Don’t Despise Democracy

Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post claims that a haredi slate at the World Zionist Congress was a destructive influence, a threat to “the fragile unity that the WZO reflects.”

World Zionist Congress 2020 (photo credit: Courtesy)
World Zionist Congress 2020
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote that the Eretz HaKodesh slate, which I head, came to the World Zionist Congress to “destroy,” express “contempt,” and “diminish” the Congress. He insisted that “the efforts of Eretz Hakodesh… must be repelled.”
These vitriolic accusations were greeted with disbelief, consternation and considerable pain, by our delegates and by me personally. I do not think the elections, the negotiations or the coalition that resulted explain his slanderous charges. Certainly, they do not justify inventing an alternate history that belies what transpired, and defames Jews who love Israel with a passion, yet see religious issues differently than he does.
When Eretz HaKodesh joined the American Zionist Movement, we clearly laid out our platform. The AZM accepted it unanimously, along with our “unique Zionist philosophy” as demanded from every new slate. The elections committee understood correctly that we came to build; our aim was and remains to expand the tent of the Zionist community, to look past historical differences over ideology to acknowledge current reality. ARZA itself appeared to welcome these efforts, acknowledging in its own campaign materials that “there are many definitions of Zionism.”
Yet, unfortunately, Rabbi Yoffie inverts the record. He claims that Eretz HaKodesh expressed contempt for other Jews and worked “to dismiss all forms of Judaism and Zionism but its own,” while Reform and Conservative leaders hoped to “cooperate with all Zionist factions.” The reality was precisely the opposite: ARZA responded to our electoral success by asserting that Eretz HaKodesh should be penalized, and its voters disenfranchised, simply because the delegates and voters of Eretz HaKodesh follow the tenets of traditional Judaism.
He similarly reinvents previous history. In my earlier capacity as Executive Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel, I attended previous sessions of the Congress as part of the Mizrachi delegation. Contrary to Rabbi Yoffie’s description of a “cooperative atmosphere” in which “parties of the Right… were always granted major roles,” it was the left and center which took the choice posts in every case. Can anyone recall even a single right wing or religious chairman of the Jewish National Fund (KKL), United Israel Appeal (Keren HaYesod) or the Jewish Agency? I confess, I cannot.
And this had serious consequences for our Jewish brethren, especially those residing in Judea and Samaria. Just last year, the Union for Reform Judaism demanded an investigation when it learned that the KKL had purchased land to support the lives and security of Jews residing there.
Yes, we have differences of opinion. The majority of our delegates and supporters have spent, cumulatively, more than a year in Israel, though none of us have travelled to Ramallah to trade pleasantries with Mahmoud Abbas; nor do we agree that placing the US Embassy in Jerusalem should have been held hostage to his intransigence, as Reform leaders have done and said.
Our delegates encompass rabbis, doctors, lawyers, principals of Jewish schools, graduate students, successful professionals, and those dedicated full time to raising and educating the next Jewish generation within their homes. They serve on Federation boards and those of national and international organizations, synagogues and schools. They invest seriously in Israel’s economy, the Jewish education of their children, and charities both secular and Jewish. They care about the entire Jewish nation in all corners of the world.
The Jerusalem Program — by which I mean the section of the Constitution of the World Zionist Organization, rather than ARZA’s fanciful “interpretation” thereof — calls for strengthening Israel, Aliyah, defending the rights of Jews in Israel and around the world, furthering Jewish spiritual values and Jewish education. It is easy to talk the talk; our delegates, and indeed our supporters, walk the walk. For Rabbi Yoffie to assert that it is Eretz HaKodesh that diminishes the World Zionist Congress with its presence is foolhardy; would that the delegates and supporters of ARZA came anywhere close to our realization of the Jerusalem Program in practice.
And isn’t that the real problem? ARZA claims to represent 1.8 million Reform Jews. Where were they? ARZA advertised the elections and even enabled voting in Reform temples on the Sabbath — which we, of course, cannot do. ARZA loudly proclaimed that its representation at the Congress would determine the positions and funding it would receive, because that’s how democracy works. Yet in the end ARZA, which also represents the Reconstructionists, received merely 31,500 votes. That’s not even a paltry two percent of its claimed base of support.
For the record, Eretz HaKodesh is not connected to any Israeli party or group, religious or otherwise. We are an American haredi slate representing the interests of our American haredi community. We began our campaign with no organizational backing, no office, no budget, and no paid staff, and no shortage of detractors who foresaw only failure from our efforts. Our electoral success, though dramatic, involved winning only 25 seats, less than five percent of the total delegates.
We appreciate Rabbi Yoffie’s apparent belief that Eretz HaKodesh was in a position to control the direction of the entire Congress, but the idea that we were able to orchestrate and implement a “hostile takeover” all on our own sounds more like a plot from a science fiction movie than anything that actually transpired.
His account seems to avoid an honest explanation of how coalitions are formed. He ignores the numerical strength of Likud, Mizrachi, Shas, and even Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home) party. Nothing was executed by Eretz HaKodesh, but by the majority of the World Zionist Congress — all of whom “hijacked” their positions by forming a coalition after a democratic vote. We were the least powerful or influential of these parties by far, yet we clearly appear to be convenient scapegoats for Rabbi Yoffie’s vitriol; as traditional Jews, we are quite accustomed to this sort of unfair treatment, but those dispensing it rarely called themselves rabbi.
This is not the way forward, even for his own camp.
When Rabbi Yoffie was President of the Union for Reform Judaism, he not only criticized the “most Jewishly ignorant generation in history;” he instituted a Jewish book club and published educational materials in an attempt to fix the problem. What happened to these positive efforts? It can only be to the benefit of the Jewish nation if he devotes his efforts to reaching the 98% of ARZA’s purported members who honored its leadership only in the breach. If the Reform movement were successfully reaching its youth, creating educational programs and experiences to teach them to love Judaism and Israel, we would not be having this conversation.
The Congress is indeed a big tent, which invites many groups to be represented. But the results are like those in any democratic body — in which the way elections are won, and the strength of a slate is recognized, is at the ballot box.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, and Chairman of the Eretz HaKodesh Slate