On March 17, 2015, the Israeli electorate will go to the polls to vote for its next Knesset. Assuming no party has a governing majority of the Knesset – a fair assumption since it has never happened in Israel’s history – the Israeli president will empower a party to form a coalition government; subsequently the new Knesset will elect a new prime minister. For most of us, this is the election we know about. All the news sources covered the break-up of the current coalition in December and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s subsequent call for new elections. The political jockeying in Israel in advance of their March elections is newsworthy in the United States.
But while this is the Israeli election we all know about, it is not an election in which we, Jews of the Diaspora, can vote. There is another election. And we can vote. And while it may not have the weight of the Israeli general election, it does have stakes.
From now through April 30, 2015, you can go online (www.myvoteourisrael.com), pay a $10 registration fee, and cast a vote for a delegation that will represent Jews of America at an international convention in Jerusalem next fall. The convention, in turn, will choose leadership and set budgets for several major Israeli and international bodies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on Jewish education, social services, urban renewal in Israel and some contentious issues as well such as rural settlements.
Never heard of it? Most have not. The convention is the World Zionist Congress. It meets every four to five years to oversee the World Zionist Organization, an organization that dates back to Theodore Herzl and 1897. The WZO was the world movement to create a Jewish state and enable institutions to implement that vision. It created the Jewish Agency for Israel in 1929 with Chaim Weitzman, the WZO’s president, as the Jewish Agency’s first president. With differing views as to how Zionism should be portrayed and what a Jewish state should look and act like, the World Zionist Congress became the forum in which rival parties and competing visions would debate.
And while its complex and archaic governance structure is difficult to comprehend, the WZO is an important influencer at much larger organizations that it founded years ago, the aforementioned Jewish Agency for Israel, the massive social service and educational body largely funded by Jewish Federations, and the Jewish National Fund, which owns and manages more than a seventh of Israel’s real estate.
For many, many, years the World Zionist Congress elections were not anywhere on the radar. As J.J. Goldberg of the Forward comments, “Most years the election is a sleepy affair pitting gray-haired functionaries and [idealistic] teenagers against each other to divide up control of an Israeli institution that nobody cares about except its employees … [But] this year promises to be different. With Israeli-Palestinian peace in deep freeze, settlements in high gear and chances for a two-state solution fading, the ideological debate among different schools of Zionism — religious vs. secular, hawks vs. doves — is at its fiercest in years. And the WZO is ground zero.”
The WZO’s import has been underestimated by world Jewry. Its funding decisions have a lot to do with Jewish education worldwide. WZO is critical in the training and deployment of Israeli shlichim (emissaries) around the world. WZO influences funding and other policies affecting Conservative and Reform movements in Israel. These alone should be reasons for Diaspora Jews to be concerned enough to vote in these elections.
The growing debate at the WZO is because one of its departments, the Settlement Division, is one of the Israeli government’s main subcontractors for settlement activity, with its entire budget coming from the government, unlike the philanthropy-funded WZO itself. The World Zionist Congress, therefore, becomes the only formal forum for these issues to be discussed with Israeli and world Jewish leaders having equal position in the debate. Israeli law designates the WZO, together with the Jewish Agency, as the formal liaison between the Jewish Diaspora and the Israeli government. It is the vehicle through which Jews around the world are officially invited to make their views known to Israel and participate with Israelis in making policy.
When you go to www.myvoteourisrael.com you will see 11 slates competing in this year’s American election. Included are Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and three options of Orthodox Judaism. There are political “left wing” slates (such as the Hatikvah coalition) and “right wing” slates (notably the Zionist Organization of America). There is a “green” slate, and a Russian immigrant slate aligned with the Yisrael Beiteinu party in Israel.
You can read their platforms and analyze their slates.
In the end, I can’t tell you if this is going to be a momentous World Zionist Congress or not. But given the importance of the funding and policy decisions that the Congress can make, for $10 I am not going to take the chance. I voted. And so should you.