Jewish people’s parliament
In win for center-left bloc, World Zionist Congress passes resolutions critical of the Israeli government
Voting online a month after in-person meeting, representatives also approve measures affirming Israel’s Declaration of Independence, promoting aliyah
The World Zionist Congress passed 16 resolutions on Tuesday night, four of which served as direct or subtle rebukes of Israel’s government, including one opposing the coalition’s proposed judicial overhaul. In addition to passing these resolutions, the centrist and liberal factions in the Congress also blocked the passage of two resolutions proposed by right-wing parties.
These resolutions, which passed at the same time as the Israeli government passed its budget for the next two years, are not binding but do carry symbolic weight, signifying the viewpoints of world Jewry. The World Zionist Congress, which includes representatives from a wide variety of Jewish organizations from around the globe, is often referred to as the “parliament of the Jewish people.”
Centrist and liberal factions hailed the results as a major victory for their bloc, which is technically in the minority in the Congress, with the Reform movement’s Arzenu faction deeming their efforts “overwhelmingly successful.” The World Zionist Organization’s vice-chairman and a senior member of the Conservative/Masorti movement’s Mercaz Olami faction, Yizhar Hess, said the resolutions sent “a clear message to Israel’s government: Israel must remain a Jewish AND democratic state that’s a welcoming home for each and every Jew.”
The voting opened on Sunday and ended Tuesday night in an online format, roughly a month after the World Zionist Congress held a gathering in Jerusalem. This is because the religious Zionist World Mizrachi faction, with support from other right-wing and religious parties, filibustered the in-person vote to protest what it described at the time as left-wing intransigence. “The Mizrachi responded by choosing to filibuster the proceedings and prevent the passage of the proposals put forth by the left,” the organization said at the time.
Right-wing factions – the Zionist Organization of America, Shas USA and the Haredi Coordinating Council for the Jewish Homeland – attempted to prevent the vote entirely, appealing to the WZC’s internal supreme court. In their petition, the factions argued that the resolutions were illegitimate as they did not deal with the stated focus of this year’s congress: “Israel at 75.” The court rejected their appeal, noting that the topics of the resolutions – some of which were proposed by the appellants themselves – had been approved by the relevant committee.
Last month’s three-day Congress was considered “extraordinary” as it was held as an add-on to the WZO’s 38th Zionist Congress in 2020, which was conducted in an online format because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahead of the Congress, organizers debated whether to include votes on resolutions or to gather solely to celebrate Israel’s diamond jubilee. Ultimately, the WZO decided to permit votes on resolutions but restricted it by only allowing each faction to submit one proposal. In another bid to avoid contention, the WZO also did not allow any Israeli politicians to address the Congress, unlike in the past when at least the prime minister was invited to deliver remarks.
The first day of the Congress focused on committee meetings on the various resolutions, where it became clear to participants that the center-left bloc had the votes to pass its proposals and block right-wing submissions, participants told eJewishPhilanthropy. On the second day, as the resolutions were finalized and voting was meant to take place, the atmosphere turned far less collegial. As the participants gathered in the plenary, the World Mizrachi launched its filibuster by demanding a roll-call vote for each of the resolutions (requiring 645 names to be read out for each of the 17 proposed resolutions, a process that could have likely taken days to complete).
When the filibuster was announced, members of the center-left bloc – particularly those who had flown in from abroad for the gathering – fumed, with participants chanting “busha, busha” (disgrace, disgrace), as it meant that they would not be able to do what they had come to Israel to do. “We all flew to Israel from around the world to be here to vote,” Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women and a voting member of the World Union of Meretz, told eJP at the time.
Members of right-wing parties, speaking on condition of anonymity, told eJP at the time that they felt justified using this parliamentary tactic as they did not believe that their views and opinions were respected in the committee meetings the day before.
The following day of the Congress turned yet more acrimonious, with members of the center-left bloc protesting outside the right-wing bloc’s meeting room when Knesset member Simcha Rothman, an architect of the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, visited to speak with the representatives. These protests even led to pushing and shoving.
Several of the resolutions that passed this week had near unanimity, receiving more than 600 votes out of a possibly 645: one promoting aliyah, another resolving that the World Zionist Organization “salutes the State of Israel on its 75th anniversary,” and two aimed at combating antisemitism. Others dealing with “proportional representation of women” and “Anchoring the position of the Declaration of Independence in the Zionist movement” passed with more than 400 votes.
In addition to these more consensus resolutions, the Congress also passed more contentious ones. One submitted by the Reform movement’s Arzenu faction explicitly criticized the government’s proposed judicial overhaul and called for it to reach “broad public agreement” on reforms of the judiciary.
Passing by a 368-262 vote, with 15 abstentions, the Congress resolved to “remind the government of the State of Israel that Jews around the world are deeply committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and that this relationship is at stake if the government pursues its plans to weaken the judiciary.”
Rabbi Lea Muhlstein, the chair of Arzenu, said that the resolution showed that support for an “independent judiciary capable of defending the rights of all” was not a “position held only by a minority on the left but represents the consensus of world Jewry.”
Another resolution, which was proposed by the Conservative movement’s Mercaz Olami faction, passed 399-237, with 9 abstentions, and called for the government to not alter the Law of Return “and not to try to minimize its content,” as the government has stated its intention to do in its coalition agreements.
The Congress voted down a proposal from the religious Zionist World Mizrachi that called for the creation of a committee to consider the removal of the so-called “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. The resolution received 240 votes in favor, 386 opposed and 19 people abstained.
A third resolution that directly rebuked the Israeli government referred to coalition deals that required the passage of a law that would revoke recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions for the purposes of citizenship. The resolution, proposed by the Conservative movement’s other faction, Masorti Olami, passed with 384 votes in favor, 238 opposed and 23 abstentions.
A fourth resolution regarding the LGBT community, which was proposed by the left-wing World Union of Meretz, called for the World Zionist Congress to hold “increased activity of education and awareness and inclusion: deepening the awareness and educational activity related to the inclusion of the LGBTQIA community, within the Zionist activity in the State of Israel and in the Diaspora, through workshops, seminars, and other educational initiatives.”
The Congress also passed a resolution calling for the WZO to work to strengthen synagogues and Jewish community centers in the Diaspora “from all streams,” while voting down a version of the same resolution proposed by the World Organization of Orthodox Communities and Synagogues that excluded the pluralistic language.
Separately, a more administrative resolution dealing with the election of the World Zionist Organization’s attorney received a majority of votes, but not the more than two-thirds majority that it needed to pass.