Election season is heating up. No, not that election. The other one, taking place now to elect delegates to the 38th World Zionist Congress, which will meet in October in Jerusalem.
As old as modern Zionism itself, the Congress was launched by Theodor Herzl in 1897. It takes place every five years and, among other objectives, it allocates nearly $1 billion to support diverse projects in Israel and across the diaspora.
All voting takes place online (for the low, low price of $7.50) and is open to any adult Jew who accepts the platform of the World Zionist Organization, which affirms the legitimacy of Zionism and the Jewish state.
Fifteen slates spanning the ideological spectrum are in the running, among them slates sponsored by the Conservative movement, Sephardic Jews, the Jabotinksy movement, and several Orthodox slates. Once voting concludes on March 11, the tabulating begins, and the 500 seats in the Congress will be divvied up proportionally.
Among those vying for seats at the WZC are a number of Bay Area Jewish community professionals and activists.
One of them is Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. She’s on the ARZA: Reform and Reconstructionist slate, and given that she is 14th on the list of some 200 names, she has a good shot at making it as a delegate.
“We’re working very hard to turn out our vote,” she said. “The more votes we get [for our slate], the more representation of our viewpoint.”
The ARZA platform includes advocating for Israeli government recognition of the “diverse expressions of Jewish religious identity,” supporting a two-state solution and long-term peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and assuring liberal denominations receive “equal financial support and resources” in Israel.
Singer said funding decisions made at the Congress make a difference. She noted that ARZA and its allies at the last Congress secured funding for organizations such as the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, which fosters Reform congregations in Israel and lobbies to allow Israelis “to get married by the rabbi they would like, or have their conversion recognized,” as she put it. “Our slate is not anti-Orthodox in any way, shape or form. We just know there are many people who gravitate towards other forms of Judaism.”
Added Singer: “All 15 slates are composed of people who love Israel [but who have] strong differences about what needs to happen to promote peace and a strong secure State of Israel.”
ARZA and Hatikvah, for example, are liberal slates, while slates such as Herut and the ZOA Coalition have platforms that promote expansion and support of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The ZOA Coalition “led the 23-year battle to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem,” reads their platform. “We are now leading the battle to transform the World Zionist Congress — and Israel’s national institutions under the WZC umbrella — into bodies that will arise and assert the Jewish people’s rights to our land.”
This view clashes with that of Hatikvah, made up of supporters of organizations such as the New Israel Fund, J Street, T’ruah and Americans for Peace Now, groups that are opposed to Jewish settlements. Somehow, these divergent voices manage to sit together as one Congress.
“There are lots of parties representing various interests,” noted Daniel Sokatch, the S.F.-based CEO of the progressive New Israel Fund, and the fifth-ranked prospective delegate for Hatikvah. “But that’s a reflection of the actual consensus around Israel. What’s different is that the Hatikvah slate represents the overwhelming majority of American Jews.”
Sokatch, who was a delegate in 2015 when Hatikvah won eight seats, said his slate is getting more attention in 2020, in part because of liberal alarm over the increasingly rightward direction of the Netanyahu government. Given that he is fifth on their list this year, he will probably be seated again.
“Progressive Jews in the U.S. troubled by [Israel’s] direction have an obligation to participate [in the WZC vote],” he said. “Overwhelmingly, American Jews are liberal, and if they know they have a say in questions about allocations of real money, then they would vote.”
Along with the slates that have run before are new ones this year, including Israel Shelanu (Our Israel), formed by Israelis living inside the United States. That number is more than 700,000 by some estimates, and Israel Shelanu’s platform seeks to increase funding of “educational and communal activities of the Hebrew language and culture.”
Two members of the Israel Shelanu slate live in the Bay Area; one is Offir Gutelzon, a Palo Alto-based tech entrepreneur, who is second on that slate’s list. He, his wife and two young sons are involved with the Oshman Family JCC’s Israel Cultural Connection, a program that caters to expats in Silicon Valley. Now he and his Israel Shelanu colleagues want to be represented in the WZC.
“It’s a historic time when Israeli Americans are creating a slate that is not affiliated with any other slate,” he said. “I feel Israeli Americans are a different breed from Jewish Americans. We want to keep strong connections to Israeliness, to culture, to language both for us and the next generation.”
Like many secular Israelis living in the United States, Gutelzon has opted against joining a synagogue. “[Our] main identity is driven by what is at home and in the [Israeli] community,” he said. “The reason for creating Israel Shelanu [is] that Israeli American is being part of Jewish America.”
In the event of Israel Shelanu winning any amount of seats, Gutelzon has some funding proposals ready to go.
“We want to make sure we get more Israeli culture centers around the [U.S.],” he said. “We want to work together with organizations such as the Jewish Community Centers of America, performing similar connections as what ICC is doing with the OFJCC.”
Even though their views differ, members of the various slates agree on the importance of participating in as venerable an institution as the WZC.
“For me, it really does feel like an umbilical cord back to Basel,” Sokatch said, referring to the Swiss city that hosted Herzl’s debut Congress 123 years ago. “It’s heady. You feel like part of the Zionist enterprise.”
Added Singer: “When you look at the slates of every perspective, in some ways the WZC is that very rare institution that enables us to come together.”