Liberal Zionists Test the Efficacy of the World Zionist Congress

Protests against Israel’s judicial overhaul at the most recent congress highlight the forum’s limits.

Elisheva Goldberg
May 3, 2023

Delegates from the World Zionist Congress march to the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem to protest the country’s judicial overhaul.

Gili Getz

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As the World Zionist Congress (WZC)—a major gathering of world Jewry—met at the Jerusalem Convention Center on April 20th, hundreds of the congress’s delegates gathered outside the venue instead. Draped in blue and white flags and wearing black t-shirts that read “Saving Israeli Democracy” in Hebrew or English, the group, which included Jews from 12 countries, marched to Israel’s Supreme Court, where they held a demonstration in solidarity with Israel’s anti-judicial overhaul demonstrators.

Ken Bob, president of the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu, said that he had never seen WZC delegates walk out of a congress before. Nomi Colton-Max, a delegation leader from Ameinu and a vice president of the US-based American Zionist Movement (AZM), told Jewish Currents she organized the action with the help of Brothers-in-Arms and UnXeptable—Israeli groups that have been active in the country’s months-long protests against the planned judicial overhaul. Colton-Max said liberal and progressive WZC delegates like herself “wanted to say that diaspora Jews are also against this government. We wanted to say to the Zionist Congress, ‘You can’t ignore [the judicial overhaul] in your agenda.’”

The protest revived the longstanding question of how much power diaspora Jewish voices have in Israel—an issue that has been central to the WZC since its inception. Established by Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl in 1897, the congress brings 2,000 Jews from around the world to Jerusalem every five years to vote on policy and budgets for the three major para-state bodies that form a “parliament of the Jewish people”—the World Zionist Organization (WZO), Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL), and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Together, these institutions spend upwards of $1 billion annually on cultural and religious programs promoting Zionist activity both in Israel and beyond the Green Line, as well as around the world.

More than almost any other body, the WZC serves as a bridge between diaspora and Israeli Zionist Jews. Professor Mira Sucharov, a scholar of Jewish politics at Carleton University, said WZC delegates could be said to possess a “quasi-citizenship status . . . in Israel,” although the extent of their power “​is very difficult to assess.” Sucharov suggested that while diaspora Jews do exercise some power through the congress, their impact on the judicial overhaul is likely to be marginal, especially when it isn’t clear “whether Bibi is swayed by the hundreds of thousands of protestors from his own electorate.”

Even as diaspora Jews in the WZC have struggled to impact Israeli politics, liberal WZC delegates have struggled to move the WZC itself. The constituent bodies of the congress actively support status quo or pro-settler Israeli policies. The WZO, which partnered with an anti-religious pluralism group as late as last year, contains a “settlement division” which illegally appropriates Palestinian land and finances settlements and outposts in the West Bank. KKL, another body in the WZC’s purview, also bankrolls settlements.

Bob said that over the years, liberal delegates have advanced WZC resolutions that are more accepting of religious pluralism and gay rights. And, he said, even on “the bigger issues that have to do with money to settlements,” pressure has sometimes worked. Because KKL’s committees must reflect the political makeup of the WZC, they include liberal voices even as the organization’s current chair is from the Likud party. “When the chair tried to push for a whole new budget to buy land in the West Bank,” Bob recalled, “we managed to lobby more central voices on the committee and block it.”

Still, critics argue that this kind of incrementalism is not useful. “It’s like putting a gay flag on apartheid,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, the co-founder of the rabbinical council for Jewish Voice for Peace. Wise said she was “frustrated” by the strategy of “reinvesting in this backwards institution that we should be trying to supplant.”

This year, progressives like Colton-Max worked to put the ongoing Israeli protests on the WZC’s agenda, passing a committee resolution opposing the judicial overhaul and later protesting at the Supreme Court. In response, the WZC’s top elected leadership—a coalition of Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and far-right delegates—tried to undercut the already minimal power of their quasi-citizenship in Israel. On Friday afternoon, right-wing parties petitioned to replace the usual electronic vote with a roll call; with close to 2,000 delegates present, the move guaranteed that voting on 16 different resolutions—including the one condemning the judicial overhaul—would never be finished.

“It was a full-on filibuster,” said Gili Getz, a photojournalist and activist who was present at the WZC. In response, angry delegates began a chant of “Shame! Shame!”; video footage of the session shows an unruly hall with most delegates out of their seats. No votes were cast on the judicial overhaul or on other resolutions supporting LGBTQ, Reform, and Conservative Jews.

But delegates found other ways of making their opposition felt. A few hours after the filibuster, MK Simcha Rothman, one of the leading architects of Israel’s judicial overhaul plan, arrived at the convention center for a private meeting with delegates from the extreme-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). But just minutes after he entered the meeting room, delegates swarmed the door, trapping Rothman, the ZOA and other right-wing delegates inside. “We locked them in the room,” said Nancy Kaufman, the former CEO of the US-based National Council for Jewish Women. “We poured out with our flags . . . We were screaming ‘demokratia’ [‘democracy’] and ‘busha’ [‘shame’]. They were stuck.” Rothman was extracted 45 minutes later by a police contingent in full riot gear, and left via a service exit.

The following Sunday, protests erupted at another flagship diaspora gathering in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to attend the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, but canceled his appearance in light of the previous week’s WZC protests, a public letter from expatriate Israelis asking the GA to disinvite him, and the threat that Israeli protestors would block the roads leading to the event. Colton-Max, who attended the GA, walked out to join the hundreds of Israelis who were protesting outside.

Getz, the photojournalist, said that these diaspora protests, while likely not moving the needle, were still noteworthy: “It’s not very radical, but it’s new.” Bob stressed the importance of diaspora Jews continuing to exercise their quasi-citizenship rights. “If we don’t play [in the WZC], the right wing is going to totally dominate,” he said. “We owe it to our people to try and block and get small wins.” But for Wise, small wins are simply not enough—and might even be damaging. “It’s a problem to invest energy into the idea of Zionism particularly when it’s coming under such scrutiny,” she said. “If your end goal is freedom and liberation for everyone, this is not the avenue.”

Elisheva Goldberg is the media and policy director for the New Israel Fund and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. She was an aide to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and has written for The Daily Beast, The Forward, The New Republic, and The Atlantic.