World Zionist Congress closes after business as unusual

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Representatives from various parties signing the agreement in Jerusalem on Oct. 22.
Representatives from various parties signing the agreement in Jerusalem on Oct. 22. (Photo courtesy of World Union of Meretz)

By Eric Schucht and Jesse Berman

Liberal Israeli and Diaspora groups last week pushed back against an agreement by a coalition of Orthodox and right-wing groups that would have wrested control of decision-making in the World Zionist Congress.


The congress is a 500-delegate decision-making body that meets every five years to influence policy and set the leadership of organizations, including the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund. Collectively, their budget amounts to nearly $1 billion, which goes to supporting Jewish life globally in every sector from security to immigration. The congress was held virtually Oct. 20-22.

The first Zionist Congress convened in 1897. Traditionally, parties reach a “wall-to-wall agreement” so that all parties to the congress are consulted before decisions are made. But a coalition of five parties with delegates reflecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s largely right-wing and Orthodox government agreed to change this practice and reserve the top spots for themselves.

This would have cut out left-leaning Israeli parties and liberal religious and secular Diaspora slates from the decision-making process. Many members of liberal slates described it as a power grab.

“They wanted to get rid of the Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist voices, which in America are a significant portion of the Jewish population,” said Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women and a delegate for the liberal Hatikvah slate. “And it would be deeply problematic to the relationship between the United States and Israel to not validate those segments of Judaism as worthy of being in the World Zionist Congress.”

Jim Schiller, a delegate on the Americans for Israel slate and the chairman of the board of Baltimore Zionist District, as well as a former resident of Pikesville who now resides in Boca Raton, Fla., concurred with this general viewpoint. He explained that there was a break in “tradition in which Likud and the Orthodox had roughly 52% of the delegates, and they said ‘Hey, we have the votes, so we’re just going to vote all the positions for us.’ And basically either left out totally the other groups or basically gave them crumbs.”

In the end, a compromise was made that allowed for more power sharing than the original plan. However, the power is still largely in the hands of the right.

An official from Netanyahu’s Likud party was named chairman of the World Zionist Organization. The chairmanship of the Jewish National Fund will rotate between the Orthodox Israel Coalition and the Likud. The chairman of Keren Hayesod, which raises funds for Israel, will be chosen by Blue and White, a party in Netanyahu’s coalition government. However, if Netanyahu objects to the choice, Blue and White will get another senior position.

JNF’s finance committee, which controls its budget, will be controlled by the Yesh Atid, a centrist opposition party in the Knesset. And the chairmanship of JNF’s education committee will rotate between the Orthodox Eretz Hakodesh Party and Blue and White.

Part of the compromise was bringing back the ceremonial position of president of the Zionist movement. It will be filled by a member of Yesh Atid and the first woman to hold the position.

“There was a compromise made that gave enough seats to the progressive bloc, and still more power to the right wing bloc, but allowed everybody to walk away feeling like they had a say, and a voice” on the disbursement of funds, Katz said.

When the right-wing coalition attempted last Tuesday to put its proposal up for a vote, it held 51% of the seats in the congress.

“They just came in and thought that because they did well, they could take over everything,” said Marilyn L. Wind, a Bethesda resident and delegate for the Conservative movement’s Mercaz USA slate. A long-time attendee of Zionist Congresses, Wind called the move a “hostile takeover” and “unprecedented.”

But there was another factor at play: A group of self-described nonpartisan organizations — including the 108-year-old Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America — that don’t traditionally vote for leadership. This time, though, they sent a message to the World Zionist Organization expressing their disapproval of the proposal.

“They basically put out a statement that said, ‘We’re going to vote “no” for this slate of portfolios, because it is not all-encompassing,’” said Schiller of the normally nonvoting groups like Hadassah, explaining how they wanted “to see a fair distribution of all the positions, like it’s always done in the past, and if that wasn’t going to happen they were going to vote ‘no.’ With them voting ‘no,’ they would defeat the Likud and Orthodox slate.”

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA slate and a delegate to the congress, said cutting liberal American Zionists out of decision-making would have been unfair.

He said the money that fuels the WZO and other Zionist organizations comes from the Israeli government as well as Jewish philanthropic organizations around the world, including the Jewish Federations of North America.

So Diaspora Zionists feel they should have a say in where the money goes, Weinberg said, especially on controversial issues such as spending projects in the West Bank.

“We feel that the budgets of these organizations are largely from Jewish philanthropic dollars from around the world,” Weinberg said. “That’s public Jewish money, and it’s very important that there’s accountability for it.”

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