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Divisive resolutions lead to political morass at World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem

“It’s time to stop inserting divisive politics into the Congress,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, chairman of the Eretz Hakodesh faction.

Pointing to an image of Theodor Herzl, Jewish journalist, playwright, political activist and founder of the modern Zionist movement. Source: Screenshot/wzo.org.il.
Pointing to an image of Theodor Herzl, Jewish journalist, playwright, political activist and founder of the modern Zionist movement. Source: Screenshot/wzo.org.il.

Delegates to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem this week hoped for a forum to discuss the pressing issues facing world Jewry. Those hopes faded as committee meetings swirled around divisive resolutions, finally exploding on Thursday when a right-wing bloc organized a mini-rebellion.

Made up of Mizrachi, Likud, Shas and Eretz Hakodesh, the bloc put together enough signatures to force a vote by name, meaning each of the nearly 700 delegates would be called one by one for all 18 resolutions, a process that would have taken hours. The move was brought about by Mizrachi’s fear that people would cast multiple votes using other people’s clickers.

The move threw a monkey wrench into Thursday’s proceedings and completely changed the plans for Friday; the original schedule was thrown out in order to make way for a discussion of the resolutions. It was also agreed that resolutions would not be voted on during the Congress but next week electronically.

What finally set the right-wing bloc into action were resolutions against judicial reform, Orthodox conversion and changes to the Law of Return, said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, chairman of Eretz Hakadosh, a faction representing Orthodox values within the World Zionist Organization (WZO) that supports strengthening the state’s Jewish identity.

“We had a situation where the World Zionist Organization was voting against positions of the Israeli government,” he told JNS. “I’m proud that Eretz Hakodesh went in to defend the principles of Torah Judaism, of Israel, of family, and we didn’t buckle. The left and the Reform [movement] realize there is a formidable force challenging them.”

“The left was screaming busha, busha [‘shame, shame’]; the right was singing songs and waving flags. The politics of the street became the conference,” said Lerner, stressing that this should not be anyone’s goal. “This is exactly what we don’t want. It’s time to stop inserting divisive politics into the Congress.” (Protests spilled over into Friday as left-wing delegates shouted and waved gay pride flags.) “What does LGBT have to do with Zionism?” he asked.

Lerner said his faction wanted to send the message that “enough is enough”—that there should be an end to resolutions pushing politics and personal agendas at the WZO that only end up “hijacking” the Congress. (He noted that the fact that they gathered enough signatures to force a name-by-name vote showed that many delegates agreed.)

“The bottom line is when you come to the WZO, you should come to support the principles and mission of the WZO,” he said. “It’s time to return WZO to its mission.”

‘My hope is that this will be a wake-up call’

The mission of the WZO, according to its website, is to promote Zionism in line with the Jerusalem Program—its official platform—including, among other things, encouraging aliyah, strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people through Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education.

The WZO, and the Zionist Congress, akin to its legislature, were both established in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Just as today, delegations from around the world representing different geographic areas and ideologies would come to each Congress to debate relevant issues.

“My hope is that this will be a wake-up call,” said Lerner, noting that WZO chairman Yaakov Hagoel had repeatedly asked for unity and said “this was not the place” for party politics. The American Zionist Movement (AZM), the umbrella group that represents Zionist organizations in the United States, had also warned against resolutions.

“They predicted this might happen,” he said.

Herbert Block, AZM executive director, who said he’d never seen such a scene in his six years at the post, confirmed to JNS at the start of the Congress: “We had written to the WZO and others to encourage them to have a minimal number of resolutions so as to avoid divisiveness.”

Writing to WZO’s leadership on Jan. 15, AZM said: “We believe that the usual Congress format which includes lengthy deliberations on resolutions, should not be part of the upcoming Congress. Resolutions and the ensuing debate are often controversial, devolving into wrangling over minutiae resulting in contention at a time when we should be united.”

The WZO limited each organization to just one resolution. “The resolution should be up to 250 words, on the subject of ‘75 Years for the State of Israel,’ ” the WZO told its members.

Some played games with WZO’s guidance, tacking wording onto issues unrelated to Zionism, like a proposal by the World Union of Meretz to strengthen ties between LGBT communities in Israel and the Diaspora (prefacing that proposal: “In honor of the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence”).

Members of World Israel Beytenu at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. Source: Facebook.

‘Climate is good glue to pull Jews together’

Tova Dorfman, the newly installed president of the World Zionist Organization, told JNS that “the World Zionist Organization has become politicized because of the way that it’s structured. It’s made up of the Israeli representatives, which are sort of parallel to the political parties.”

Ideally, the Congress should strive for the greatest amount of consensus, she said.

“My vision is to bring the best and the brightest thought leaders in the Jewish world together and to have a serious intellectual discussion about what needs to happen with different viewpoints, hashed out like you would when you create a constitutional convention,” she said.

On Wednesday, the Congress also featured the “Herzl Forum for Social-Economic Entrepreneurship,” the brainchild of WZO chairman Hagoel, which brought together Israeli entrepreneurs who discussed projects Israel could contribute to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations.

Asked by JNS whether it was a good idea for a Zionist organization to adopt goals advocated by such an anti-Zionist world body, Hagoel replied: “Every issue related to climate is good glue to pull Jews together. As far as the SDGs, we only use that as a kind of trigger. We don’t have anything really to do with [the United Nations].”

The U.N.’s 17 SDGs include “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” “affordable and clean energy,” and “gender equality,” among others. Seemingly aware that none of the above sounds related to Herzl’s original mission to provide a home for the Jewish people, the speakers repeatedly made attempts to link Herzl to their initiatives.

Members of B’nai B’rith at the World Zionist conference in Jerusalem, April 2023. Source: Twitter.

Yosef Abramowitz, president and CEO of Energiya Global Capital, which finances green energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa, said of Herzl that “his vision for the future state of the Jewish people was amazingly designed as a corrective to the climate injustice of his day. And he planned for his future state to be carbon neutral and free of all smoke pollution.”

Herzl wanted a model country that would be “a renewable light unto the nations that could solve the looming climate crisis.”

One panel spoke about helping the Bedouin as the next Zionist frontier.

As the Herzl Forum was moving to the next stage of Zionism, in a meeting room down the hall, a committee of delegates couldn’t come to agreement on one of the most basic tenets of an earlier stage of Zionism—a resolution to encourage aliyah.

The chairman of the committee, who belonged to World Israel Beytenu, refused to support the wording. He would not agree to “encourage” aliyah, only to “assist.”

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