World Zionist Congress Elections Test Democracy in American Jewish Community

Voting in Utah's primary,  Salt Lake City, 2012.
Voting in Utah’s primary, Salt Lake City, 2012.

Wealth or political connections too often become the major criteria for leadership positions.

By Rafael Medoff

More than 80 percent of eligible Jewish voters participate in American presidential elections, yet less than 1 percent voted in the recent nationwide election among American Jews. For a community that takes American democracy so seriously, U.S. Jews showed surprisingly little interest in the democratic race that was recently held in their own ranks.

Just 56,737 voters participated in the elections for delegates to the World Zionist Congress, even though they had three months in which to vote (January 30-April 30) and were able to cast their ballots without ever needing to leave the comfort of their living rooms.

The number of voters represents a sharp drop from those who took part in previous American Jewish elections to the Zionist Congress – 75,686 in 2006, 88,753 in 2002, and 107,832 in 1997. Yet even those higher numbers still represented a minuscule fraction of the American Jewish community.

There are a number of reasons for the abysmally low voter turnout in the Zionist Congress elections.

One reason is that an American presidential election actually affects the lives of the voters, whereas the Zionist Congress election involves expressing a more abstract preference that does not have many practical consequences for the people who are voting.

Another reason is that when Israel’s existence is not in immediate danger, there is less of a sense of urgency among American Jews. (Which also is why the membership levels of American Zionist organizations declined steeply after 1948.)

But an important and often-overlooked additional reason is the lack of a serious democratic tradition in contemporary Jewish communal life (emphasis added). The only other nationwide American Jewish elections took place in 1917, for the founding assembly of the American Jewish Congress, and 1943, for a short-lived umbrella group called the American Jewish Conference. For most of the current generation of American Jews, the idea of a Jewish communal election is a foreign concept.

Some of today’s American Jewish and Zionist organizations do not hold any elections for their leadership positions, or stage elections in which incumbents run unopposed. Wealth or political connections too often become the major criteria for leadership positions. That diminishes the likelihood of younger leaders emerging, since they are much less likely to have accumulated wealth or connections on the level of their elders.

One way to discourage excess and encourage change is through term limits. Troubled by “the love of power and the love of money,” Benjamin Franklin warned that without term limits, politicians would view elected office as “a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.” Thomas Jefferson likewise vociferously advocated term limits to curb what he called “office-hunters.”

In addition to the constitutionally mandated term limit on presidents, 36 U.S. states today have term limits for governors, and 15 state legislatures as well as numerous local municipalities also have them. Term limits could play a valuable role in Jewish organizational life, just as they do in American political life, acting as a restraint on self-interested politicians and opening the door for new leaders.

Greater democracy and term limits not only would be healthy for the Jewish community in general, but would be a boon to Jewish organizations themselves. Many Jewish groups have had difficulty attracting members of the next generation. As younger men and women enter the Jewish leadership, they will bring with them the technological skills and social media savvy needed to compete in today’s world.

Perhaps the shockingly low turnout for the Zionist Congress elections will serve as a reminder to entrenched Jewish leaders that support for their organizations is likely to remain at embarrassingly low levels unless remedial steps are taken – including the cherished American remedy of genuine democracy.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 15 books on Jewish history, including the “Historical Dictionary of Zionism” and the textbook “Jewish Americans and Political Participation.” He was recently named the recipient of a 2014 Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.