Seffi Kogen voted in Jerusalem last week.
The 24-year-old Fair Lawn native, now transplanted to Manhattan, was one of 145 American delegates to the World Zionist Congress — and one of a handful from northern New Jersey.
“It was really exciting to take part in the ongoing Zionist project,” he said.
The first Zionist Congress was convened in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, to figure out concrete steps toward his radical idea of creating a Jewish state.
This year’s Congress, the 37th, could barely grab the attention of the Jerusalem Post or the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, news organizations that once reveled in the play-by-play of Jewish bureaucracy. More than 50,000 American Zionists paid $10 to vote in this year’s elections, which allocated the American delegation’s members between competing parties, ranging from the political left to the political right, from Reform to Orthodox. For Mr. Kogen, who loves meetings and was a delegate for Mercaz, the Conservative movement’s Zionist organization, “it was an incredible honor” to take part in the discussions.
“We might think, okay, we have the State of Israel, what is there to keep going? Why does this body continue to meet?” he said. “Yet there are so many tensions that continue to exist, between the right and left politically, between diaspora Jewry and Jews who live in Israel, the different religious streams. This is a body that provides for those tensions to be addressed.”
First, of course, there were the speeches. The one time the Zionist Congress made it to the news was with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech; he seemed to blame the Holocaust on the Palestinian grand mufti, and it dominated headlines in Israel and around the world for days. But there was also the actual business of marking up resolutions in committee and voting on them.
There were 91 resolutions that made it through committee. Only about half of those came up for a vote. You might blame the speeches for detracting from the work of the congress. Or you might blame the newfangled clicker technology, by which delegates were supposed to vote electronically but led in some cases to confusion — and to those who didn’t like the outcome of voters rushing the stage.
“It was a taste of the Israeli democracy that we see in the Knesset,” Mr. Kogen said.
He said that Mercaz was “quite pleased with the way the resolutions went. As a party in the center, it was our privilege to focus on issues of transparency and best practices. We were able to quite successfully sponsore what we hope will be some very effective and lasting measures to improve the body overall.”
For the actual votes, delegates were reminded which position their party wanted them to take, “influenced by our underlying ideologies, occasionally by our coalition partners,” he said. “I’m proud of voting my conscience on a few issues that didn’t line up strictly with how Mercaz told me to vote.”
In other cases, he said, Mercaz opposed seemingly motherhood-and-apple-pie resolutions.
“A lot of these ideological resolutions are couched in some pretty innocent terminology, and only when you read a little deeper do they reveal themselves. A perfect example is a resolution proposed by World Likud calling for the Israeli government to restore Jewish heritage sites in the Land of Israel. It could be just a rather inane call for archaeological preservation. It could just as easily mean calling for a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount, something that the majority of delegates to the Congress, as well as the Israeli government, is opposed to. We’re talking about Bibi needing to balance a party that has moved quite to the right of him. As he adamantly asserts that Israel will not do anything to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, the representatives of his party at the Zionist Congress are trying to change the status quo.”
Another local delegate, Dr. Alan Kadish of Teaneck, described the Congress as “fascinating.”
Dr. Kadish is president of Touro University and was a delegate for the Orthodox Zionist slate.
“It was an important learning experience about how things work in an organization that has been around over a hundred years,” he said. “Probably the most important thing was the negotiations before the Congress. The leadership of the World Zionist Organization for the next five years was elected, based on coalition politics.”
To Dr. Kadish’s satisfaction, Avraham Duvdevani — an Orthodox Jew — was reelected as chair of the WZO.
“We passed resolutions that I think were important. The seating in the Congress was based on philosophical orientation. The religious Zionists, the Zionist Organization of America, and Likud were on one side. Meretz and ARZA were on the other side.
“One interesting resolution to declare the Jewish people indigenous to the Land of Israel passed. Narrowly, but it passed,” he said.
Overall, he said, “we have to get more people involved in the enterprise next go-round. Only 57 thousand votes were cast out of millions potentially. There’s no question the entire community needs to make more of an effort to get out the vote the next time.
“It was a really exhilarating experience participating in something that went back to Herzl’s dream,” he added. “While we made a lot of progress, there’s more we can do if we work together.”