The Zionist Congress election and the truth about American Jewry

Participation was up, and critics of Israel lost ground this year. But it also illustrated the gap between those who are passionate about Jewish life and unaffiliated Jews.

Delegates at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Delegates at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It’s been derided as irrelevant and a relic of the distant past that ought to have been junked decades ago. But the World Zionist Congress election that has just concluded generated more interest and participation than it has in decades.

Just as interesting is a clear shift in the results from elections that just wrapped up on March 11 showing an increase in support for Orthodox slates and groups that identify with Israel’s Likud Party and other right-leaning groups. While the increased participation is a healthy sign for the Zionist movement, the gap between these results and polls of American Jewish opinion illustrate something else.

The Zionist Congress is significant because it helps control a nearly $1 billion budget that can support projects in Israel. Americans make up about one-third of those who will attend the gathering, which was scheduled to be held this summer.

Those who voted for the Congress may well be representative of the opinion of Jews who remain affiliated with synagogues and care deeply about Israel. But that distance between that segment of the population and the far larger group of Jews who are not motivated to take part in a Zionist Congress election is greater than ever. Though the vote produced a result that was surprisingly encouraging for most of those who consider themselves part of the pro-Israel community, it may also show that those who answer to that label are actually a minority of those Americans who consider themselves, by one definition or another, Jewish.

The vote that was held online from January through March generated a turnout of 123,629 votes. That may not sound like much when you consider that the Jewish population in the United States is about 7.5 million, according to the generous estimate of the Brandeis University Steinhardt Social Research Institute with the same study claiming that if you define it solely by religion, there are only 4.4 million American Jews.

That notwithstanding, the voters are a significant sample of the opinion of Jews who care enough about Israel and Zionism to pay a modest fee to register and declare support for the Jerusalem Program of the Zionist movement. 

The number of voters was more than double the group who bothered to take part in 2015 and far more than even the 75,686 who took part in 1997, the last time there was a significant shift in the preferences of the participants. The slates representing the Reform and Conservative movements amassed roughly 60 percent of the vote in 1997. In 2015, the two movements combined to get 56 percent. But this year, their share declined to only 37 percent.

Reform still finished with the most votes with a quarter of the total, though that was down significantly from the 37 percent they got in 2015. The big winners were the Orthodox movements, whose slates combined for 37 percent of the vote, roughly equal to the support given to the non-Orthodox movements that have dominated Congress elections in the United States for a generation.

The rest of the votes were split among a variety of slates. However, those linked to the Israeli right got more support than those on the left. The largest vote-getter among these nondenominational slates was the Zionist Organization of America, whose combined total with two other much smaller right-leaning tickets got more than 10 percent of the vote. Five years ago, ZOA—whose delegates will be joined with those elected by the Likud in Israel at the Congress—only received 5 percent. Another right-wing slate appealing to Russian voters got 6 percent.

By contrast, the much-publicized left-wing Hatikvah slate led by J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, and which included a host of liberal Jewish luminaries such as writers Peter Beinart and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, only managed to get 6 percent.

The combined vote of slates that are linked to right-wing and religious parties in Israel won a clear majority of the votes cast in the election. That’s an astonishing turnaround when you consider the non-Orthodox movements and other liberals have won strong majorities in the past.

What accounts for this change?

First, while all of the slates turned out many more voters than in 2015, the greatest growth was among the Orthodox slates. Hatikvah, which sought to demonstrate the appeal of J Street, and other liberal and left-wing groups, flopped.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that the Congress elections reflect the views of most American Jews.

Surveys such as that conducted by the American Jewish Committee, have consistently shown that a majority of American Jews lean left on most issues, including Israel. But this year’s Zionist Congress vote produced results that are in sync with Israeli public opinion in strong contrast to American Jewish opinion. 

The Congress vote demonstrates exactly what many observers of the demographic implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry have long worried about. Those who are still deeply involved in the Jewish community are more likely to be Orthodox and sympathize with the right. Yet most surveys show the Orthodox to comprise only about 10 percent to 12 percent of American Jewry, far less than the total won by the Orthodox slates. Still, Americans with Jewish ties and who are less likely to identify with one of the denominations—let alone a secular Zionist party—clearly had little interest in the election.

American Jews are like two ships passing in the night. One vessel, which the 2013 Pew Research Center’s study of Jewish Americans called “Jews of no religion,” is less inclined to join any synagogue and with a weaker sense of Jewish peoplehood that causes them to be less interested in or supportive of Israel and Zionism. The other, far smaller ship is more passionate about Judaism, Jewish peoplehood and Israel. They are the kind of people who were more likely to vote in a Zionist Congress election, which explains results that lean to the right on both faith and politics.

So while those who identify as supporters of Israel may see the vote as representative of their views, it’s also true that this election tells us very little about the beliefs of unaffiliated American Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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