Restoring inclusion, inspiration to the Zionist world: we can do better

Instead, the congress was shrouded in controversy regarding the inclusion of new constituents who threatened to upset the balance of power and the status quo.

Yaakov Hagoel, incoming Chair of the World Zionist Organization. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Yaakov Hagoel, incoming Chair of the World Zionist Organization.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
The 38th World Zionist Congress opened and closed its virtual doors last week amid a flurry of activity. Yes, this is the same Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl convened 123 years ago; the same one that, prior to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, formed the pragmatic framework of our modern state. In its very early days, the congress served as a kind of accelerator for Zionist creativity, innovating new structures and national institutions to form what would become the Start-Up Nation.
Much has changed in the world since that original gathering in Basel, Switzerland: two world wars, the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state, the transfer of most of the power and responsibilities from the national institutions to the government of Israel, the absorption of millions of new immigrants to Israel, several decisive wars upon the Jewish state, and five peace accords with neighboring Arab countries.
But the Zionist Congress has remained largely unchanged. It is still the ultimate and, some argue, the only meeting place where Jews from all over the world can sit around the table as equals to discuss and deliberate issues of importance to the global Jewish people.
However, If the Zionist movement was indeed once the most innovative Jewish force, the spirit of imagination and innovation that characterized its bold plans and ideas has dissipated. Today, in its place, Israel is considered the Start-Up Nation because of the innovation and ingenuity of Israeli entrepreneurs. In areas from artificial intelligence to cybersecurity, water technologies, desert agriculture, fintech and medical devices, Israel is recognized as a global innovator. However, one area that has escaped the spirit of innovation is the Zionist movement.
Instead, against a backdrop of global pandemic, a world-wide rise in antisemitism, and increasing distance between Diaspora communities and Israeli leadership, the congress was shrouded in controversy regarding the inclusion of new constituents who threatened to upset the balance of power and the status quo. Much of the deliberations surrounding the congress concentrated on the right-wing majority and its impact on the different leadership roles and positions that would be allocated to Israel’s national institutions.
Matters of vision, new ideas and new efforts for expanded Zionist engagement were deferred until future dates.
Given that this congress was held in a virtual format for the first time in its history, it is understandable that the vast time differences between the global Jewish communities severely limited the capacity for meaningful debate. However, this reinforced the growing perception that the once lofty, ideologically driven and inventive Zionist Congress had become stale.

Yet amid the cacophony of wheeling and dealing and reports of heightened tensions between Diaspora Jewry and Israel and left-wing and right-wing blocs, one of the highlights of the congress occurred during the committee meetings. In these smaller and more focused sessions, delegates moved past the prepared speeches and inflamed rhetoric and delved into direct people-to-people connections.
The brief deliberations offered a glimpse of what can be achieved if more time is spent communicating directly and less time in pre-set social-media bubbles. It is far easier to hurl invective and vitriol at a screen then at a person. And the dialogue, albeit curtailed, was substantive. Indeed, this direct communication was perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Zionist Congress.
While a short-term crisis was averted with a broad consensus, a “wall-to-wall” agreement among the different parties, the Zionist movement is in danger of becoming irrelevant to many potential constituents around the world.
Zionists worldwide have a big task ahead of us, the most important part of which is to recapture the imagination and innovation that guided this once-great movement. The path to repairing the bridge between Jewish communities around the world and Israel begins with re-establishing trust and creating a renewed sense of vision, mission and purpose. The incoming chairman, Yaakov Hagoel, a principled and considerate leader, has expressed his commitment to renewing Zionism around the world.
We can start with greater inclusion to bring more diversity of thought and participation to the Zionist movement. This spirit of innovation needs to be injected into the veins of the Zionist movement, much like an IV is given to a dehydrated mountain climber. For a country branded globally as a great innovator, we must access and engage talented entrepreneurs who can be a wellspring for new innovations. We must innovate, or else.
There is a clear need to establish a chief innovation officer within the Zionist movement who will work to ensure that the national institutions are competitive and current in the 21st century. The first priority for this role will be to establish a Zionist accelerator (like so many of the tech accelerators) that will invite entrepreneurs from across the Jewish world to submit initiatives and plans that can jump-start a renewed Zionist movement.
While the Zionist Congress remains the only democratic platform for all Jews to sit as equal partners and deliberate policy issues of strategic concern, it can also once again be a source of imagination, innovation and inclusion.
The writer is the vice chairman of the Confederation of General Zionists and serves as a board member for Israel’s Nature and Heritage Foundation.