(Updated on Oct. 25, 2020 to include additional information)
Liberal Israeli and Diaspora groups, including delegates from the Washington area, this week pushed back against an agreement by a coalition of Orthodox and right-wing groups that would have wrested control of decision making in the World Zionist Congress.
The Congress, a 500-delegate decision-making body meets every five years to influence policy and set the leadership of organizations including the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund. Collectively, their annual budget is about $1 billion, which goes toward supporting Jewish life globally. The Congress was held virtually from Oct. 20 to 22.
Typically, all delegations are consulted and reach a “wall-to-wall agreement” before decisions are made. But a coalition of five slates reflecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s largely right-wing and Orthodox government agreed to change this practice and reserve the top spots for themselves.
This would have cut out left-leaning Israeli parties and liberal religious and secular Diaspora slates from the decision-making process. Many members of liberal slates described it as a power grab.
“They wanted to get rid of the Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist voices, which in America are a significant portion of the Jewish population,” said Sheila Katz of Washington, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women and a delegate for the liberal Hatikvah slate. “And it would be deeply problematic to the relationship between the United States and Israel to not validate those segments of Judaism as worthy of being in the World Zionist Congress.”
In the end, a compromise was made that allowed for more power sharing than the original plan. However, the power is still largely in the hands of the right.
An official from Netanyahu’s Likud party was named chairman of the World Zionist Organization. The chairmanship of the Jewish National Fund will rotate between the Orthodox Israel Coalition and the Likud. The chairman of Keren Hayesod, which raises funds for Israel, will be chosen by Blue and White, a party in Netanyahu’s coalition government. However, if Netanyahu objects to the choice, Blue and White will get another senior position.
JNF’s finance committee, which controls its budget, will be controlled by the Yesh Atid, a centrist opposition party in the Knesset. And the chairmanship of JNF’s education committee will rotate between the Orthodox Eretz Hakodesh Party and Blue and White.
Part of the compromise was bringing back the ceremonial position of president of the Zionist movement. It will be filled by a member of Yesh Atid and the first woman to hold the position.
“There was a compromise made that gave enough seats to the progressive bloc, and still more power to the right-wing bloc, but allowed everybody to walk away feeling like they had a say, and a voice” on the disbursement of funds, Katz said.
When the right-wing coalition attempted on Tuesday to put its proposal up for a vote, it held 51 percent of the seats in the Congress.
“They just came in and thought that because they did well, they could take over everything,” said Marilyn L. Wind, a Bethesda resident and delegate for the Conservative movement’s Mercaz USA slate. A long-time attendee of Zionist Congresses, Wind called the move a “hostile takeover” and “unprecedented.”
But there was another factor at play: a group of self-described non-partisan organizations — including the 108-year-old Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America — that don’t traditionally vote for leadership. This time, though, they sent a message to World Zionist Congress expressing their disapproval of the proposal.
“If those organizations did not choose to write that letter and pressure the World Zionist Congress, this would have been over on Tuesday, and we would not have any power,” Katz said. “They expressed outrage. And it’s really the first time that that’s ever happened. And I think because those organizations took a stand, then everyone was forced to go back to the drawing board and renegotiate.”
Pesach Lerner, the New York rabbi who heads Eretz HaKodesh, an Orthodox party that was part of that right-wing effort, said the move was justified because of the political positions leftist groups have taken.
“When President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, these movements came out against it,” he said. “My people travel to Israel, they buy apartments in Israel, and they send their kids to learn in Israel. We’re anti-BDS, we’re pro-Israel and we lobby on behalf of those who fight for Israel in Washington.”
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA slate and a delegate to the congress, said cutting liberal American Zionists out of decision making would have been unfair.
He said the money that fuels the WZO and other Zionist organizations comes from the Israeli government as well as Jewish philanthropic organizations around the world, including the Jewish Federations of North America.
So Diaspora Zionists feel they should have a say in where the money goes, Weinberg said, especially on controversial issues such as spending projects in the West Bank.
“We feel that the budgets of these organizations are largely from Jewish philanthropic dollars from around the world,” Weinberg said. “That’s public Jewish money and it’s very important that there’s accountability for it.”
First-time ARZA delegate Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church was caught off guard by the drama at this year’s WZC.
“I was under the assumption that this was going to be a somewhat boring Congress,” Schwartzman said, describing the right-wing coalition’s plan as a “coup.”
“This was really, very bad for the progressive community, both in Israel and around the world,” Schwartzman said. “If this group had been able to take over and push through their agreement, it would have really undermined the goal of the Zionist Congress representing the Jewish people at large.”
Daphne Lazar Price of Silver Spring watched the Congress from the sidelines. She is the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was represented in the Congress by the slate Dorshei Torah V’Tziyon. She said she was disappointed by the right-wing bloc’s move, but was happy that both sides came together in the end. She said the incident is emblematic of a growing political rift.
“We have a lot of relationships to mend,” Price said. “A lot of bridges to build between now and the next Congress. And it just seems like we have a lot of work to do.”
JTA contributed to this story.