Zionist Congress Election Sees Decrease in Voters

By Nathaniel Popper; With Reporting From Jta.

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
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The country’s only open, national Jewish elections ended with the Reform movement on top yet again, and the Orthodox sneaking past the Conservative movement for a second-place finish.

The elections, which ended March 6, were held to determine the composition of the 145-person American delegation to the World Zionist Congress, which is held every four years in Jerusalem. For the past 20 years, the Zionist bodies of the religious movements have dominated the American delegation, with a few seats going to each of the American branches of the Israeli political parties. That trend continued this year, with the religious movements winning 122 of the 145 seats.

But the enduring story in this election, as in the previous election, is likely to be the decreasing number of voters. Any Jew over the age of 18 can participate, but the number of voters has dropped to 88,700 in 2002 from 107,800 in 1997, and then to 75,700 this year. The gains made by the Orthodox slate did not come from an increase in votes, but rather from a decrease in the Reform and Conservative columns.

“It’s regrettable that the number of votes for the elections decreased again,” said Seymour Reich, past president of the American Zionist Movement, which sponsors the elections. “Somehow, the Zionist movement has to become more meaningful to world Jewry. That should be the effort between now and the next election.”

The American delegation is the second largest delegation to the World Zionist Congress after the one from Israel, where the slate is determined by the most recent Knesset elections. Elections are also being held in 27 other countries to determine the remaining 165 delegates.

The congress was first held in 1897 and today elects the officers of the World Zionist Organization, who also serve as the top management of the Jewish Agency for Israel — the $300 million-a-year behemoth that is Israel’s largest social service body. Congress delegates also will vote on policy questions involving Israeli politics and Diaspora relations.

The leading vote getter in America, for the third election in a row, was the Reform movement’s Zionist body, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The Reform movement has mobilized voters through its synagogues and appealed to voters with its opposition to the Israeli government’s policy of only recognizing Orthodox religious ceremonies. Over the last three elections, however, the number of delegates representing ARZA movement has dropped to 55 this year from 70 in 1997.

This time around, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement, Mercaz, captured 32 mandates, as in 2002, but with 3,000 fewer votes.

“There is some disappointment here in the [Conservative] movement,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

The Orthodox community — which field candidates on a unified Religious Zionist slate — will have 35 delegates, up from 29 in 2002, after winning 200 more votes than they had four years ago.

The right-wing Zionist Organization of America and the left-wing Hatikva slates both will send five delegates. A couple of new movements had hoped to garner interest, but they fell flat on their first go-round. Russian American Jews for Israel only won one delegate, as did the Reconstructionist movement.

For the first time in 20 years, the American delegation will meet for a retreat before going to Jerusalem in June. The executive director of the American Zionist Movement, Karen Rubinstein, said she hopes to mobilize the delegation to push for reform of the WZO, to increase the body’s global relevance by disbursing its funds outside of Israel.

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