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The Worst Election Yet

Charging people $7.50 a vote to save what we’ve already fought for

Liel Leibovitz
February 18, 2020
Photo illustration: Tablet magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet magazine

As if Israel’s three-peat elections and America’s rolling revue of primaries, debates, and town hall meetings weren’t enough, another electoral campaign is upon us: By the end of February, anyone willing to part with $7.50 may cast her or his vote for the 38th World Zionist Congress.

Convened by Theodor Herzl in 1897, the WZC is a very different creature now that its original goal—the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael—has long been met. These days, the congress, which convenes every five years and consists of 500 delegates from around the world, touts itself as the Jewish people’s parliament. Israel is allotted 38% of the seats, or 190 delegates, appointed according to the breakdown of political parties in the Knesset. The American Jewish community is the second-largest bloc, with 29% of the seats, or 145 delegates, with the rest of the world’s Jewry splitting the remaining 165 seats.

So, why should we care?

The honest answer is that the reason you probably never heard of this election until very recently is because it’s a totally meaningless organization with no real power. The most concrete thing to come out of the congress is the privilege to appoint the leadership of a host of legacy global institutions—the Jewish National Fund, say, or the Jewish Agency—behemoths that have less and less to do with the real lives of actual Jews but that still control, due to historical precedence, a staggering overall budget of $1 billion per year for the next five years. The head of the Jewish Agency, for example, is paid more each year than Israel’s prime minister ($13,130 per month) for running an organization whose biggest challenge is overseeing the absorption of a trickle of immigrants to Israel, about 30,000 per year.

The upcoming elections, like so many elections these days, seem to be primarily about partisan trench warfare, with activists on the left vying to declare victory and challenge Israel’s dominant right wing and machers on the right eager to further reject their liberal counterparts. It’s impossible to imagine the congress facilitating difficult conversations about the thorny issues—conversion, to name but one obvious example—facing world Jewry today. Nor is it obvious how any slate might attempt retrieving the fossilized organizations which the congress controls from the brink of extinction.

Normally, then, you might have been forgiven for suggesting that those of us who care more about actual Jewish life and spirituality and less about the alphabet soup of faceless Jewish organizations that only exist to serve their operatives stay far away from this exercise in mutually accrediting mediocrities.

But this being the political winter of our discontent, this referendum, too, has become a slow-paced train wreck, with one well-organized faction set to win the election and then transform these decayed and hollowed institutions into bully pulpits that would allow them to proclaim, loudly, that they now speak for vast swaths of actual Jews worldwide.

They are members of Hatikvah slate, emerging as the main voice of progressive Jews, committed to working “with communal partners, especially Muslim organizations, to promote a common defense to our shared safety and values through interfaith and intercommunal dialogue.” On their slate you’ll find such heavy hitters as Peter Beinart, the columnist for the radical leftist publication Jewish Currents and a fulsome defender of bona fide anti-Semites like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib; Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who took to Twitter to suggest that only right-wing white Americans can be anti-Semites, and that any violence from African American perpetrators is, well, complicated; and Jeremy Ben-Ami, leader of J Street, who just last week embraced and kissed Mahmoud Abbas, a Holocaust-denying terrorist who currently squanders a fair share of his budget to reward the murderers of Jews.

There are, of course, also well-meaning people on the Hatikvah slate, but the group’s entry into the fold has made this otherwise sleepy election come to life. According to Herbert Block, the executive director of the American Zionist Movement, which oversees the elections stateside, the very first day of voting last month attracted more than twice as many ballots as were cast for the last congress, in 2015, and the voting rate remains high.

If you’ve gotten this far, my feelings here won’t be a secret. The WZC was and remains a decayed organization barely worth our time and effort. But now all well-intentioned Jews, particularly ones who still feel connected to Zionism in any of its forms, need to engage, if only to make sure this run-down castle doesn’t accidentally fall into the wrong hands and become a moneyed and weaponized bastion from which to attack the very thing it was supposed to defend.

So here’s a rudimentary rundown. If you pay the small sum, you can choose from an unprecedentedly large field of 15 slates, or parties, many affiliated with Israeli political parties and each representing divergent views on a host of key issues, from religious pluralism in Israel to the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The Reform and the Conservative movements both have their own slates, the former focused on religious equality and peace and the latter focused on pretty much the same things. Orthodox Jews are represented by four slates: Eretz HaKodseh, which advocates for “a vibrant Israel rooted in Torah”; the Orthodox Israel Coalition, which represents the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, and the Rabbinical Council of America, among other institutions, and which sees as its goal strengthening “the engine of religious Zionism”; Dorshei Torah V’Tzion, which bands together a host of progressive modern Orthodox groups, including Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance; and Shas, the Israeli Haredi party, which hesitatingly embraced Zionism in 2010 despite being traditionally opposed to it for halachic reasons.

The Israeli-American Council and the pro-Israel advocacy group Stand With Us banded together to form Kol Yisrael, whose platform prominently asks potential voters if they’re concerned with anti-Semitism; the question is front and center with Americans 4 Israel as well, a platform that groups Young Judea and other staunchly Zionist groups. Israel Shelanu is for and by Israelis living in America, while American Forum for Israel is focused on Jews whose families hail from the former Soviet Union and advocates everything from “the strength of the IDF in defending Israel and Jews all over the world” to strong Israel-diaspora relations. Ohavei Zion, in turn, represents the World Sephardic Zionist Organization, dedicated to “promoting spiritual and cultural Sephardic values and heritage,” and Vision (tagline: “The Next Stage of Jewish Liberation”) appeals to young voters with grad-schoolish language about promoting “conversations aimed at decolonizing Jewish identity as a necessary component of rebuilding Hebrew civilization in the modern age.”

Rounding up the list are the two large blocs formed around the left-right divide, with Herut Zionists and the ZOA Coalition promoting a Likud-friendly agenda (“Say ‘No’ to an Iranian-proxy Palestinian-Arab terror state!”)

Prattling about the occupation from a safe distance is one thing; coming up with a plan to ensure good and affordable Jewish education to any family who wants it is quite another. Judging by the current campaigns, the 38th congress is likely to give us little but more sound and fury.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.