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Report from the World Zionist Congress

Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz

Today, October 22nd, I voted.  And then I voted again.  No, I didn’t break any laws!  Only one of those votes I cast was in the presidential election.  The other vote was in the World Zionist Congress.

Many of you may remember that last year we urged you to cast a vote for ARZA, our American Reform Zionist Association in the World Zionist elections.  These elections are held only once every five years.  The results have a real impact in how Reform Jewish values and institutions are represented in Israel.  The outcome determines the leadership of our primary Zionist institutions, like the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency and critical funding decisions.  Thanks to you, ARZA votes increased by 50% over five years ago, but our representation actually diminished slightly because of an overwhelming response to the election in general.  However, I still earned a place as one of 36 delegates representing ARZA.

My lifelong long love for Israel, as an inclusive and pluralistic homeland for ALL Jewish people, just as Theodore Herzl once envisioned it, is what fueled my desire to serve as a delegate.

Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, as a Parliament of the Jewish People.  Since then, it has met every five years except during WWII.  It’s no surprise that this 38th World Congress convened in a way Herzl could never have imagined.  It was the very first “virtual” Congress, disappointing all of us who had hoped to meet in Jerusalem.  Because all of the 753 delegates from around the world remained at home, the virtual Congress disrupted circadian rhythms for many.  I worked in committees with Jews in Australia, for whom it was tomorrow, Jews in California, who had to rise before the sun, and Jews in Europe and Israel who were burning the midnight oil.  There were delegates from ages 18 to 89, representing every ideology from Haredi to Reform to secular.  While all of us were true lovers of Zion, as you can imagine, there was much we did not agree on.

Our Congress drama began with an unprecedented push from the Jewish ultra right and Haredi, who had a very slight majority coalition, to take over all key leadership positions of Zionist institutions and essentially strip the center and left, including our ARZA coalition, of any power.  This is a departure from the “wall to wall” agreement that has traditionally distributed leadership across the Jewish spectrum.  This conflict was the pulsing force throughout the Congress.  Other business was conducted – for example, we learned that aliyah has increased during the time of Covid-19 and that throughout the world Jewish educators are struggling with Hebrew education and there is a growing fear of disaffection from Israel among younger Jews -- but the behind-the-scenes negotiating and politicking overshadowed everything else.  The Congress conveners attempted to convey a sense of solidarity, but the political actions by the ultra right undermined the message.

Ultimately, after round-the-clock negotiating, the center-left and progressive Jewish bloc made in-roads toward a more balanced deal and maintained some influence within national institutions.

This World Zionist Congress experience was a far cry from what I imagined a year ago.  For one thing, it was not in Israel.  For another, it was filled with rancor and a sense of disenfranchisement.  However, I left the Congress with a strong sense of just how important it is to maintain Israel as a safe and secure homeland for ALL Jews.  We must continue to be at the Zionist table, advocating for inclusion, pluralism and equality.  I am already invested in the next World Zionist elections in five years!

I was at one learning session with Dr. Ruth Calderon, an Israeli academic and politician who served in the Knesset.  She shared the story of recently teaching in a zoom session with Jews from around the world.  One participant who was on the zoom from the diaspora inquired if Dr. Calderon was in Jerusalem at the time.  “Yes,” she replied.  “Would you please hold your phone up to the window so we can feel close?” the woman asked.  Dr. Calderon did so, revealing a picture that was not postcard perfect, but her very real neighborhood with houses and a playground and small synagogue.  The woman who made the request began to cry with longing for Israel while others cheered and clapped.

The truth is, Israel is the beating heart of the Jewish people and we sorely miss not being able to go there during this pandemic.

We may not agree as to how the Jewish homeland or its institutions should be governed, but we do agree on the urgency of Israel’s security and centrality of Israel for the Jewish People.  Herzl famously declared:  “Im tirtzu ain zo aggadah – If you will it, it is no dream.”  We must continue to believe in an Israel that is secure, pluralistic and inclusive, and then work, as Herzel once did, to make that dream a reality.

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784