Over the last couple of days, I have served as an alternate to the Reform Movement's delegation to the World Zionist Congress (WZC). The WZC meets every 5 years and is made up of Zionist organizations from around the world and across the wide political and ideological spectrum of modern Zionism. The WZC is not part of the Israeli political landscape per-se, but it does include representation from members of the Israeli Government and helps to lead and direct the direction and policy of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and other important institutions that both represent and proliferate the Zionist movement. One of the main reasons that the WZC has become so important is that delegates to the Congress not only determine the leadership of the Zionist movement for the next 5 years, they also vote on how hundreds of millions of dollars will be distributed. The very first Congress was convened before in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 – prior to the establishment of the State of Israel - by Theodor Herzl. This year marked the 38th Congress.
While the WZC ideally represents the totality of the Zionist movement among the Jewish people, it also, in recent years, has become a lightning rod for the divisions among us as well. The tensions between the Secular, Ultra-Orthodox and Progressive Jewish movements have played out in back room negotiations and floor fights. In recent years, world Progressive Jewry - in particular the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements - have been very successful in mobilizing our constituencies to vote for their slates so that we could have a powerful role in the deliberations. This year, we were very successful and had a robust coalition- thereby giving us an important seat at the table. But we were not alone. At the beginning of the congress, there was an attempt by Far-Right Wing and Ultra-Orthodox movements to hijack the leadership of the WJC with a hostile takeover. It almost succeeded. But, thanks to the involvement of several "legacy" Zionist organizations (that traditionally have not exercised their right to vote on contentious issues of leadership) such as B'nai Brith, Hadassah and The Federation movement, cooler heads prevailed.
As American Jews, we do not (and should not) have a role to play in the Governmental elections in the State of Israel. Most of us are not Israeli Citizens. We can, however, allow our voices to be heard in the arena of Zionist ideology and organization. This is why the WJC is so important. The attempts to sideline progressive Jewish voices is alarming and disturbing. While the Far-Right groups failed this time, they did gain a strong foothold.
I want to thank everyone who voted for the Progressive Jewish slate in this year’s congress. Because of your efforts, we were able to maintain the essential balances of power that represent the reality of world Jewry. Our fight is far from over, however. I am attaching a statement by Rabbi Rick Jacobs - president of the Union For Reform Judaism and leader of our delegation – that gives additional perspective.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Reform Movement Statement Following the 2020 World Zionist Congress
We remain committed to fight on behalf of an inclusive Zionism and our values
October 22, 2020 - Following today’s compromise agreement by the World Zionist Congress reflecting more inclusive representation, the leadership of the organizations of the Reform Movement issued the following statement:
The Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Movements, along with our partners in our international and progressive Zionist organizations, have successfully mobilized our Movements in Israel and around the world to prevent the marginalization of progressive voices at the WZC. That effort toward marginalization, reflected in the dangerous “Agreement on Principles” by leaders of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, would have weakened the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli National Institutions (WZO, KKL, JAFI, Keren HaYesod). This new agreement specifies the important roles our Reform leaders will hold in the Zionist institutions and will continue funding for our Movement’s critical work in Israel and around the world.
The broad coalition we helped assemble proved to be the decisive difference in turning a disastrous agreement into one that we can affirm. We are proud that through our collective efforts we defended the long-standing principle that these institutions serve as the roundtable in which all Jewish Zionist viewpoints are recognized and respected.
There is no question that the current agreement, which reflects the current Israeli political reality, grants significant power to the right-wing parties. However as a result of our negotiations, there will be more pluralistic leadership that will enable important checks and balances and help enforce the critical need for transparency and accountability.
We are enormously proud of our global Reform Movement’s efforts over the past year to turn out the vote in the WZC election and over these last days for standing up for an Israel that respects and includes all of our people and all of her citizens.
In 1897 Theodore Herzl hoped that the World Zionist Congress would be the “Parliament of the Jewish People” with a wide cross section of Jews and Zionists joined in common cause for the Jewish People and the Jewish State. We are committed to continuing our efforts to fight on behalf of that vision and the Israel we love. Thanks to our Movement, all voices that believe in gender equality, inclusion, pluralism, tolerance, and Jewish unity will continue to be represented in the World Zionist Organization.