Agreement gives powerful post to religious Zionists, ultra-Orthodox slates

The agreement gives the chairmanship of the WZO to the Likud, and initially chairmanship of KKL to Mizrachi Olami, the mainstream modern Orthodox and religious-Zionist slate.

World Zionist Organization building (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
World Zionist Organization building
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Leaders of the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements are campaigning to convince the leadership of the major Zionist organizations with voting rights in the World Zionist Congress to cast decisive votes against a coalition agreement for that body that the progressive Jewish groups have denounced as a hostile takeover of the Zionist institutions.
Traditionally, and for much of the recent history of the Zionist institutions, the major portfolios within the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet Le’Israel, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency have been distributed equally among the different political and religious factions.
But the new coalition agreement that has been drawn up by the right-wing, religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties for the World Zionist Congress that begins Tuesday gives the most influential and powerful positions to the right-wing, Orthodox groups – who only have a small majority in the congress.
The agreement gives the chairmanship of the WZO to the Likud, and initially the KKL to Mizrachi Olami, the mainstream modern Orthodox and religious-Zionist slate. 
Additionally, the agreement initially gives the chairmanship of the KKL to Mizrachi Olami (World Mizrachi), the mainstream modern Orthodox and religious-Zionist slate. More controversially, it gives the education department of KKL to Eretz Hakodesh (The Holy Land), a new ultra-Orthodox and conservative Modern Orthodox party that won 25 delegates out of the total 521 in the congress by appealing to those voters.
The agreement also creates a new department for “ultra-Orthodox spiritual services” inside the WZO.
The non-Orthodox movements are arguing that the coalition agreement marginalizes the representatives of broad swathes of Diaspora Jewry in the WZO, which has and is supposed to represent the Zionist movement as a whole.
The centrist, left-wing, liberal and non-Orthodox parties have been offered several positions within the institutions, but their leaders insist that these are inconsequential portfolios without influence or control over the large budgets that these organizations wield.
THE RIGHT-WING, religious, and ultra-Orthodox factions technically have a seven-seat majority in the congress to ram through the new coalition agreement, but major Zionist organizations such as Hadassah, Wizo, Bnei Brith International, Maccabi World Union, and others have significant numbers of delegates who could defeat the coalition agreement that is expected to come to a vote on Tuesday.
These organizations traditionally do not vote on the coalition agreement, but the Reform and Masorti leadership are hoping that they will vote down the current proposal, arguing that although this would go against custom it would not be an expression of how a coalition agreement should be formed but merely a rejection of what is currently on the table.
One senior source in the Masorti Movement described the coalition agreement as “a hostile takeover of the Zionist institutions,” and said that the movement was “fighting aggressively” to convince the Zionist organizations to stymie it.
“They claim they want a big tent, but they have taken all the major positions and budgets to their sides, and created positions and allocated budgets to ultra-Orthodox parties, changing things radically,” said the source.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, described the coalition agreement as “unprecedented,” saying that it “enables one Zionist camp to take aggressive control of all the Zionist institutions when they don’t really have a majority.”
Kariv said the Zionist organizations should vote against the agreement, despite the lack of precedent: “Not in order to take control or make the center-Left camp the leading camp, but to save the concept of a wide roundtable in the Zionist institutions and wall-to-wall coalitions.”
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), insisted that the Zionist Institutions have been and need to “broadly reflect the entire Zionist world and not just be a reflection of the Knesset.”
Weinberg said that the new coalition agreement could undermine the very legitimacy of the Zionist institutions in the Jewish Diaspora as legitimate vehicles for representing Diaspora Jewry.
“The Zionist Institutions are owned by the Jewish people, not the Israeli government. The right-wing and religious parties got a lot of votes, but there should be proportional representation,” he said. “The coalition agreement should not be a way to remove progressives from Jewish and Zionist life as is done in the Knesset.”
RABBI PESACH Lerner, head of the Eretz Hakodesh Party, rejected the stance of the non-Orthodox movements, and said that the coalition agreement was a simple result of the political reality in the congress as it was elected.
“It’s called democracy,” he said. “People voted. What are they complaining about?”
“When they get what they want, it’s called fair – and when they don’t get what they want, it’s not fair,” he continued, criticizing the Reform and Conservative movements for getting only a small fraction of votes from their overall national membership.
Lerner also claimed, as a former member of the Mizrachi slate in the WZC, that the modern Orthodox and religious-Zionists had not been given sufficient influence within the Zionist institutions in accordance with their size and influence amongst the Jewish people.
“My people are the ones visiting Israel, going to study there, buying apartments, fighting BDS,” he said. “I wish they would make their effort and educate their people about Israel and about Judaism, because they’re losing their younger membership. Only three percent of their membership voted in the WZC elections. Why are they not invested?”
Asked whether depriving the progressive Jewish movements of influence within the Zionist institutions would weaken the connection of those groups with Israel and Judaism, Lerner said that the Reform and Conservative movements “should have done more” when they had greater influence.
“Why didn’t they accomplish anything?” he asked. “They had control for years. Did it help them, or are things getting worse?”
Blue and White and Yesh Atid joined the non-Orthodox streams and Diaspora groups in fighting what both parties said they see as a takeover of the WZO by the Right and the Orthodox. Neither party agreed to take the Likud’s offer of the chairmanship of Keren Hayesod, the main fundraising arm for Israel outside the United States, because they want all the negotiations on the coalition to be restarted.
“We will not sign this agreement,” a senior source in Yesh Atid said. “Our commitment to good governance and to the fight against corruption has been clear and consistent. That’s as true when it comes to the Zionist institutions as it is to the government of Israel.”
The right-wing and Orthodox coalition is led by World Likud and includes World Mizrachi, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Eretz Hakodesh.
Had either Blue and White or Yesh Atid agreed to join the right-wing coalition, it would have gained an insurmountable majority. Their joining the religious streams in opposing the agreement has left everything open ahead of Tuesday’s votes in the Congress.