Zionist elections are a platform for Diaspora influence in Israel

Zionist elections are a platform for Diaspora influence in Israel

Rabbi Alan Silverstein said electing more delegates representing the Conservative movement means non-Orthodox streams in Israel will get a “fair share of allocations.”
Rabbi Alan Silverstein said electing more delegates representing the Conservative movement means non-Orthodox streams in Israel will get a “fair share of allocations.”

Eleven Jewish slates representing the religious; the secular; and the political left, right, and center are competing to represent their various views on Zionism at the World Zionist Congress.

For local delegates, it is an opportunity to flex Diaspora influence over Israeli policies through quasi-governmental bodies like the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

And this being a Jewish election, the campaign is understandably contentious. 

The voting for 145 delegates and some 300 alternates to the congress will begin sometime in mid-January and run until April 30. The American Zionist Movement, which organizes the election here, says the balloting will begin once its electoral website, myselforisrael.com, is operational (see sidebar).

The 37th congress itself will take place in Jerusalem in October. 

The World Zionist Organization, which runs the congress, has 50 percent of the vote on the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel, yielding influence on policy and budget decisions regarding issues like “Who is a Jew?” and conversion; investment in Diaspora education; and, through the Settlement Division — an independent division of the WZO funded entirely by Israeli taxpayers — construction work in the territories. 

The pluralism issue is especially important to the subsidiaries of American Reform and Conservative Judaism that run slates. 

“If we are elected we will get our fair share of allocations to support programs of Conservative Masorti Judaism in Israel and around the world,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, who is running as a Mercaz delegate on a slate that represents the Conservative movement. 

In Israel the government does not give those who are members of the non-Orthodox movements a “fair share,” said Silverstein. “The more delegates we elect, the more influence we will have. The Reform movement has the same goals as we do because Israeli citizens pay a lot of taxes to support religious life, but the only religious life that government agencies support are those of the Orthodox infrastructure.”

The Reform movement is represented by Arzenu, which is urging its members to vote in order to support “freedom of religion,” “the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion,” and equal status for women. 

The competing slates also include representatives of politicized Diaspora groups, like the right-of-center Zionist Organization of America and the left-of-center Ameinu.

“This is the global congress of Zionists, and it has concerns about policy and how resources are allocated in Israel,” said Gideon Aronoff of Maplewood, Ameinu’s chief executive officer. “How much we will be able to influence the money Israel allocates to the settlements we will have to see, but it is essential for us to get a grip on the amount of money given to the settlements.”

Ameinu and Partners for Progressive Israel compose many of the delegates on a slate called Hatikvah.

Among Hatikvah’s candidates is Nomi Colton-Max, president of Congregation Beth El in her hometown of South Orange, who said she considers herself “a lifelong progressive Zionist.”

“These elections matter,” she said. “We are making policy decisions that impact our youth and impact the settlements. The continuing building of settlements is not acceptable to me. I would have stopped building them a long time ago,” she said.

Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, a board member of Partners for Progressive Israel, is also running on the Hatikvah slate, which supports a two-state solution, “democratic rights for all Israeli citizens,” and official recognition of all religious streams. 

“For my whole life I have been interested in seeing two states,” Bernstein said. “We need to have good relations with our Arab neighbors. The progressive bodies can bring that.” 

Like the Israeli political scene itself, the WZO elections can turn nasty.

The ZOA recently filed a complaint with election officials saying Hatikvah should be disqualified because of the political activities of Ameinu and Partners for Progressive Israel. The ZOA objects that academics belonging to a group established by Ameinu have called for the United States and European Union to impose visa restrictions and other “personal sanctions” on four political figures on Israel’s Right.

The ZOA also objects to a call by Partners for Progressive Israel to boycott goods or services made in or by the settlements, and to its support for Israeli artists who refuse to perform in Jewish communities beyond the Green Line. 

The ZOA asserts that “discrimination and boycotts against Jews are a particularly egregious violation for a member of the World Zionist Congress to engage in.”

The U.S. elections committee chair rejected the ZOA complaint, and Hatikvah responded that the ZOA is “attempting to delegitimize the ideological heirs of those who established the State of Israel and since that time have helped sustain the Zionist dream.” 

For its part, the ZOA said, it is primarily seeking “to make sure that the Jewish Agency has the resources to help Jews who are victims of European anti-Semitism. This is our highest priority, while other groups have other priorities,” said Liz Berney, the group’s director of special programs. She is in charge of organizing the agenda of the ZOA slate of 132 delegates.

Arthur Kook of Englewood, a vice president of ZOA, is running as a delegate, as are his wife and their three children.

“I am in favor of the Orthodox being in control of the rabbinate but there should be an outreach to other people,” he said. 

In terms of West Bank settlements, Kook said, “We want to make sure there is no discrimination against people who want to live” on the West Bank.

Bergen County resident Laura Fein, ZOA’s executive director for New Jersey, agreed. “I support a strong, secure Israel with a united Jerusalem.” In terms of the West Bank settlements, she said, “ZOA’s position is as long as [the settlers] are Jews they deserve our support. It is quite clear that all of the obstacles to peace are on the Arabs’ side.”

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