The column | Time to stop whining and start voting

Worried about anti-Semitism? How about West Bank settlements, or religious pluralism in Israel? If you are an American Jew, you can protest in the streets, write letters to the editor, whine to your family — or vote, and influence the Jewish future in a tangible way.

On Tuesday, Jan. 13, online elections begin for the next World Zionist Congress, a global Jewish body that too few diaspora Jews know about. Founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, and devoted in its early years to building an infrastructure for a future Jewish state, the WZC now meets every four or five years to elect the officers of and set policies for the World Zionist Organization, a powerful quasi-governmental body that promotes Jewish and Zionist education and identity-building in Israel and around the world.

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Jew over 18, you can vote for your preferred political grouping within the WZC — the ZOA, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Progressive Zionists, etc. Each “party” runs a slate of candidates, and will send delegates to the 37th Congress in Jerusalem this October according to how many votes it gets before voting ends April 30. In Jerusalem, delegates will elect the WZO leadership, among other things.

The Congress used to have more power, as the WZO officers it elected also served as officers of the Jewish Agency. That is no longer so. Still, the WZO has a sizeable budget for its programs — $30 million in recent years, spent on issues ranging from West Bank settlements to religious pluralism in Israel. Nothing to sniff at.

Before 1997 you had to be a member of a recognized Zionist organization to vote. Not anymore. Just register online and vote right away, after forking over $10 ($5 if you’re under 30).

Who knew? I didn’t, not until last week when J. board member Ilana DeBare of Oakland told me she was on the slate put forward by Hatikvah, a grouping of progressive organizations that includes the New Israel Fund, J Street, Ameinu and Partners for a Progressive Israel, Zionist groups aligned with Israel’s Labor and Meretz parties.

Voting is important for American Jews because we have a lot of clout in the Congress. We send 145 delegates out of a total of 500, or 29 percent. Yet in the last elections only 80,000 American Jews bothered to vote — a real wasted opportunity. 

“We American Jews complain about how our voices are not heard in Israel,” Ilana told me. “This is one way we are invited to make ourselves heard.”

At the last Congress in 2010, the largest contingent in the U.S. delegation (56 delegates) was from ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. Then came the Religious Zionists of America (35 delegates) and Mercaz USA, the Conservative movement (33).

“This is a vote for the soul of Israel,” ARZA president Josh Weinberg told me this week, adding that he was hoping for an even bigger ARZA delegation this year to block “the current situation where the WZO is used by the government to funnel dollars to the settlements.” (On the other hand, the ZOA is urging Jews to vote for precisely the opposite reason, which is their right.)

Bay Area names appear on several slates this spring. New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch, of San Francisco, is No. 7 on the Hatikvah list, giving him a good chance of becoming a delegate, in contrast to DeBare, who says she is “too low on the totem pole.” (“But I’d love to go to Jerusalem,” she told me.)

Three Bay Area residents are on the Mercaz USA slate, including 18-year-old Aaron Pluemer of Sunnyvale, whom we wrote about last January when, as a senior at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, he was elected international president of United Synagogue Youth.

On the ARZA slate we have San Francisco resident Arthur Slepian, Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El and Daryl Messinger of Palo Alto, who sits on a number of Reform movement boards.

Daryl was a delegate to the Congress five years ago, and remembers it as “a cross between town hall democracy and socialism. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of backroom negotiating.”

The Canadians, Australians and Europeans “all take this very seriously,” she reports. And, she adds, so should we.

Register and vote beginning Jan. 13 at www.azm.org.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.