Reform and Orthodox groups traded barbs this week as they engaged in a last-ditch effort to mobilize voters in time for Friday’s deadline to register for the World Zionist Congress elections.
The WZC is 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.
In recent years, the influence of organizations affiliated with political parties like Likud and Labor have been replaced by ones affiliated with religious streams — particularly the Reform and Conservative movements — as religious pluralism has become a hot-button issue for American Jewry.
In the last election — five years ago — ARZA/World Union, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm, emerged as the clear victor, winning nearly 48 percent of the American ballots.
This translated to 70 of 145 seats allotted to the American delegation, which represents 29 percent of the delegates elected to the Congress, which is slated to take place in Jerusalem in June.
The increased representation led to twice as much funds for its programs — $2 million — from the Jewish Agency.
The Reform movement was riled up this week over a recent radio ad by Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, chairman of the religious Zionist slate, in which Ganchrow urged voter registration from members of Orthodox organizations — two of which, Chabad and Agudath Israel of America, are non-Zionist.
According to Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, that’s a misappropriation of ideology in the effort to get votes.
The American elections, slated for March, are open to all Jews 18 or older who say they subscribe to certain Zionist principles.
But Ganchrow said he never claimed the endorsement of those organizations; he was only appealing to its members.
“This is not Zionist McCarthyism to find out who you belong to and what the history of your organization is,” he said, noting that the Reform movement itself was once anti-Zionist.
“All we said is, you know what, every Jew, I don’t care where you’re from, this election is important to you.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, said he has advised the many confused callers who have heard the ad that participating in the elections would mean “taking a philosophical stance that runs counter to the founders and current leaders of Agudath Israel.”
Ganchrow said he commissioned the 22 one-minute ads to run on CBS radio in New York about two weeks ago because of a lack of enthusiasm in the community.
He estimated the ad cost about $10,000 — about one-tenth of their entire campaign budget.
To promote the election, he said, they also sent short films to 500 rabbis, stuffed literature in 15,000 etrog boxes over Sukkot, and mobilized synagogue phone squads and mass e-mails.
“There is a significant amount of money throughout the world that the Jewish Agency collects, and we want to make sure this money is dedicated to Jewish education and not pluralism and political nonsense,” said Ganchrow.
“We have always maintained that pluralism is a battle that should be done here in the U.S., and the people of Israel should determine their own way of life,” Ganchrow said.
“That which divides the Jewish people should not be the beneficiary of charitable funding.”
For his part, Hirsch wouldn’t comment about his organization’s campaign budget or techniques.
But he said, “One of the central objectives we want to achieve through our participation in the WZO and the Jewish Agency is to instill religious pluralism in the State of Israel.
“The more influence we have, the more funds we are able to bring towards this objective.”
The main opponents to their vision, he said, are the fervently Orthodox in Israel.
Ganchrow, whose election Web site specifically refers to the perceived threats posed by the Reform and Conservative, faulted the Reform movement for using scare tactics about the power of the Orthodox to encourage voter turnout.
And he questioned that strategy, when the non-Zionist nature of the fervently Orthodox render them absent from the WZO.
But according to Hirsch, that logic misses the mark.
He said that looking at the WZO simply as an internal matter between the competing slates is “a much too narrow view of the significance of what we’re doing.”
He also said the criticism was ironic given that the Orthodox are courting the non-Zionist fervently Orthodox themselves.
According to Hirsch, a Jewish state, in its current state, is “unsustainable” because it doesn’t reflect 90 percent of world Jewry that is not Orthodox.
“The Jewish state is at the heart of the Jewish experience, and for the Jewish state to fulfill this role effectively and claim the loyalties of the world’s Jews, it must reflect the religious sensibilities of the majority of Jews,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.