Theodor Herzl leaning 311.
(photo credit: E.M. Lilien)
It has become a matter of common consent that the World Zionist Organization,
the original agency founded at Basel in 1897 that established the founding
institutions of the Jewish state, has outlived its purpose.
organization officials have talked openly about finding a “new direction” and a
“relevant message” in a Jewish world that just didn’t seem to have any use for
the old ideological nation-building structures of Zionism.
organization has yet to articulate a real purpose. Is it an educational
institution working to advance knowledge of and identification with
the Diaspora? Is it merely the political mechanism for selecting the
of the JNF and Jewish Agency? Should it shed these functions in favor of
refocusing its energies toward its original task of nation-building,
Settlement Division and the JNF toward welfare projects in Israel’s
Instead of doing many disparate things poorly, should the shrunken
find one purpose and perform it well? With an annual budget of just
$12m., it is
doubtful that the organization can make itself felt in the Jewish world
it manages to attract new funds for its activities, and that means
programs that will resonate with those Jews who might contribute to the
As many observers have noted, however, few Jews are even aware
that the Congress is taking place, or that the storied 113-year-old WZO
TODAY MARKS the opening of the 36th Zionist Congress, and it
brings with it a hint that the organization may still have a future
the role that has drawn the most criticism over the years. The political
wheeling and dealing of the WZO, where lucrative Jewish Agency and JNF
divided up through coalition- building and negotiations, are an endless
frustration to Diaspora charities and communities.
Why should the JNF or
the Jewish Agency be headed by junior Israeli politicians who are not
enough on party lists to make it into the Knesset itself, they wonder.
can one expect these politicians, who use the Agency and the JNF as a
springboard to higher political office, to serve the organizations’ best
interests above their narrow political ones? Yet it is precisely the
pseudoparliamentary nature of the WZO – 758 delegates from the Knesset,
world’s Jewish communities and international Jewish organizations will
at the Congress – that may be its salvation.
On the brink of oblivion, in
the Congress that some have said will show the WZO to be an irrelevant
from a bygone era, the organization has attracted some surprising
Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi movement that
holds 11 Knesset seats and four cabinet posts, has declared itself for
time a “Zionist party” and will be sending its own delegates to the
Through the WZO, it intends to champion better Jewish education
and Orthodox religious values in Israel and the Diaspora, according to
party’s WZO faction head, former MK Yigal Bibi.
Indeed, if it is true
that all publicity is good publicity, Shas may be a significant boon to
fledgling WZO. The party has found itself at the center of a stormy
seeking to change the WZO’s ideological charter, the Jerusalem Platform,
remove mention of a “multi-faceted” Jewish people. It has also called
increased representation for Israeli political parties at the expense of
Diaspora communities and groups.
The party even seems to believe that the
WZO could serve as an important platform for international diplomacy. It
teamed up with the Likud and several Jewish organizations to present a
resolution to the Congress declaring the Jewish people “indigenous” to
of Israel, thereby hoping to create a precedent that affords the Jews
theoretical protections under international law delineated in the 2007
Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But it isn’t
only Shas that has jumped into the Zionist debate. The 36th Congress
another new member that will likely bring its own brand of controversy
debate to the gathering: J Street, the leftwing American Jewish group
believes it is only through increased American pressure in the peace
that Israelis and Palestinians will reach a final peace
Allying itself with Meretz and other left-wing groups in the
WZO, J Street is coming to the Congress “to have a conversation about
of Zionism, about our political views, settlements, the vision of the
Israel that its founders had in mind,” according to the group’s vice
of communications, Isaac Luria.
THE ORGANIZATION has much work before it.
Its new chairman – behind-the-scenes negotiations seem to be coalescing
the National- Religious candidate Avraham Duvdevani – will have to
wider religious, political and cultural gap than ever before to get
done. The organization’s active programming must be scrutinized and
But where else would one find both J Street and Shas seeking
to make their voices heard on issues ranging from settlements, Jewish
religiosity and identity, and the future of the JNF? For all its faults –
are numerous and run deep – the WZO has suddenly been revealed as the
in which the entire spectrum of Jewish organized life, across oceans,
and ideologies, can meet and talk.