September 24, 1998
Kenneth Bob, a software executive from Long Island,N.Y., is registered to vote in this month's World Zionist Congresselections, but he's having a hard time deciding how to cast hisballot.
His vote, along with those mailed in by 149,370other registered voters, will determine the makeup of the U.S.delegation to the 33rd World Zionist Congress. Scheduled to conveneon Dec. 23 in Jerusalem, the congress will bring delegations fromabout four dozen countries to elect the leaders of the World ZionistOrganization (WZO). They, in turn, will choose the top executives ofthe Jewish Agency for Israel. Ten slates of candidates are vying fora share of the U.S. delegation.
Ken Bob's vote is not the only cliffhanger in thiselection. The size of the U.S. delegation is still to be decided in aJerusalem courtroom, as is the overall size of the congress. And itis rumored that the choice of WZO chairman will be decided in aLikud-Labor back-room deal.
Yet the question most asked in this Zionistelection season seems to be one no courtroom will hear: Whocares?
"As far as I can tell, it's just about power --who has the ear of the prime minister, who has the right to speak tothe White House in Israel's name, who gets the information first,"says longtime Jewish leader Shoshana Cardin, a candidate on theindependent slate of the Baltimore Zionist District. She thinks thatit's "time to look at new modalities in Zionism."
To Marlene Post, president of Hadassah, whichrefused to field a slate, "the whole thing is ludicrous. With allthat's going on right now, we should be united. Instead, we'refighting each other over issues like pluralism, which can't even bedecided by the WZO. The Reform and Conservative Zionists are spendinga fortune on this. For what?"
That's an easy question for Rabbi Laura Geller ofBeverly Hills, a Meretz candidate. "It's incredibly important tocommunicate to Israel in every way possible that religious pluralismis a critical issue for Jews in America," she says. "It's alsoimportant for those who care about Israel to show other Jews they canbe involved and still hold to their beliefs."
To Ken Bob, the issue is much simpler: Who willcontrol the largest and most powerful bodies in the Jewish world? "Ireally think this election comes down to a decision between the twomain bodies of political thought in Israel and the Jewish world," hesays. "This is one of those interesting times when an election istaking place that actually will decide something."
Ken Bob says that his first impulse was to voteLabor, given his lifelong love of the kibbutz idea, but he's angeredby Labor's waffling on religious pluralism. He thought of votingMercaz, the Conservative Zionist slate, but doubted their commitmentto the peace process. He considered voting for the leftist AmericanFriends of Meretz, which is unswerving on both issues, but he worriedabout "wasting" his vote on a minor party with no chance ofwinning.
His indecision has a twist: He's a Labor candidatehimself. In the end, he admits, "I'll probably vote Labor." Still, atpress time, he hadn't mailed in his ballot.
"It's a familiar dilemma I'm hearing from people,"says Shoshana Hikind, an Orthodox Zionist fund-raiser in New York.She says that many associates are torn between backing pro-Likudgroups or the Religious Zionists slate, "and I keep hearing the samequestions: Which list is closer to my beliefs? Which needs my supportthe most? Which would accomplish more?"
Most observers agree that pluralism is the mainissue on voters' minds. Not everyone is happy about it though. "It'sunfortunate, but a lot of Diaspora organizations want to make theirmark in Israel by saying, 'We represent pluralism and look how manyvotes we received,'" says New York attorney Joel Abramson, head ofthe Revisionist Zionists of America (formerly Likud USA, but barredfrom campaigning under the Likud name due to a suit by rival AmericanFriends of Likud).
Actually, such Diaspora politicking has a longhistory. Israeli law defines the WZO and Jewish Agency as theDiaspora's official voice in Israel. They are charged withrepresenting Jewish views to Jerusalem, and elections make thatpossible. No other Jewish institution brings together such a broadspectrum of Jews, invites vigorous debate and then holdselections.
In the last U.S. Zionist elections, in 1987, closeto 1 million Jews signed up (registration was simpler) and 250,000voted. The outcome was a Reform-Conservative sweep of the U.S.delegation, leading to a Labor-Reform-Conservative coalition takingover the WZO and Jewish Agency. It was the first time Israel's rulingparty ever lost control of the powerful institutions.
The Jewish Agency, which is run by the WZO inpartnership with Diaspora fund-raising campaigns, is best known forbringing Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union to Israel. Thework consumes about 60 percent of its budget, which, at $400 million,is the richest purse of any Jewish institution in the world.
Less noticed, the agency is also one of theworld's largest Jewish educational bodies. It spends some $50 milliona year on youth programs around the world. Most goes to places suchas Peru and Sweden, where the Zionists are the main educationprovider. Only about $6 million is spent in the United States, barelyenough to notice. But nothing prevents that sum from going up.
In 1992, national UJA President Brian Lurieproposed a $30 million program to bring 50,000 American youngsters ayear to Israel. He hoped to make Israel trips a universal AmericanJewish teen experience. The idea died for lack of funds.
What if the World Zionist Congress elected aleadership pledged to finding that $30 million? Or $100 million? Whatif the Zionist movement voted to recognize -- as most of us havebegun to suspect -- that with most of the Jews out of Russia, thenext great task is saving American Jewry?
Ah, but why bother with the notorious WZO-JewishAgency bureaucracy? Why, indeed: Because Israel is still, after all,the central Jewish presence in our times. Because it's right for Jewsworldwide to have a representative body, based in Jerusalem, with theresources to tackle Jewish problems wherever they arise. Because ifZionism means anything, it means the right and duty of Jews to governthemselves.
Nobody is running on that sort of platform thisyear, but a few have begun thinking along those lines. "I believe thetime has come to look at different approaches to the meaning ofZionism," says Cardin. "The Jewish Agency can certainly be aninstrumentality for world Jewry. We're in a period of change, and thechange is one that we can begin to direct."