US elections for 38th World Zionist Congress set to start Tuesday

These venerable Zionist organizations have significant resources at their disposal, and these elections give Diaspora Jews a say in how they are used.

The Opening of the 26th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1964.  (photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN / GPO)
The Opening of the 26th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1964.
(photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN / GPO)
In what has been termed the most influential Zionist election outside of those for Israel’s Knesset, American Jews began voting on Tuesday in elections for the 38th World Zionist Congress.
The WZC is a body of 500 delegates from Israel and around the Jewish world elected every five years. Its composition is a key factor in deciding the leadership of many institutions: the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal. These venerable Zionist organizations have significant resources at their disposal that are used in a plethora of projects in Israel and in the Diaspora.
The elections to the WZC give Diaspora Jews a say in the use and disbursement of these funds, and a way to exert an influence on what happens in Israel in a practical manner, and in the most direct way possible for anyone who is not a citizen of the Jewish state.
The figure of some $1 billion is frequently floated as the approximate combined budget of all four institutions – although the degree of control any one faction has over this money is overstated, and the budgets of these organizations also include substantial amounts of nondiscretionary spending.
How are delegates selected?
The Jewish community in Israel is allocated 38% of the delegates, numbering 199 in total, who are selected in accordance with the size of the Zionist parties in the Knesset.
Voting takes place online and starts on Tuesday.
Delegates from the Jewish world make up 33% of the total, or 173 seats in the congress. Theoretically, elections can be held for those delegates. But due to the relatively small size of the Jewish communities in the different countries with representation, the various Jewish communities and factions usually agree on a list of delegates to be appointed.
The US Jewish community has 29% of the delegates, giving it 152 delegates overall. They are selected through an electoral process whereby any Jewish American or US permanent resident over 18 who does not vote in the Israeli elections and affirms a commitment to the principles of Zionism can vote for a fee of $7.50, or $5.00 for those under age 25.
So what is at stake?
The four national institutions have large budgets that go toward funding wide-ranging programs, such as KKL-JNF’s initiative geared at boosting employment and supporting communities in the Negev and Galilee region; supporting premilitary academies, as Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal does; or funding young Israeli emissaries to the Diaspora to help bolster the Jewish identity of Diaspora youth, as the Jewish Agency does.
Funds from these institutions have also ended up in more controversial projects, such as the NIS 100 million ($29 m.) that KKL-JNF allocated in its 2018 budget to buy land in the West Bank for settlements.
This has become a particularly hot-button issue and a point of consternation for the left-leaning delegates in the WZC, including the US Reform Movement and its WZC partners in Israel Meretz and Labor.
This bloc in the congress had current KKL-JNF chairman Danny Atar, a Labor Party politician, elected to his position after the 2015 WZC elections. But the settlement-funding issue has caused such anger it is now very likely he will be replaced after the Congress convenes in October.
In general, the different factions in the WZC, through their power in selecting the senior leadership of the national institutions, get the ability to set the direction of those organizations for the next five years and likely beyond, said Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the US affiliate of the WZO that organizes the elections in the US. “The congress also fires up the party faithful as political conventions do. The delegates get the energy to go out and help implement their agenda for the next few years.”
In the US, there are 15 different slates running to fill the 152 delegate slots given to the US Jewish community, crossing the political and religious spectrum.
The Reform Movement’s Arza list is traditionally the biggest slate, followed by the Conservative Movement’s slate, called Merkaz USA, and the Modern Orthodox slate, called Orthodox Israel Coalition–Mizrachi.
In 2015, Arza received 39% of the 57,000 votes, giving it 56 delegates, while Merkaz USA got 25 delegates and Mizrachi 24.
This year, the liberal, left wing Hatikva–Progressive Israel slate has been making a strong push to rally votes by introducing prominent left-wing activists to its slate, such as Israel critic Peter Beinart, J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T’ruah human rights group executive director.
Hatikva, which currently has eight delegates but could potentially take votes away from the Arza slate this year, says it “oppose[s] the current policy of permanent occupation and annexation” of the West Bank, adding that it “proudly stand[s] with those Israelis searching for peace with Palestine.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the right-wing Zionist Organization of America slate, which had seven delegates in the 37th congress.
ZOA says it is opposed to a Palestinian state, which it describes as an “Iranian-proxy Palestinian-Arab terror state,” adding that its delegates will help “defend and strengthen Israel” and “the Jewish people’s rights to live in and settle in Judea and Samaria” in the West Bank.
Another slate is the Eretz Hakodesh list, which is populated by religious and ultra-Orthodox candidates and appears to be making a pitch for the votes of the ultra-Orthodox community, which traditionally does not vote in significant numbers in the WZC elections.
Rabbi Elya Brundy of the ultra-Orthodox Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America made comments recently supporting voting in the WZC elections, while Rabbi Asher Weiss, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel originally from the US, said it was “of extreme importance for every Jew who cares about what is happening in the Land of Israel, the holy land, to participate in the upcoming elections.”
This comes despite the fact that Agudath Yisrael has historically not been a Zionist movement, and the ultra-Orthodox Israeli political parties Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah do not send delegates to the WZC, as is their right due to their representation in the Knesset.
Eretz Hakodesh’s platform, which conspicuously avoids using the words “State of Israel” says it seeks to promote “classical Jewish values of Torah as taught for millennia” and “Jewish learning and tradition.”
One critical factor that will affect the outcome of these elections is the collapse of the Labor Party in the April and September Israeli elections, from 24 Knesset seats in 2015 to just six seats in the September elections.
Labor, Meretz and the US Reform movement have traditionally allied, so the collapse of Labor will potentially have a severely detrimental effect on its power.
But Labor’s fall has come at the expense of the rise of Blue and White, a centrist party with both left-wing and right-wing influences.
The bloc with whom Blue and White allies in the 38th World Zionist Congress is likely to have a big impact on the balance of power within the organization and the national institutions at large.