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The Other Zionist Election: The One for Americans

Ralph Seliger
March 18, 2015

by Ralph Seliger

Herzl-lTHE ORGANIZATION FOUNDED IN 1897 by Theodor Herzl to establish a modern Jewish state still exists. It’s called the World Zionist Organization, and it’s guided by resolutions of the World Zionist Congress, which convenes at four-year intervals.

In the United States, there is an election going on at this very moment, with balloting online from January 14th through April 30th, to elect 145 delegates of the 500 worldwide total to the 37th Zionist Congress, scheduled to meet in Jerusalem in October. As in Israel's elections, delegates will be selected in relation to their ranking on a list of candidates, and in proportion to that list’s percentage of the total number of votes cast. The largest national delegation (190) will come from Israel, selected in proportion to the vote garnered by participating Zionist parties in the March 17th election for the Knesset.

To be honest, I am not impartial: I’ve been a deputy delegate to three past Congresses and am a candidate again this year, on the Hatikvah Progressive Zionist Slate, a list combining activists and supporters of four left-of-center American Zionist organizations — Ameinu, Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI), Habonim-Dror, and Hashomer Hatzair. Together, these groups represent the historic lineages of Labor Zionism and socialist Zionism, instrumental in building Israel during its pioneering years, and are allied to varying degrees with today’s Labor and Meretz parties.

Hatikvah is one of eleven competing slates for the approximately 100,000 American Jews who will exercise their right to vote. I will make my case for Hatikvah, but I do hope that readers will seriously consider voting regardless of their preference, as this is the only genuinely democratic way that Diaspora communities can influence Israeli society.

SPEAKING OF DEMOCRACY, however, the leadership of a competing slate, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), has attempted to disqualify Hatikvah, claiming that it is “anti-Zionist” because one of its constituents, PPI, supports an economic boycott of West Bank settlements (even as it opposes the more generalized anti-Israel boycott of the BDS movement). This would disenfranchise many if not most liberal American Jews who have considered themselves Zionist or pro-Zionist.

The ZOA's challenge was rejected by the American Area Election Committee and the Jerusalem-based Central Election Committee. The case was heard by the Zionist Court on March 12th, with a final decision to be issued sometime after Israel's national election. According to Ken Bob, president of Ameinu, ZOA's challenge is expected to lose.

If Hatikvah were disqualified, it would eliminate a list featuring a number of well-known public figures, headed by Theodore Bikel (the internationally celebrated singer and actor who is PPI’s board chair). Others include Randi Weingarten (head of the American Federation of Teachers), political theorist Michael Walzer, Debra DeLee (president of Americans for Peace Now), Daniel Sokatch (CEO of the New Israel Fund), and Sam Norich (publisher of the Forward newspaper).

Hatikvah’s platform emphasizes a wide gamut of peace and social justice issues, making it the most comprehensively liberal of all the competing slates. These include supporting “a negotiated two state solution” to be facilitated by a freeze on new settlement activity, “the protection of democratic rights for all of Israel’s citizens,” and the creation of “a robust social safety net.”

Other liberal slates include ARZA — the Zionist movement of Reform Judaism — and the Green Zionist list, which emphasizes environmental issues. In the moderate middle is Mercaz, the Zionist movement of Conservative Judaism. On the right are the aforementioned Zionist Organization of America, Herut North America (“inspired by the teachings of... Ze’ev Jabotinsky” and “dedicated to... the territorial integrity of the land of Israel”), and the Religious Zionist Slate — the movement of centrist Orthodoxy which emphasizes “Torah values” and “a united Jerusalem.”

Admittedly, the World Zionist Organization does not have the power it did prior to the birth of Israel as a sovereign state, when decisions of the organized Zionist movement were critical. But they are not without importance. In particular, we now know that Israeli governments have been using a department of the WZO, the Settlement Division, to surreptitiously funnel governmental money into the building of West Bank settlements. Hatikvah candidates were instrumental last month in passing resolutions at the Zionist General Council (the legislative body that meets in between the quadrennial sessions of the World Zionist Congress) to reassert WZO control over the Settlement Division and for transparency in its operations.

To see the election platforms and candidate lists of all eleven slates, and to click forward to register and vote, click here.

I recognize that not every Jewish Currents reader will be prepared to affirm the “Jerusalem Program,” as required, declaring your assent to “Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” and supporting “a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel...” Actually, the Jerusalem Program does not fully express my Zionism; I favor an Israel that is also by self-definition a democratic and secure homeland for its non-Jewish citizens, as reflected in Israel's Declaration of Independence, but I suspect that most of my colleagues on the Hatikvah Slate feel the same way. If you feel as we do, you have until the end of April to vote your conscience, and you should do this soon, before you forget.

Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, from a left-Zionist perspective. He is administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel blog and an online columnist for The Jewish Week.