The Other Jewish Vote

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
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The results of the balloting for the American delegation to the World Zionist Congress, announced in New York this week, can easily be taken as evidence of the continuing decline of organized Zionism in this country. Voting in the quadrennial Zionist elections, which peaked in 1987 at close to a quarter-million voters, dropped this year to just under 76,000. Most American Jews probably didn’t even know there was an election going on.

But that’s the old news. The fact is that the value of the prize that was up for grabs in the balloting, control of the World Zionist Organization, has declined even more precipitously than the turnout. The once-mighty nation-building institution has been reduced to a shadow of its former self in recent decades, its budget slashed while its duties have been transferred either to the Israeli government or to its sister body, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The delegates to the World Zionist Congress still get to choose the senior leadership of the Jewish Agency. But that institution, too, has shrunk by nearly half in the past two decades. There’s not much left for the delegates to decide. Even the symbolic issue that used to bring voters out in droves for Zionist elections, the so-called “Who is a Jew?” controversy, has largely disappeared from the public agenda.

Given the paltry stakes, the big news is that anyone bothered to vote. That so many turned out — nearly as many as last time — is a testament to the tenacity of the voters, and to the power of the idea of voting. There was little reason to cast a ballot except to assert the idea that American Jews ought to be able to vote somewhere, somehow, on the shape and direction of their community. And yet, that simple idea was enough to motivate 76,000 people to cast ballots. They just wanted to be heard.

As Nathaniel Popper reports in this issue, most of the votes were cast for representatives of the main religious denominations, which have largely replaced the old Zionist ideological organizations — Labor, Likud and others — as vehicles through which American Jews identify themselves. About 55,000 votes, nearly 73% of the total, went either to Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist candidate slates. The remaining 21,000 votes were divided among ideological Zionist groups, including Labor and the Green Zionists on the left, three Likud affiliates on the right and two centrist groups.

But those numbers obscure a larger truth. On closer examination, the voters cast their ballots overall for groups of the left, right and center, just as they always do. (The delegation that American Jews picked to represent them in Jerusalem will look pretty much the same as any other reliable poll of American Jews: about 45% liberal, 30% conservative and 25% moderate.) What’s changed over time is that most voters nowadays skip the Israeli versions of those ideologies and choose the more familiar American brands: the liberal-leaning Reform, the centrist Conservative and the hawkish-leaning Orthodox. The names have changed, but the instincts haven’t.

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