Progressive Judaism won’t surrender to the ultra-Orthodox in WZO - opinion

Jews of the Diaspora who are committed to Israel treasure the opportunity to engage in Zionist work under government auspices and to choose their own representatives to Congress deliberations.

DEMONSTRATORS IN Jerusalem rally in solidarity with Jews across the world following a wave of antisemitic attacks, on January 5. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
DEMONSTRATORS IN Jerusalem rally in solidarity with Jews across the world following a wave of antisemitic attacks, on January 5.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
The 38th World Zionist Congress concluded its first-ever virtual session last Thursday night, following three days of hectic, contentious meetings.
The take-away for most American Jews was this: The ultra-Orthodox Eretz Hakodesh (Holy Land) Party did its very best to destroy those aspects of the Congress that make it a worthwhile and even, on occasion, an admirable organization. And it almost succeeded.
Eretz Hakodesh is a new party that won 25 seats in Congress elections in America earlier this year. Its message was: contempt for non-Orthodox Jews; contempt for the cooperative Zionist model that the Congress represents; contempt for the Israel-embracing values of Jewish peoplehood that the Congress promotes; and contempt for the idea of establishing a common Jewish table where all factions and streams of the Jewish world can sit together in mutual respect – which is the WZO’s most significant accomplishment.
And while a heroic effort by moderate elements of the Zionist world fought off the destructive intentions of Eretz Hakodesh and its allies, it seems certain that their attacks on the fragile unity that the WZO reflects will continue.
Let us be clear: Eretz Hakodesh is a party that did not come to build the Zionist organization, but to diminish it. If pragmatic Zionist ideals are to survive, and if a Zionist organization in some form is to endure, the efforts of Eretz Hakodesh to dismiss all forms of Judaism and Zionism but its own must be repelled.
Progressive and centrist Zionist movements are prepared to wage this battle, but its outcome is far from certain.
For those unfamiliar with these matters, a bit of background:
The World Zionist Organization has a stirring history. Thanks to its efforts, what began as the Zionist idea was turned into a democratic Jewish state.
Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, many argued that the major institutions of the WZO should be dismantled. But Israel’s leaders, wisely in my view, chose to retain the WZO and its affiliated organizations: the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (JNF), and United Jewish Appeal (Keren Hayesod, the main fundraising arm for Israel outside the United States).
These quasi-governmental bodies, responsible for allocating approximately a billion dollars a year to Jewish causes in Israel and around the world, are governed by the World Zionist Congress, which convenes every five years. Roughly one-third of Congress delegates come from Israel, with seats allocated to each Israeli party based on its representation in the Knesset. Roughly one-third of the delegates come from the United States, chosen by elections, and the final third come from the non-American Diaspora.
Many American Jews continue to value the Congress and its affiliates for two major reasons.
First, Israel is making the extraordinary statement that, as the state of the Jewish people, it is officially inviting the Jews of the world, through activity in the Congress, to participate in those aspects of the state that relate to its Jewish character, its Jewish citizens, and its ties to Diaspora communities. There is no other sovereign state in the world that has created formal structures of this type to involve those with ethnic and religious connections to its majority population group in the ongoing work of improving its society and culture.
Jews of the Diaspora who are committed to Israel treasure the opportunity to engage in Zionist work under government auspices and to choose their own representatives to Congress deliberations.
THE POWER of the Congress and its affiliates should not be exaggerated. The Knesset governs Israel; the Congress has a relatively minor role. It is also true, as endless critics have noted, that the operations of the Congress are known for corruption, cronyism and often appalling inefficiency.
Nonetheless, until another alternative becomes available, the Congress, the Jewish Agency, and the JNF are the bodies that offer the Jews of the world a partnership with the Zionist enterprise. They are imperfect instruments, but essential nonetheless.
Second, the World Zionist Congress and its related organizations are the only place where all segments of the Jewish world are welcome, respected and embraced. The requirement for participation is commitment to Israel and Zionism. But once that commitment is met, everyone – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Zionists; secular Zionists; cultural Zionists; Israel lovers of every political perspective – is invited to join and engage with others in Zionist activity.
The key to maintaining this broad outreach is an inclusive political system that grants significant roles to all groups. In the WZO’s political framework, the largest groups are rewarded with somewhat bigger jobs and budgets, but the key is to provide meaningful responsibilities to everyone. When parties of the Left and Center dominated the Congress, as they had until this year, parties of the Right – both religious and secular – were always granted major roles. The idea was to avoid “winners” and “losers” and to fashion a common Zionist front.
As a result, while religious and political differences did not disappear, Congress bodies managed to maintain a civil and cooperative atmosphere. The most rewarding part of my many years of Zionist activity was precisely the fact that I was able to meet, work with and befriend Orthodox Jews, right-wing Jews, and emphatically secular Jews, and join with them all in common cause to advance Israel’s welfare. At one time, there were many forums where such cooperative work could happen, and where religious Jews of all movements could meet and work together. The Synagogue Council, for example, served this function in America. But today, the WZO may be the only such venue remaining.
And this brings us to Eretz Hakodesh, a new American Zionist party. It is affiliated with Degel Hatorah, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party represented in Israel’s Knesset. In this year’s Zionist elections, the Reform movement’s party again placed first, but Eretz Hakodesh placed third, an impressive showing for a new group. Its numbers were sufficient to provide the right-wing and Orthodox bloc with a very narrow majority at the Congress.
Degel Hatorah’s decision to permit an American affiliate to compete in Zionist elections was interesting on many levels. Ten years ago, when the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party decided to participate in the Congress, Degel Hatorah’s newspaper viciously attacked them. Like most groups in the ultra-Orthodox world, Degel Hatorah was reluctant to identify itself in an official way as “Zionist.” Furthermore, it noted that while Shas claimed to be countering Reform Judaism, it was actually granting legitimacy to the non-Orthodox streams by joining an organization in which Reform and Conservative Jews were members.
Nonetheless, Reform and Conservative leaders hoped that the creation of Eretz Hakodesh might signify a change of direction in the haredi world. When Reform Judaism had decided to affiliate with the Zionist movement in the 1970s, it had been welcomed by Orthodox representatives. Why then should Reform leaders not welcome Eretz Hakodesh into the Zionist fold? If it was ready to define itself as Zionist, sit around the WZO table, cooperate with all Zionist factions and accept the cooperative culture of working together for Israel, why not?
BUT OF COURSE, it was hopelessly naive to think that this was the intention.
And sure enough, when Eretz Hakodesh’s seats gave the majority to right-wing and Orthodox groups, the party and its allies immediately broke with Zionist tradition, doing the exact opposite of what left-wing groups had done for 70 years. Instead of creating a broad coalition of Right and Left, and a fair distribution of Zionist tasks, they reserved all major responsibilities for themselves. Center, Left, Reform and Conservative groups were offered marginal roles. Instead of working for the common Zionist good, the new party and Likud led the way in punishing anyone not identified with its camp. They offered not Zionism but triumphalism. They demonstrated that in their eyes, Jewish peoplehood means their people and nobody else, and the leader of Eretz Hakodesh poured out his contempt for his Zionist partners sitting across the table.
And they had the chutzpah to do all of this with a bare majority of seven votes out of 521 delegates.
The good news is that this affront to Zionist ideals and long-established WZO practice did not stand. Stunned and appalled, Reform and Conservative leaders launched a massive lobbying campaign. Reaching out to mainstream Zionist and Jewish groups throughout the Diaspora, they appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block the proposed deal. Hadassah, B’nai Brith International and Jewish Federations in North America were among those who joined in the lobbying effort.
Netanyahu understood that a Zionist movement intended to foster ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews could not survive if it sent a message to the moderate majority of the Jewish world that they are not wanted in Zionist ranks.
The result? With prodding from the prime minister, the right-wing/Orthodox/haredi grouping that had formulated the initial deal came up with a modestly improved arrangement that was more or less satisfactory to all parties.
What happens now? A modicum of Zionist unity has been re-created, and the WZO is back in business. However, the problem is that it is difficult to have any confidence that the deal just reached, barely satisfactory as it is, will be honored by the new right-wing leadership. The haredim, we now know, have no interest whatever in abiding by the rules of the Zionist game. They have no interest in sitting in on the Jewish conversation where all views are welcome and legitimacy is extended to all. They have no desire to preserve whatever modest standing the WZO retains as a catalyst for Jewish unity and for broad support of consensus Zionism. And, in our deeply polarized Jewish world, their allies on the Right will probably be no better.
Reform, Conservative, and mainstream Zionists do not intend to back away from this fight. They believe that the deeply flawed WZO is still worth preserving, and that the Jewish people still need a Zionist structure that includes us all. They think that the struggle to revive and reform the WZO is worth the effort. Whether it can actually be done in the next five years, or ever, is anyone’s guess.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America.