Pay-to-play Zionism

The AZM should be doing everything possible to encourage participation in the election.

Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism? (photo credit: REUTERS)
Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The upcoming election for delegates to the World Zionist Congress represents that rarest of phenomena in American Jewish life: democracy. But this ray of hope on the Jewish horizon is marred by the fact that the election process includes substantial financial and other burdens which will discourage independents from competing.
The first nationwide democratic election in the American Jewish community was held in 1917. More than 330,000 ballots were cast for delegates to what was called the American Jewish Congress. (Subsequently the congress was transformed into an ongoing organization.)
Twenty-six years later, another nationwide election was held. In 1943, some 1.5 million Jewish voters cast ballots for 22,500 electors, who in turn chose 375 delegates to a gathering called the American Jewish Conference. The election was far from pure democracy, as several small groups from the Right and Left were excluded, and 125 of the 500 delegates at the conference were appointed rather than elected.
Still, it was a significant improvement over the remarkably undemocratic way in which most American Jewish organizations currently operate. Many of today’s American Jewish and Zionist organizations do not hold any elections for their leadership positions. Their leaders are appointed, often on the basis of their wealth or political connections. Other groups hold sham elections, in which the incumbents run unopposed, or have so many built-in advantages that a rival candidate has no realistic chance of winning.
The significant exception on this dismal landscape is the American Zionist Movement (AZM), which, approximately every five years holds a nationwide election for delegates to the World Zionist Congress. Preparations are now underway to hold elections in early 2020, in advance of the Zionist Congress that will take place late that year.
In view of the fact that the American Zionist elections represent such a rare and precious phenomenon in American Jewish life, the organizers bear a special responsibility to ensure that the voting system is free and open, and conducted in a transparent manner.
This is why it is especially troubling that the AZM has imposed significant financial and administrative burdens that could discourage independent candidates from participating in the race.
As of now, a group that wants to run in the election has to pay a $2,500 filing fee to apply for permission to run, and then another $2,500 administrative fee if its application is accepted. If it is a group that has never competed before, it also has to present 500 signatures from eligible voters. And if the group wins any seats in the election, it then has to pay another $5,000 in membership dues to the AZM.
For the organizations that are currently members of the AZM, most of which have multimillion dollar budgets, there is no problem coming up with that $10,000.
BUT WHAT about independent candidates? Let’s say some individual members of an existing organization become disenchanted with that organization’s policies and want to compete with their own list of candidates. Without an existing budget, $10,000 represents a huge burden. And without an existing staff, gathering 500 signatures could be an enormous task.
This is not a purely theoretical problem. During the past several years, senior officials of several American Zionist organizations have been revealed to have engaged in a variety of controversial actions, from taking exorbitant salaries to questionable interactions with foreign dictators, such as the emir of Qatar. If dissident members of those organizations want to compete independently in the Zionist elections, they face substantial obstacles.
The AZM should be doing everything possible to encourage participation in the election. Its voting system should be designed to increase the number of people who take part. For this reason alone, the existing financial and other burdens are objectionable.
But there is also a practical consideration. Only 56,737 Jewish voters participated in the 2015 American Zionist election. And that was despite the fact that they had three months in which to vote, and were able to cast their ballots electronically, without ever having to leave the comfort of their living rooms. The 2015 total represented a significant drop from previous years: 107,832 in 1997, 88,753 in 2002, and 75,676 in 2006. (There was no vote in 2010.) The credibility of the AZM will be undermined if this downtrend continues.
Instead of feeding cynicism and apathy concerning its operations and relevance, the AZM should revise its pay-to-play policy fundamentally. The $5,000 in filing fees should be reduced to a token sum of $100 for first-time competitors; the required number of signatures should be 250, not 500; and the $5,000 AZM membership dues should be waived for a new group’s first year. Such changes would represent a significant demonstration of the AZM’s commitment to increase voter participation, and help bolster the organization’s own reputation and credibility.
The writers are members of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership (