Zionist Congress Characterized by ‘Not a Lot of Listening’

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Steve Masters of JStreet — spokesmen of the political right and left when it comes to Israel issues — generally don't agree on much.

Yet they had similar reactions after returning from the 36th World Zionist Congress, which brought some 1,500 delegates from around the world to Jerusalem in mid-June to debate a host of issues concerning the peace process with the Palestinians, the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in the Jewish state and even the role that the Israeli government should play in protecting Jewish holy sites in Palestinian territory.

But their agreement was about how divided the left and right are when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"The voting is more polarized than I can ever recall. I found greater divisions" this year "than in any other year," said Klein, of Lower Merion, who had attended four previous confabs going back to 1994.

Masters, a first-time attendee, said there "wasn't a whole lot of listening going on between the right and the left, there was definitely polarization."

The first World Zionist Congress was convened by Theodore Herzl in 1897. Along with the publication of Herzl's pamphlet, "The Jewish State," the gathering in Basel, Switzerland, is credited with transforming Zionism into a political movement.

Pivotal decisions took place at the first few congresses, including a 1903 rejection for a Jewish homeland in Uganda.

Yet since Israel's creation in 1948, many have questioned the need of continuing with the quadrennial meetings of a body that governs the World Zionist Organization, which in turn helps elect the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel, but has limited decision-making powers. Still, proponents argue that the WZO serves as the only organization where Diaspora Jews have input into Israeli affairs.

Unlike in the past, this time around, delegates weren't elected because there were no funds to oversee a ballot process, according to officials involved. Instead, delegates for various slates were chosen through a complex formula.

Roughly 250 Americans, including an estimated eight Pennsylvanians, were delegates to the conference, representing a wide range of Jewish organizations and movements, such as Hadassah, JStreet — which isn't a full WZO member but managed to make some waves — the Zionist Organization of America, the Reform and Conservative movements, Shas, Likud, Labor Zionists and Meretz.

Some Volatile Debates

The proceedings were cantankerous, often chaotic, and reflected wide divisions in world Jewry between the right and left, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, and the religious and secular, according to attendees.

The most volatile debates surrounded the issue of settlements and the peace process. The status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel was also a major point of contention. The more left-leaning bloc passed a number of measures opposed to Orthodox hegemony over religious affairs, including one that opposes the current conversion bill being discussed in the Knesset.

Critics say the proposed legislation bolsters the clout of the Chief Rabbinate and potentially delegitimizes non-Orthodox conversions. The resolution also opposed "any future legislation which prejudices the right of all Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora to act in the domain of conversion."

Another heated debate surrounded a resolution calling on the Israeli government "to ensure and allow freedom of access, freedom of worship and prayer, to all religions and nations of all sites … wherever located in the land of Israel… ."

The Likud bloc tried, and failed, to insert an amendment that specifically called on Israel to preserve and restore Jewish sites in the West Bank. The Reform and Conservative movements voted as a bloc against this amendment, which particularly upset Klein.

He said the Palestinians have shown over the years that they don't respect holy sites, such as Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs, so that Israel must be responsible for them.

Masters, who voted against the amendment, said that while he's concerned about Jewish sites, the resolution essentially urged Israel to assert control over Palestinian territory.

"The move was almost like an annexation, taking control in a way that was inconsistent with a two-state solution," said Masters, adding that the Zionist movement is "reflecting a much more liberal bent and is rejecting the more nationalistic, hard-line politics from the right."

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch, a Wynnewood native and newly ordained rabbi, who now serves a Conservative congregation in Livingston, N.J., said tensions at times got so bad during the congress that an Israeli screamed at him, telling him he didn't deserve to wear a kipah.

"I did see this widening gap between Israel and Diaspora Jewry," said Dorsch, who didn't seem quite ready to give up on the idea of the forum. "I think the congress remains one of the only places that Diaspora Jewry still has a voice in Israeli politics."



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