Analysis: Zionist Congress is indeed relevant

J Street, Shas seek to gain influence via WZO.

Theodor Herzl leaning 311 (photo credit: E.M. Lilien)
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.
For years, 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.
The organization has yet to articulate a real purpose. Is it an educational institution working to advance knowledge of and identification with Israel in the Diaspora? Is it merely the political mechanism for selecting the leadership of the JNF and Jewish Agency? Should it shed these functions in favor of refocusing its energies toward its original task of nation-building, turning its Settlement Division and the JNF toward welfare projects in Israel’s periphery? Instead of doing many disparate things poorly, should the shrunken organization 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 unless it manages to attract new funds for its activities, and that means developing programs that will resonate with those Jews who might contribute to the WZO coffers.
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 still exists.
TODAY MARKS the opening of the 36th Zionist Congress, and it brings with it a hint that the organization may still have a future precisely in 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 jobs are 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 high enough on party lists to make it into the Knesset itself, they wonder. And how 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, the world’s Jewish communities and international Jewish organizations will be seated 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 relic from a bygone era, the organization has attracted some surprising interest from unexpected quarters.
Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi movement that holds 11 Knesset seats and four cabinet posts, has declared itself for the first time a “Zionist party” and will be sending its own delegates to the Congress.
Through the WZO, it intends to champion better Jewish education and Orthodox religious values in Israel and the Diaspora, according to the 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 the fledgling WZO. The party has found itself at the center of a stormy debate after seeking to change the WZO’s ideological charter, the Jerusalem Platform, to remove mention of a “multi-faceted” Jewish people. It has also called for 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 has teamed up with the Likud and several Jewish organizations to present a resolution to the Congress declaring the Jewish people “indigenous” to the land of Israel, thereby hoping to create a precedent that affords the Jews the theoretical protections under international law delineated in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But it isn’t only Shas that has jumped into the Zionist debate. The 36th Congress will see another new member that will likely bring its own brand of controversy and debate to the gathering: J Street, the leftwing American Jewish group that believes it is only through increased American pressure in the peace process that Israelis and Palestinians will reach a final peace agreement.
Allying itself with Meretz and other left-wing groups in the WZO, J Street is coming to the Congress “to have a conversation about the future of Zionism, about our political views, settlements, the vision of the state of Israel that its founders had in mind,” according to the group’s vice president of communications, Isaac Luria.
THE ORGANIZATION has much work before it. Its new chairman – behind-the-scenes negotiations seem to be coalescing around the National- Religious candidate Avraham Duvdevani – will have to bridge a wider religious, political and cultural gap than ever before to get anything done. The organization’s active programming must be scrutinized and probably reconceived.
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 – which are numerous and run deep – the WZO has suddenly been revealed as the only forum in which the entire spectrum of Jewish organized life, across oceans, cultures and ideologies, can meet and talk.