The course of the World Zionist Congress, and its multimillion-dollar budget, will be determined in upcoming elections.
If you felt left out of the drama surrounding the recent Israeli elections, don’t despair: You still have an opportunity to cast a vote that will help determine important priorities for the Jewish people.
Elections are currently underway for the World Zionist Congress, a body that convenes every five years in Jerusalem to debate such issues as how to combat anti-Semitism and foster Jewish identity. The body is also responsible for a multimillion-dollar budget allotted to institutions and Jewish causes such as education and immigration around the world.
The Congress, first convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 to herald the Zionist idea of a modern Jewish state, is often described as the international parliament of the Jewish people.
The American elections, which will determine 145 of the 500 delegates who will meet in Jerusalem in October, are being chaired by a prominent Philadelphian, Judge Abraham Gafni.
“By casting a vote in this election, one becomes part of a great historical continuum, and personally participates in crafting the future of the Jewish state,” said Gafni, who has long been involved in Jewish communal affairs locally and internationally, including holding key positions at the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“This is the very best opportunity to express one’s vision of and commitment to Israel’s future,” said Gafni, a former Common Pleas Court judge who teaches at Villanova School of Law.
Karen Rubinstein, the longtime executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the New York-based organization that administers the voting, said these elections also give American Jews a say in determining the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose $300-plus million budget is spent on aliyah and educational needs around the world.
“People can sit around and complain and cry” about what’s going on in Israel “or they can be part of the process and at least have their voices heard,” she said. The elections “are not going to impact the peace process,” for example, she said, but in voting for a particular slate, “you are making a statement for what your vision is.”
Like elections to the Knesset, voters select a slate of delegates. This year, 11 slates are running, representing groups across the religious and political spectrum. The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements each have a slate, as do the Zionist Organization of America and groups that have formed alliances such as progressive Zionists, young adults, Russians and Sephardim.
The American delegates will constitute 29 percent of the congress. Israel’s 38 percent are determined by the political makeup of the Knesset. The rest of the 33 percent of delegates come from other parts of world Jewry. Each slate was required to include 30 percent of its delegates as women and 25 percent under age 30.
A controversy erupted this year when ZOA challenged the Hatikvah slate, which bills itself as the Progressive Zionist slate, represented by leaders of a variety of liberal/left organizations,
including J Street and the New Israel Fund. ZOA challenged Hatikvah’s legitimacy, claiming among other things that Hatikvah has members that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The ZOA sought to bring its petition to Gafni, but he passed it on to the Central Elections Board, he said. That board denied ZOA’s request, and the group appealed it to the Zionist Supreme Court, but no decision has yet been handed down, according to Rubinstein.
American Jews age 18 or older are eligible to vote if they sign on to the Jerusalem Program, which states that “Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, brought about the establishment of the State of Israel, and views a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel to be the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuation and future.”
A fee is also required — $10 for people over 30 years old, $5 for those between the ages of 18 to 30. Voting is done online at www.myselfourisrael.com, where a full list of slates and what they stand for are listed. The electronic voting began in January and will continue through April 30.
So far, just over 30,000 Americans have voted, with a slight uptick since the Israeli elections. “I think the Israeli elections made people more aware of the issues,” Rubinstein said. Gafni also said he thought the Israeli elections could motivate the slates, some of which are loosely connected to Israeli parties and/or their philosophies, “to do better — either to improve on their successes or to minimize their losses.”
They both said they hope that at least 100,000 Jews ultimately will participate. “If we can’t get a good response,” Rubinstein asked, “what does that say about how much American Jews care about Israel?”