Jim Schiller came out of the World Zionist Congress, held over two days last month in Jerusalem, empty-handed.
Schiller, chairman of the Baltimore Zionist District, was one of seven delegates on the Zionist Spring slate, whose platform called for greater accountability in the World Zionist Organization and the appointment of leaders based on their qualifications rather than their political connections.
“Our goals were not accomplished,” Schiller said. “We didn’t even get to first base.”
Maryland participants to the Congress, which brought 500 Israelis and diaspora Jews together, describe the event as a babel of tongues and instantaneous translations. And, out of the messiness of parties and factions, perplexing rules of order and backroom decision-making came some accomplishments.
“It’s sausage-making of the organized Jewish world,” said Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, a delegate of the Arzenu faction, the largest at the Congress. “But some of the things that came out of it were very uplifting.”
“It was taking the pulse of the Jewish people,” said Judith Gelman, a Washington resident who represented the Hatikvah slate allied with the Israeli Labor and Meretz political parties. Gelman was elected to the Zionist Executive Committee, which implements World Zionist Congress decisions.
Each delegate was assigned to one of eight committees, which spent the mornings debating proposals.
“The conversations can get heated,” said Luxemburg, who authored an op-ed in Washington Jewish Week about the subject. “There’s a lot of yelling, a lot of shouting, a little name-calling.”
The World Zionist Congress gathers every five years to set policy for the World Zionist Organization and its multimillion-dollar budget. Some 145 delegates were elected from the United States. Another 200 came from Israeli political parties in proportion to their strength in the Knesset. The remaining delegates were chosen from Jewish communities in the rest of the world.
The WZO is one of an interlocking triangle of institutions including the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet Leyisrael) that institutionally connect the Diaspora to Israel. Of these, the WZO is the only one to hold elections.
In the afternoon, delegates to the Congress voted on the resolutions that were considered in committee. For the first time, votes were taken electronically. Tallies often had to be repeated when it was clear that the handsets hadn’t registered the votes or when there were protests because the results were close.
Of 91 resolutions discussed in committee, about 50 were voted on by the full Congress. The remainder will be considered by Vaad Hapoel, the Zionist General Council, which meets between congresses.
The Congress passed two environmental resolutions. One calls on the World Zionist Organization and related agencies to conduct carbon-footprint analyses and to develop a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The other requires Keren Kayemet to prevent fossil fuel extraction — including fracking — on the 13 percent of land in Israel it owns.
The resolutions were proposed by Aytzim, a small green faction allied with other liberal parties. Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue was an Aytzim alternate.
“The two green resolutions, which were the main focus of my own efforts and presence there, sailed through, with 97 percent majorities, and are now Zionist policy, hopefully to leave lasting impact on the sustainability of our little corner of the universe,” he wrote to his congregants last Friday during his flight home.
The Congress also passed a “Recognition of Support for the LGBT Community” resolution, proposed by Arzenu. It forbids discrimination in Zionist institutions and calls for the Israeli government to increase support for safe spaces for LGBT people.
Other issues, such as WZO support for West Bank settlements, were not called up for a vote.
Schiller, Gelman and Luxemburg were present when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the congress and described a World War II-era Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, known as the mufti of Jerusalem, as the one who convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews.
Netanyahu’s speech drew criticism from historians, Jews and Israelis, and it prompted the German government to restate that “responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.”
“Netanyahu has his stock speeches,” Gelman said. “This was a stock speech — ‘10 Lies the Palestinians Tell.’ He’s given it a million times. They’re usually provable falsehoods. But he got off track and went on this riff about the mufti.”
Luxemburg said the response depended on the political affiliation of the listener.
“On one side of the room it was well received,” he said. “On the other side of the room people were startled, shocked and very put off.”
Schiller said he took Netanyahu’s assertion “at face value. You have to sort of do your own fact checking.”
He said he hadn’t looked into the veracity of Netanyahu’s charge but didn’t think the prime minister meant that the mufti’s suggestion to “burn” the Jews was the “bottom-line reason” for the Holocaust.
In some ways the Netanyahu speech typified the Congress as a whole, which Luxemburg called “a mixture of reality TV, professional wrestling and Chelm.”
For Schiller, the Congress was worthwhile, despite his faction’s losses. “It’s always great to get together with Zionists around the world.”