JERUSALEM — The 35th World Zionist Congress, a quadrennial event typically characterized more by political infighting over patronage jobs than by ideological debate, was marked by an unusual drama this week: Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America’s Union for Reform Judaism, chose the congress as the venue for a protest against Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s refusal to address him as “rabbi.”
Yoffie, who heads the largest Jewish organization in North America, opted not to meet with the president, as he typically does when visiting Israel. The decision, made in coordination with local Reform leadership in Israel, was meant to express his displeasure with comments made by Katsav during a televised interview last October, in which the president stated his unwillingness to recognize ordained Reform movement leaders as rabbis until Israel’s Knesset does so.
Israeli law grants control over marriage, divorce and other personal status matters to recognized faith communities. Jewish ceremonies are under the control of the state’s chief rabbinate, which is Orthodox-led and does not recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism.
Yoffie’s decision not to meet with Katsav seemed to draw more media attention than the congress itself. The press was blanketed with interviews with American Jewish leaders, including the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who was calling on Katsav to reconsider his stance. On Monday, several dozen members of the liberal Meretz party’s youth wing and from the Reform Zionist youth movement demonstrated outside the president’s residence, and a statement on the Meretz Web site declared, “Katsav, a free Jew could also be a rabbi!”
An opinion essay in the daily publication Ha’aretz declared that if Katsav can’t refer to Yoffie as rabbi, he shouldn’t be visited by him or Katsav’s comments, made in an interview with Israel’s Channel 1, seemed surprising given his reputation for openness toward non-Orthodox Diaspora groups. In the interview, Katsav — who considers himself an Orthodox Jew — said he grew up accustomed to addressing as rabbis only those ordained “in the context of the way of life which I personally maintain.” According to Reform leaders, Katsav has long avoided the title during meetings with Yoffie, finding alternatives such as patting him on the shoulder and calling him “sir.” Yoffie said he had become aware of the pattern over time. Katsav was elected to the Knesset in 2000.
“It’s an insult to the loyalties and commitments of the million-and-a-half Reform Jews in North America for whom their rabbis are by far the most important Jewish influence,” Yoffie said. “To them, to say their rabbis can’t be addressed as rabbis is profoundly hurtful.”
Yoffie isn’t the first to openly balk at Katsav’s stance. Several years ago, a delegation from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, headed by the school’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson, was invited to visit Katsav during a visit by board members to the college’s Jerusalem campus. After Katsav’s office insisted that Ellenson be addressed as professor rather than as rabbi, the delegation opted not to meet with the president, Ellenson said in an e-mail to the Forward.
In a statement e-mailed to the Forward, Akiva Tor, Katsav’s adviser on world Jewish affairs, said that “the president’s office was surprised” that the topic was brought up by Yoffie in the media rather than at an organized meeting at the president’s office. According to Tor, the president is not opposed to calling Yoffie a “Reform rabbi,” though the issue should be handled through “appropriate channels” rather than through the media.
Reform and Conservative rabbis have grown used to facing discrimination in Israel on funding and services, in contrast to the openness and pluralism they encounter abroad. That inequality, Yoffie noted, has not been reflected in the institutions of the quasi-governmental World Zionist Organization, where the Reform movement has gained clout after beginning to compete in its Diaspora delegate elections in the 1980s.
Yoffie, who headed the Association of Reform Zionists of America before becoming movement leader in 1996, masterminded the election strategy as a way to increase Israeli awareness of Reform Judaism while simultaneously boosting Reform involvement in Israel.
“Equality in the WZO does not mean equality in Israeli society, but it’s a step forward,” Yoffie told the Forward this week. Still, he added, “the truth is, while we’ve done well in that forum, we’re also aware that it has happened at a time that the organization is becoming less important.”
Indeed, the image and purpose of the WZO — and its quadrennial Zionist Congress, first started by Theodor Herzl 109 years ago in Basel, Switzerland — have declined steadily since the organization achieved its primary goal, Jewish statehood, in 1948. Since then, as its mission of currying support for Israel has been adopted by most other Jewish organizations, Israeli leaders have looked to it to generate mass Jewish immigration from the West, a mission that has not been notably successful. The organization’s budget, once in the hundreds of millions, has plummeted to $13.5 million this year, as most of its nation-building work has been transferred to the Jewish Agency for Israel, a $350 million-a-year spin-off operation that is governed jointly by the Zionist organization and Diaspora philanthropies.
The congress itself is frequently criticized as little more than a platform for Israeli political parties to gain patronage appointments within the WZO and Jewish Agency bureaucracies.
Important or not, the elections that took place during this week’s Zionist Congress had their share of drama, as the rifts within Israel’s unstable political system played themselves out in the halls of the Jerusalem convention center. Hardest fought was the vote within Israel’s Labor Party for the chairman of Jewish National Fund, a WZO land-development offshoot that owns about 13% of Israeli territory.
The Labor Party’s internal legal department ordered new elections held, siding with a complaint filed against the winner, the mayor of the city of Givatayim, by an even-lesser-known candidate, who lost by a single vote. The case may go to civil court, and no resolution is expected before the congress’s delegates disperse.
Another highlight was the election of Shlomo Molla from the Kadima party as the first-ever Ethiopian to win a senior position within the Zionist movement. Molla, who currently heads the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian immigrant resettlement operations, will take the helm at a new department in charge of the Zionist archives and library, the Jewish Agency’s publishing house and the fight against antisemitism.
The floor vote for the WZO executive committee was to take place after press time, but its makeup was largely known in advance, thanks to pre-congress deal making. It is dominated by Kadima, Israel’s new governing party, which surprised observers — and angered its main Orthodox ally, Shas — by signing a WZO coalition agreement with Mercaz, the Zionist movement of Conservative Judaism.
Under the emerging deal, Ze’ev Bielski of Kadima was to be re-elected chairman of the WZO and the Jewish Agency Executive; Rabbi Uri Regev, a leader of the Israeli Reform movement, was designated chairman of the Zionist General Council, the second-ranking post; Haggai Merom, a veteran Labor Party kibbutznik, was designated treasurer; Gael Grunewald from the Religious Zionist-Mizrachi faction will head Hagshama, which works with college students and young Zionist leaders; David Breakstone of the Conservative Mercaz will continue as head of the department of Zionist activities; Shlomo Gravetz, a Likud veteran now in Kadima, will take over the controversial Settlement Division, and Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman of Religious Zionists will continue as chief of the department of religious affairs in the Diaspora.
Some efforts are being made to revitalize the Zionist movement. For example, a recent regulation calls for 25% of future Congress delegates to be younger than 30. But not many remain optimistic about the WZO’s future.
“They don’t have money, they don’t have any functions left, young people aren’t involved in it and the issue of Zionism has lost meaning,” said Hebrew University political scientist Gabriel Sheffer, who specializes in Diaspora studies. “There are people who say it should be abolished altogether.”