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World Zionist Congress to Tackle Difficult Issue of Defining Israel

June 12, 2002
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When Jews from around the world gather in Jerusalem next week for the 34th World Zionist Congress, their presence will be seen as an expression of unity and solidarity with the embattled Jewish state.

Yet one of the major challenges will be to bridge the gaps of the various parties and forge consensus over how to define Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Groups as diverse as Likud, the Conservative movement and the Orthodox have submitted resolutions on the subject, clearly with different goals in mind.

“Although clearly Israel is under attack and we need to pull together,” the congress can’t afford to “completely ignore the agenda of the Zionist movement,” including environmentalism, the gap between the rich and the poor and the religious-secular divide, said Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement.

Known to many as the parliament of the Jewish people, which determines policies and programs of world Jewry, the 750-seat World Zionist Congress convenes every four to five years in Jerusalem.

This year’s gathering is being held June 17-20 at a time of much angst over the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

But while the external threats to Israel and the anti-Semitism facing Jews around the world will shape much of the agenda, the labyrinth of policy-making and political plotting that traditionally characterizes the congress is expected to happen this year.

At the congress, ideological groups team up to determine policies of the World Zionist Organization, which holds half the decision-making power of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

That means influence over the agency’s $350 million budget, which focuses on immigration and absorption and worldwide religious, political and educational programs.

Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, the Zionist branch of the Reform movement, agreed with Golub.

There’s an “urgent need for world Jewry to come together in solidarity,” and their presence in Israel will go a long way toward that end.

But Hirsch said he feared wartime talk would trump the discussion of social issues like pluralism, the acceptance by Israel of non-Orthodox religious streams and civil rights.

Hirsch said he strongly supports the notion that “Israel was born a Jewish state and should remain a Jewish state in its very founding definition.”

That’s “contrary to the assertion of those post-Zionist Jews and some in the Arab community who claim that to define Israel as a Jewish state diminishes its full democratic character and contrary to those religious Jews, some of whom claim Israel should be a halachic state governed by Jewish law and not democratic law,” he said.

But Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union and a delegate on the slate of the Religious Zionists of America, anticipates his faction will take issue with any resolution that endorses equal rights for all denominations and religions.

Blitz said he thinks it is wrong to hold such a divisive debate during such turbulent times in Israel.

On the substance of the issue itself, he said, “To us, saying Israel is supposed to be a Jewish state has not just ethnic meaning, but religious meaning.

“Israel needs to be a Jewish state and there needs to be a consideration of religious needs and requirements,” he said.

If this year’s American Zionist elections for delegates to the congress is any indication, the debate at next week’s congress will be heated.

In those elections, Reform and Orthodox groups pressed the pluralism debate to mobilize voters.

The hot-button issue accounts for the increased influence of the religious streams, which have now supplanted the political parties, within the American Zionist Movement, the umbrella organization for most American Zionist groups that administers American elections to the Congress.

In the end, the Reform movement swept the electorate for the second time with 42 percent of the vote; the Conservative movement ranked second with 22 percent; and while the Orthodox place third at 20 percent, they nearly doubled their numbers from the last election.

Voicing the concern of many Reform and Conservative Jews, Golub said democracy means “every Jew has the right to define his or her Jewish lifestyle.”

Yet “the current Israeli government is made up of parties, some of whom want to circumvent and supercede decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court” that allow for non-Orthodox conversions.

That “runs in the face of Israel as a Zionist” and therefore democratic state, Golub said.

The 145-member American delegation is second in size only to Israel’s, whose delegation mirrors the Zionist parties in the Knesset.

The remaining 33 percent of delegates are from Jewish communities around the rest of the world.

While some view the splintered congress as a sign of weakness, many are committed to the social debates that they say signify the relevancy of this democratic organization.

Zionism has always been about a “great deal more than creating a safe refuge for Jews to live in,” said David Breakstone, the Jerusalem-based liaison between the WZO and Zionist federations, or national affiliates.

The WZO is concerned with engaging “those living abroad to be involved personally and meaningfully in shaping the society that we have here,” and in shaping a “chevrah l’mofet,” or exemplary society, in Israel.

To that end, the debates are in step with the WZO’s aim.

But the group has added another force to rejuvenate this year’s congress — and the movement as a whole.

This year, 25 percent of the 750 delegates will be below the age of 30.

During the elections, which were available on the Internet to boost voter turnout, the election slates reserved at least a quarter of their delegate slots for those under 30, according to a new mandate.

“We believe that if there won’t be empowerment of youth that will bring new spirit to the goals of the Zionist movement, the movement won’t hold up for much longer,” said Haim Hayet, a Meretz party delegate of the Congress who serves as chairman of the youth department for the WZO.

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