Who are the true Zionists in Diaspora Jewry? – opinion

Liberal Judaism in America is fading altogether, and that the values that they have espoused are not penetrating the average American Jew.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Pesach Lerner
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The World Zionist Congress, which convenes every five years, concludes its first-ever virtual session today – as required due to the pandemic restrictions preventing global travel to Israel. It comprises 524 delegates: 199 from Israel (38%), 152 from the United States (29%), and 173 (33%) from other Diaspora countries.
The newsworthy change to the composition of the Congress this year comes from the USA, where the elections held by the American Zionist Movement resulted in a shocking win for Eretz Hakodesh, a brand-new haredi slate that became the third largest party, closely trailing the Orthodox “Vote Torah” (Mizrachi) slate. Together, Orthodox and right-wing parties shifted the status quo of the entire Congress; in recent decades the American delegation was dominated by representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, and their influence extended to all realms and portfolios of the World Zionist Organization.
For years, these same liberal movements have issued dire warnings of a growing chasm between world Jewry and Israel, repeatedly warning of terrible consequences as “Diaspora Jewry” grows increasingly disillusioned by the Chief Rabbinate’s insistence on traditional standards for Jewish marriage, divorce, conversion, burial, and prayer at the Kotel. Liberal activists and their media cohorts lobby Israeli government officials, insisting that their members in the US feel disenfranchised and furious, and if Israel would only recognize liberal Jewish movements and their differing standards, the rift would narrow and Jewish devotion and donations to Israel would be restored.
Yet is there truth to these statements?
The historic power shift resulting from the US Zionist election indicates far more than a struggle between two opposing streams. It proves that liberal Judaism in America is fading altogether, and that the values that they have espoused are not penetrating the average American Jew. To put it bluntly: liberal Jews couldn’t care less about what’s going on in Israel, least of all regarding religious ceremonies they know nothing about. Proof of this is that the liberal slates’ intensive year-long campaigns couldn’t motivate more than 2% of their members to take five minutes to go online and cast their vote in the recent elections.   
The real issue plaguing US Jewry is neither Jewish marriage nor divorce in Israel, nor even the much-aggrandized prayer conflict at the Kotel. It’s the fact that American liberal Jews have little feeling for and even less education about Judaism and Israel. The result of this is that the Jewish homeland is simply not on their radar.
Liberal slates are vigorously attempting to whitewash these issues, focusing upon their agendas which are remote from those of the average American Jew. Worse yet, with their humiliating failure in the recent election and the formation of a powerful right-wing and Orthodox coalition, they’re doing everything in their power to restore the status quo by delegitimizing Eretz Hakodesh. They go so far as to allege that, with its Orthodox representatives and religious agenda, Eretz Hakodesh members are not Zionists at all.
This is an embarrassing claim – for the commitment of Eretz Hakodesh delegates to the planks of the Jerusalem Program, the ideological platform of the World Zionist Organization, vastly outstrips that of the delegations that impugn its dedication.
The Jewish people’s extraordinary bond to its historic homeland is rooted, first and foremost, in Torah. Orthodox Rabbis throughout the ages, beginning with Maimonides, Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidus, who are all universally admired by Orthodox congregations until today, either journeyed personally or sent students to found communities in the Holy Land, many of which still thrive in modern-day Jerusalem. Some of these rabbis preceded Herzl and the Zionist Congress by centuries, but that’s precisely the point, since the core of Zionism—that Jews should support, build and live in the Jewish homeland—is fundamental to traditional Judaism.
Moreover, Eretz Hakodesh and its delegates demonstrate their commitment to the elements of the Jerusalem Program. The Jerusalem Program calls for Aliyah to Israel, strengthening Israel, integration of immigrants, ensuring the future of the Jewish people through Jewish education and struggling against all manifestations of antisemitism. These are values that the delegates and voters of Eretz Hakodesh not only espouse on a theoretical level, but fulfill practically.
In an internal survey of its delegates, EHK determined that the majority of its slate members have been to Israel over two dozen times, and two-thirds have spent the equivalent of at least two academic years living in Israel. The vast majority follows Israeli news daily, and nine out of ten prays regularly for the return to Zion and rebuilding of Jerusalem. Seven of ten have immediate family members already living in Israel or planning Aliyah, or are planning Aliyah themselves. Four out of five delegates with a child over age 14 have sent a child to study in Israel for a year or more. Regardless of financial means, each member anticipates spending or has spent at least $50,000 per child on Jewish education, and every child of every EHK delegate was, is or expects to be enrolled in full-day Jewish schooling through high school, with many attending post-high school programs as well.
Beyond strengthening Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state by living and studying there, the vast majority of EHK delegates purchase Israeli products weekly, and all purchase products monthly, while two-thirds have personally invested over $50,000 in Israel’s economy, and nearly half over $100,000.  
Finally, EHK delegates support settling the country, building synagogues and Jewish life in all of Israel, including Judea and Samaria unanimously, and regard BDS as simply the latest manifestation of age-old antisemitism. This is in stark contradistinction to those slates that propose ending funding to all “settlements,” and oppose both Israeli and American anti-boycott efforts.
Simply put, with Eretz Hakodesh’s genuine commitment to Israel, and the new direction that the World Zionist Congress will likely be taking as result, there’s reason to hope that Israel and the Jewish nation will be stronger than ever.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is founder and chairman of the ERETZ HAKODESH slate.