There is much being said about the up-coming World Zionist Congress, and why Reform Jews should be interested. To address these, we’ve invited Rabbi Ira Youdovin (now retired) who forty years ago headed the team that created ARZA—Association of Reform Zionists of America, served as its first executive director and, together with its president, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, led Reform Zionism’s first delegation to the World Zionist Congress.
When we contacted Rabbi Youdovin he mused that the questions being asked were largely the same he was called upon to answer in the mid-1970’s.
The World Zionist Congress: Why Should Reform Jews be Interested?
The next World Zionist Congress will be held in October, 2015. More than 500 delegates from Israel and the Diaspora will gather in Jerusalem to discuss key issues confronting Israel, Zionism and world Jewry, and to determine allocations made by the World Zionist Organization, the WZC’s parent body. These decisions are determined by vote of the delegates, who reflect a wide diversity of ideological and religious perspectives.
If you care about the Reform Movement in Israel, if you support egalitarian prayer, if you believe in freedom of religion, the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, if you believe that women should have equal status, here is your chance to make a difference. Your vote in determining who represents your region is your voice in determining what happens at the Congress.
What Are the Origins of the World Zionist Congress?
Theodor Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress (WZC) in Basel, Switzerland (1897). An assimilated Viennese Jew covering the Dreyfus trial for a local newspaper, Herzl saw the anti-Semitism manifest in the trumped-up charges against a Jewish captain in the French army as a harbinger of a fate that awaited Jews everywhere in Europe. His response was to create a national homeland where Jews would be safe and free. The WZC was the first institutional step toward achieving this goal. Foremost among the resolutions adopted by the Congress was one that defined the movement: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.”
Approximately two hundred delegates from seventeen countries attended. Sixty-nine were representatives from various Zionist societies. The remainder were individual invitees. In attendance were ten non-Jews who were expected to abstain from voting. Seventeen women attended, While women participated in the discussions, they did not have voting rights. Those were granted the following year, at the Second Zionist Congress.
Herzl called the WZC “the Parliament of the Jewish People.”
Who Attends the World Zionist Congress?
Herzl’s characterization of the first World Zionist Congress (WZC) as “the Parliament of the Jewish People” is as apt today as it was when the Congress first convened in 1897. Other Jewish forums exercise more power, enjoy greater prestige and encompass more wealth. But the WZC is the only one whose delegates are elected democratically to represent Zionists in Israel and throughout the world.
The approximately five hundred delegates are divided geographically: Israel—38%, the United States—29%, non-American Diaspora—33%. The Diaspora contingent is divided into thirty geographical regions.
The Israeli delegation is composed on the basis of each political party’s representation in the Knesset. Most Diaspora delegates are chosen in regional elections, although in a few regions, representation is determined by negotiations among the local Zionist groupings.
ARZENU’s objective in every region is getting out the vote for its slate!
How is the World Zionist Congress Organized?
There are three categories of delegates.
- Those representing Zionist political movements are chosen in are chosen in national elections in 30 countries worldwide. Each country’s regional elections are independent of the other 29 countries but the aggregate of all of the results determines the strength of the political movements for 5 years until the next elections.
- International Jewish organizations which have fixed representation and do not compete in elections (the World Union for Progressive Judaism, World Mizrachi, Hadassah, WIZO, B’nai Brith, Maccabi, and others).
- Israeli political parties whose mandates are determined by the number of seats they each holds in the Knesset.
Once elections are concluded the Zionist political movements team up with like-minded Israeli political parties to create factions and enhance their impact at the WZO. After the last elections in 2010 ARZENU joined forces with the Labor and Meretz parties to become the largest faction in the WZO.
Because ARZENU has no permanent ties to any Israeli political party, and is present in only fourteen of the WZO’s thirty regions, its strength at the next WZC (October, 2015) depends on its “getting out the vote” wherever we can.
When did Reform Judaism first affiliate with the WZO?
In 1976, the World Union for Progressive Judaism joined the WZO as an international organization, completing the WUPJ’s turning toward Israel and Zionism. The organization had been established in 1926 in London, where it based its headquarters. In 1959, the office was re-located to New York where it was housed in the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
In the early 1970’s, a small group of ardent Reform Zionists led by Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch argued forcefully that the headquarters of a worldwide Jewish movement should be located in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish People. The move was approved in 1972 and implemented the following year. Rabbi Hirsch, who had created the UAHC’s Religious Action Center in Washington, made aliyah with his family and became WUPJ’s executive director.
What is ARZENU?
ARZENU is the umbrella organization of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists. It was founded in 1980 as a federation of existing Reform Zionist organizations, such as ARZA (USA) and ARZA Canada, and to foster new ones throughout the world. It had as its dual goal the aim of supporting the Reform Movement in Israel while bolstering local Zionist activity amongst Reform Zionist in the Diaspora.
Today there are 14 member organizations of ARZENU in the USA, Canada, France, Britain, Austria, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Spain.
How Does a Large ARZENU Congress Delegation Help Israeli Reform Judaism?
One important way is financial. Today the Reform Movement in Israel receives allocations of $4.5 to $5 million per annum from the Jewish Agency, Keren Kaymeth LeIsrael (JNF) and the World Zionist Organization.
How does this work? The WZO is a 50% owner of the Jewish Agency and therefore appoints 50% of the representatives to the Board of the Jewish Agency. Thus it can strongly impact who will be the chairman of the Agency or the agenda and priorities of the Agency. The same is applicable to the other organizations. In other words, the WZO plays an important role in making decisions on who is appointed to key positions in these organizations. Simply put: whoever has the largest number of representatives in Congress will set goals and have access to the centers of power and money.
Does ARZENU have partners?
Following elections for delegates to the 2010 WZC, ARZENU established a Joint Faction with the World Labor Zionist Movement and Meretz Olami (the political arms abroad of these Israeli Knesset parties). This Joint Faction allows us to influence the Knesset and Israeli society. For example, when we fought against the Rotem conversion law we cooperated with the above parties to influence the legislative process.
What Is Decided at the World Zionist Congress?
Much of the time is devoted to processing resolutions covering a broad spectrum of issues confronting Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. These are proposed by the various factions, and work their way through a labyrinth of committees. The survivors make it to the plenum, where they are debated at length, and frequently with vigor, before being decided by democratic vote.
The second—-many would say the more important—function is allocating funds and appointments. This is determined largely by the numerical strength of each faction. Thanks to ARZENU’s showing in recent WZC elections, the Reform movement in Israel receives $4.5 to $5 million per annum in non-governmental funding determined by its WZC representation. Failure to duplicate or improve upon our electoral success would cause a diminution, perhaps severe, of this critically important support.
Has Israel Reform Judaism Been Helped by Resolutions of the World Zionist Organization and Zionist Congress?
In 1978, ARZA sent its first delegation to a WZC (the 29th). There were nine newcomers amidst a gathering of nearly five hundred mostly veteran delegates. They had no idea of what to do, and few allies to offer guidance. So they did what came naturally. They pretended they were in Washington, or a state capital or a local city hall in the US and went from caucus to caucus lobbying as best they could for a resolution calling for equality among the religious streams in Israeli life and in the WZO.
Much to their amazement, they found substantial pockets of support in the American and non-American Diaspora delegations, as well as growing sentiment among Israeli Labor Party delegates to break party discipline in order to vote their conscience even if it offended their Orthodox partners in the Government coalition. When the plenum vote was finally taken, after numerous maneuvers to block it, the resolution passed.
Nearly four decades later, the WZO has become a Jewishly pluralistic entity, just as the resolution demanded. Progress is much slower in Israeli society, but Jewish pluralism no longer is the impossible dream it once was. So when one reads about new Reform synagogues being established by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the many gains being scored by Anat Hoffman at the Israel Religious Action Center, one can smile while recalling the 29th World Zionist Congress when the ball began rolling,