A millennial Yankee in Theodor Herzl’s court

A millennial Yankee in Theodor Herzl’s court

Last week I was supposed to be in Israel attending the 38th World Zionist Congress, as a young adult delegate on the Mercaz slate. However, just like every other conference held since March 2020, this one met in cyberspace instead of at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. The building initially was built to house this Congress and has done so every five years for the past six decades. Even though I could not be there in person, I was reminded of the importance of my participation in the Congress from my apartment in the United States, thousands of miles away.

The World Zionist Congress — held every five years since 1946 — was established by Theodor Herzl in 1897 as the supreme organ of the World Zionist Organization. The purpose of the WZO is to set the agendas and budgets for several national Institutions. Those include, first, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for Zionist education in the Jewish diaspora, as well as recruitment and facilitation of aliyah to Israel. Second, there is Keren Kayemet LeYisrael/ Jewish National Fund, responsible for fundraising throughout the diaspora in order to build and develop the Land of Israel. Examples of KKL/JNF’s work are Israel’s famous forestry projects, waterworks, and more recent initiatives to build the economies of Israel’s peripheral communities. Third is Keren Hayesod. This institution probably is the least familiar of these three to American Jewry. That’s because many of its functions are handled by the Jewish Federations of North America; most specifically that includes raising the funds from the Jewish community that are allocated for Jewish education and programming.

At this year’s World Zionist Congress, we voted on policy resolutions and an amendment to the WZO Constitution, and we elected the officers who will implement these policy changes. These people also will be responsible for distributing the equivalent of nearly one billion U.S. dollars annually.

What makes the World Zionist Congress exceptionally Jewish is the sheer number of political parties and factions that make up its membership. At this year’s Congress, 521 delegates were seated, pulling from two dozen slates. The smallest slate representation came in at just two delegates; by comparison, there were 114 delegates representing Israel’s Likud Party and 97 from the joint list of the global Reform and Conservative (Masorti) movements’ Arzenu/Mercaz slates.

Now for the drama.

With hundreds of people representing the entire spectrum of Jewish backgrounds, priorities, and interests, you can imagine that there would be some tension. For those attending the Congress, or following it closely, there was a rash of spicy tweets, sour misinformation, and dry Jerusalem Post articles. This year, the spectrum of representation grew even larger when a new ultra-Orthodox slate made headlines by garnering enough support to be awarded 25 seats. With this new slate’s arrival, an infamous new plot twist was launched. In a break from more than a century of tradition, a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox voting block attempted to seize control of the national institutions by trying to treat this Congress in much the same way as the Israeli Knesset functions — by forming a majority coalition government.

Yet, in what I can see only as the biggest miscalculation in World Zionist Congress history, this immediately forced an opposition bloc into existence.

As it was quite frantically explained during a pre-Congress party caucus, the World Zionist Congress’s tradition is to overcome the stereotypes of overly opinionated Jews by forging a “wall-to-wall” or collective bargaining agreement, in which every faction — left, right, center, religious, secular — is represented and equitably allocated officers within the national institutions.

After successful political maneuvering by the leadership of the global Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements, along with unprecedented pressure from the women’s Zionist organizations (Hadassah, Na’amat, WIZO), joined by their centrist and left-wing Israeli allies, this Congress was no exception to the tradition of forming “wall-to-wall” agreements. For the first time since the position was vacated by Ehud Avriel in 1972, the WZO will have not only a chairperson but a president as well. In a doubly historic move, this seat will be filled by a woman from the center-left liberal Zionist party.

Other key contested roles included the Deputy WZO chairperson and deputy head of the Jewish Agency, which will be filled by representatives from the Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements. The centrist Blue and White party, headed by Alternate Prime Minister of Israel Benny Gantz, will fill the Keren Hayesod Chair. A position much sought after by the new Ultra-Orthodox party, chair of the KKL/JNF education committee, will be co-chaired by this new group and Blue and White.

Additionally, this new ultra-Orthodox party sought to create a new department within the WZO specifically for “Orthodox spiritual services.” Not only did this attempt fail, but the new collective agreement stipulates that all WZO departments must work with all sectors of Israeli society and diaspora Jewish communities.

Beyond the politics of the slates, delegates to the World Zionist Congress were assigned to various committees focusing on specific issues. Meeting over Zoom, each committee discussed previously submitted resolutions to be modified or amended before being put to a vote. Not surprisingly, voting took place almost entirely along party lines, and participants were able to contribute directly in committee meetings serving their specialized interests. There were four committees in all, representing the primary policy concerns of the Zionist movement. Most importantly, those include promotion of aliyah, Zionist education, Hebrew language and culture, diversifying voices within the Zionist movement while working toward a united Jewish people, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and empowering the next generation of Zionists.

It is this final point that brought me to this year’s virtual Zionist congress. According to congressional rules, at least one fourth of each slate must be 35 years old or younger. As a co-founder of the grassroots organization Masorti on Campus, I ranked as an alternate delegate to the World Zionist Congress in 2015. This time around, I am now president of Masorti on Campus and a board member of Mercaz USA, the Zionist arm of the American Conservative movement, and accordingly was placed as the highest ranking “young” person.

Rhetorical questions and snide comments aside, the question of what any of us could, should, or would do to empower the next generation of American Jews is a subject for another week. Yet for all the talk from congressional veterans and party elders, it was the nonpartisan American Zionist Movement that did the most for the young adults at this year’s Congress. It began with a pre-Congress Zoom meet-up that included a succinct rundown of what to expect from the Congress, along with what we would be missing by not meeting in person. Following the initial program, we were broken up into small groups that were purposefully mixed to allow members of different slates to meet each other for the first time. This event coincidentally was held at a crucial moment, as rumblings of the alleged right-wing “power grab” had already begun. My breakout group included delegates and alternates from Arza (Reform), Eretz Hakodesh (ultra-Orthodox), Hatikvah (Progressive), Mercaz (Conservative/Masorti), Mizrachi (modern Orthodox), and the ZOA.

As a direct result of this initial AZM young delegates event, a WhatsApp group was opened, allowing for candid and sometimes heated dialogue between members of different parties. In an attempt to maintain civil discourse, the AZM team arranged an optional midweek Zoom call for young delegates to meet with Herbert Block, AZM’s executive director, to help share more of the history of the “wall-to-wall” agreements and the processes that were taking place behind closed doors. Aside from the in-person “wall-to-wall” negotiations at the National Institutions Building in Jerusalem, and official committee meetings over Zoom, sadly, it is possible that these few conversations were the only substantive interactions between members of different parties.

After many months of campaigning, these three days in October, filled with passionate Zionists across every time zone, working hard to make sure their community’s interests were represented, were extraordinary. I am encouraged by the changes afoot, and by the unity and strength of the center-left Zionist community. For those of us who view the values of Zionism to be not only those of Jewish nationalism and peoplehood but also of a shared pluralistic nature, there is hope. With the new “wall-to-wall” collective agreement in place, hopefully the next five years will inculcate the principles of transparency, quality, and accountability much needed in our national institutions.

Eric Leiderman is a deputy delegate to the Zionist General Council, founder and creative head at MASORTI X, president and co-founder of Masorti on Campus, and board member of Mercaz USA. Eric grew up in Englewood and went to the Moriah School there.