J Street, Elections and the WZO

Forty-five minutes late and with an auditorium 3/4 empty, the 36th Zionist Congress came to order in Jerusalem yesterday morning. And, as to be expected from an organization where 30% of the seats are held by member’s of the Knesset, the day was filled with political infighting and threats of walk-outs. Warring political factions and scheming local politicians were united with one overriding goal – easy jobs.

The Congress, considered irrelevant by most, though might ultimately make history in some unexpected ways. While the media, including eJewsih Philanthropy, has been focused on the entry of Shas, the Sephardi haredi party, into the organization, the fact that J Street also now has a seat at the table sets up the possibility of some fascinating dialogue in the future. For the World Zionist Organization (WZO) is the only organization in the world where the two sit together. Can you imagine the first budget discussions when Shas wants to fund their version of education in communities over the green line? After all, Shas neither sought – nor received – any of the political plum positions, so it is a strong possibility they will be looking for cold hard cash support for their programs.

So what happened in the elections? The back room folks were up all Monday night cutting their deals and they finished at 6:45 am – just two hours before the Congress was scheduled to begin. Elected, as we speculated Monday, Avraham “Duvdev” Duvdevani, a representative of Mizrachi – a religious Zionist party, as chairman of the WZO. Duvdevani is currently co- chair of the Board of Keren Kayemet Leisrael and was previously the head of the Settlement Division of the WZO. He is the first member of the Orthodox community to hold this position.

Elected deputy-chair, Dr. David Breakstone, a representative of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, founding director of the Herzl Center and currently head of the Department of Zionist Activities of the WZO. Breakstone’s election was notable not just for the party he represents but this is the first time an American oleh has been elected to such a high position.

The position of Chair of the Zionist General Council (Vaad Hapoel) will go to Helena Glaser, president of WIZO.

Are you keeping score: the religious Zionists hold the top slot, and two other senior positions are from the non-Orthodox world, one each from the Conservative movement and the other a pluralistic organization.

Let’s continue (individual names need to be confirmed, party slots are locked-in): vice-chair of the Jewish Agency – a seat filled by a WZO representative, Roni Trainin of Meretz. Over at the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the top spot remains with Labor and co-chair goes to Kadima.

Modi Zandberg will be the new chair of Keren Hayesod-UIA. A former cabinet minister with previous party affiliations including Shinui and Tzomet, Zandberg is also a confidant of the Prime Minister. He replaces Ambassador Avi Pazner.

There are significantly more political plums, but these are the most prestigeous. In many respects, a mirror of coalition politics in Israel.

Does any of this even matter? According to Gil Troy, writing in today’s The Jerusalem Post and his own blog, the Congress is not even relevant enough to be targeted – it has become a ghost of its former self. Troy goes on to state what he feels the Congress should become:

The World Zionist Congress should be a forum for embracing creative ideas to renew Judaism through renewing Zionism. Delegates should learn about the concerns of young people – and address them. Delegates should consider Professor Jonathan Sarna’s suggestion that some credible Jewish organization should issue “Klal Yisrael Impact Statements,” warning when politicians, organizations, political parties, individuals, in Israel and abroad, harm the unity of the Jewish people. In that spirit, they should repudiate religious coercion in Israel, emphasizing freedom as a central Zionist ideal. Delegates should tackle what Rabbi Daniel Gordis calls the “40-60″ challenge – to reverse the percentage of American Jews who have NOT visited Israel from 60 percent to 40 percent. Delegates should discuss initiatives to determine just what “red lines” supporters of Israel should voluntarily agree not to cross in political debate, and just what blue and white lines we should respect, what common ideas unite us. Delegates should demand that the Israeli education system improve overall and start teaching about Diaspora and Zionist values to enhance Jewish peoplehood. Building on one recent World Zionist Organization success, delegates should learn from the celebrations of Theodor Herzl and brainstorm about devoting 2011 to celebrating David Ben Gurion’s 125th birthday, 2012 to Yitzhak Rabin’s 90th birthday, and 2013 to Menachem Begin’s 100th and Chaim Weizmann’s 140th.

Instead, this year, Shas, having recently joined the World Zionist Organization, is trying to change the iconic Jerusalem Program. That Johnny-come-lately politicos are quibbling over wording while neglecting so many other pressing issues borders on the comic. That the proposed changes will feed stereotypes of Israel and Zionism as conservative, theocratic, and alienating Diaspora youth, makes the episode tragic. This is a Talmudists’ twist on rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs: arguing what the exact wording of the organization’s death certificate should be – if anyone bothers issuing it, or noticing the movement’s demise.

In 2010, we cannot afford a convention of conventional Zionists and bureaucrats. We need a World Zionist Congress worthy of its tradition. We need a modern Theodor Herzl to move us from hysteria to hope, from defending to dreaming, from reacting to crises to creating opportunities. We need a modern Ahad Ha’am to tap into the Jewish homeland’s secular and religious spiritual powers, reminding us of its centrality in our lives and nationalism’s constructive power. We need a modern Max Nordau, whose literary fame in the non-Jewish world elevated the Zionist movement, and who proclaimed: “We Zionists wear our Judaism as a badge of honor.” We need a renewed commitment from the Jewish masses, to embrace a program of deep commitment, inspirational leadership, and bold change.

Of course, the problem here too, is a lack of visionary leadership in the organization. There is no modern Theodor Herzl or Ahad Ha’am in the Zionist world.

The new leadership has major, and immediate, challenges. Lets see if they can measure up to the task.

(This post was updated on June 17th to reflect modifications to previous agreements.)