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World Zionist Congress is no longer even close to a representative body

Elan Ezrachi
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Published: 2 November 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

ELAN EZRACHI: the national institutions need major overhauling; it is time to move on and reconfigure the relations between Israel and world Jewry

THEODORE HERZL IS REMEMBERED in the Jewish collective memory as a great visionary. His diagnosis regarding the reality of the Jewish People in late 19th century was spot-on and his proposal for a radical change in Jewish existence ignited Jewish imagination and inspired many to think differently about the future.

But Herzl was not only a visionary. He was also an organizer. He knew that the vision must be followed with an organizational apparatus; otherwise the ideas would remain only in European salon conversations. In the seven years that passed between the first Zionist Congress (1897) and his untimely death (1904) he managed to set forth the organizational infrastructure of the Zionist project.

Herzl and his colleagues established several foundational institutions: the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund – a mechanism for purchasing land in Palestine - (known in Hebrew as Ha-Keren Ha-Kayemet L’Yisrael) and a national bank.

Later on, in 1929, David Ben-Gurion facilitated the establishment of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), a platform that enabled the inclusion of broader circles of Jews who were not engaged in Zionist organisations.

This complex organizational system was one of the key factors that led to the success of the Zionist Project. The system generated funding, education, popular support and political agency for the creation of the State of Israel.

Simultaneously with Herzl’s remarkable organisational legacy deep political divides have emerged. There was a disagreement about every possible idea and step taken along the way. Zionists divided over ideological, religious, political, regional and generational lines. In many ways, the political divisions that began from the first Zionist congress until the establishment of Israel were an experimental stage in preparation for statehood. Still, the overarching idea made it possible to attain the ultimate goal despite the divisions.
The main problem revolves around the JNF. Since 1948, the government gave this agency control over most of the non-developed lands. This control is essentially a mechanism to exclude non-Jewish claims on lands, which made sense before 1948 but is hardly acceptable in a democratic system.

Fast forward. In 1948 the State was born and a new polity was created. It would have made sense that the facilitative bodies that made the creation of the State possible will have been adjusted, possibly dissolved. And, indeed, there were adjustments. As the Knesset and the government took charge, the central bodies of world Jewry contracted.

They became mechanisms for organising and processing immigration to Israel (Aliya), initiating Jewish education in the Diaspora (primarily by way of sending shlihim, emissaries to serve in Jewish communities around the world), and continued philanthropic support for the development of Israel.

All that sounds well and constructive, except for two problematic areas that were not included in the ‘adjustments’: first, exclusivity in operation in certain vital areas of Israeli public life, and second, continued politicisation of the governance and the appointments of key professional positions within the national institutions.
In the recent Congress there was serious tension as a result of a new right-wing ultra-Orthodox coalition that threatened to exclude liberal interests. The political process managed to avert this move ; in other words, they celebrated the preservation of the good-old corrupt system.

Regarding the first flaw, the main problem revolves around the work of JNF. Since 1948, the government of Israel gave this non-governmental agency control over most of the non-developed lands in Israel (the majority of available land). This control is essentially a mechanism to exclude non-Jewish claims on lands and their uses, something that made sense before 1948 but is hardly acceptable in a democratic system.

The relations between the government of Israel, representing the entire citizenry and the JNF, representing world Jewry is charged and often scrutinised. There are similar domains in which the government of Israel hands over certain responsibilities to one of the national institutions, as a way to insure that only Jews can benefit from their work. One example is the exclusivity in joining rural settlements in Israel to Jews only, a task of the Jewish Agency. Again, this is unacceptable.

The second flaw that is apparent particularly around the convening of the Zionist Congress, once every five years. The Congress itself has the potential of being a joyful celebration of global Jewish interests and unity. Delegates from all around gather (this time on zoom) to share and discuss issues of common concern.

But around the Congress an ugly race for control and key appointments takes place. The conundrum revolves around political party hacks that use this system to advance their agenda, competition over conflicting interests and lots money.

In the recent Congress there was serious tension as a result of a new right-wing ultra-Orthodox coalition that threatened to exclude liberal interests. The political process managed to avert this move and many around the world celebrated the wall-to-wall coalition that was created at the end. In other words, they celebrated the preservation of the good-old corrupt system.

Is Israel, very little attention was given to this tempest. Zvika Kline, a journalist covering world Jewish affairs for the Israeli Makor Rishon was asked by his colleagues: Why should we care about this? His response was that the Congress is the closest thing to a world Jewish Parliament, a body where Jews from all sides of the spectrum are seated.

I beg to differ. The Congress is nothing like a representative body, and the national institutions need major overhauling. As Israel is nearing its 75th anniversary it is time to move on and reconfigure the relations between Israel and world Jewry. In 2023 the majority of world Jewry will be in Israel.

Relations between Israel and Jewish communities can be the domain of Israeli government agencies, leadership of local Jewish communities, civil society, people to people initiatives and even business ventures. I believe that even Theodore Herzl would prefer to see a system that fits our times.

READ MORE
A Mechanism for Direct Consultation Between Israel and world Jewry

 

About the author

Elan Ezrachi

Elan Ezrachi is a native of Jerusalem, an educator and specialist in Jewish peoplehood and Israel-Diaspora relations, and a social activist promoting pluralism and community in Jerusalem.

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