Hirsch likely to unseat him.

“I think it’s simply a kind of power play on the part of Reform, to squeeze out as much as possible from both sides,” said one knowledgeable official of a Zionist group backing Dinitz.

The official, who requested anonymity, said he thought the Reform move could backfire, “since it makes more sense for Labor and Likud to make a deal between themselves.

“Reform will find itself on the outside,” he predicted. But he cautioned: “No one knows how it will turn out.”

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