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Interest in Zionist Parley Slides in U.S.

The world’s only global Jewish elections are approaching fast, but from the early tallies it appears that the word has not spread far.

Voter registration for the World Zionist Congress — open to any Jew over 18 — closes February 15 in America. Thus far, fewer than 70,000 Americans have registered, down from 120,000 registrants in the 2002 election and 150,000 registrants in 1998. American voters will choose 30% of the 700-odd delegates to the WZC, to be held in Jerusalem in June; the remaining delegates will be chosen by Israelis and by other Diaspora communities.

The first WZC, convened by Theodor Herzl in Switzerland in 1897, created the World Zionist Organization and became the primary driving force for Jewish statehood. Since Israel was formed, the powers formerly held by the congress have largely been taken over by the Israeli government and by American philanthropic bodies that traditionally funded Zionist activity.

While the congress struggles to maintain influence and relevance as a democratic body, several new organizations are attempting to claim the turf it once dominated as an international forum for Jewish community strategy and debate.

One such initiative comes from Israeli president, Moshe Katsav. His office announced last week that he will convene a so-called World Jewish Forum next fall for 200 to 300 eminent Jewish thinkers and leaders from around the globe. The gathering is slated to focus on issues of Jewish education and identity.

Also last week, the World Jewish Congress — an international confederation of Jewish organizations with no relation to the WZC — announced the formation of a policy council of 20 to 25 world figures (see separate article). These initiatives follow upon a gathering of 20 Jewish thinkers — including Harvard president Lawrence Summers — that was drawn together in Maryland last summer by an Israeli think tank.

“There’s a feeling that things are dissolving and falling apart, and at the same time some kind of renaissance is coming up on us,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. Shrage is a member of a 35-person steering committee advising Katsav on his forum.

The shift in the organizational landscape corresponds to polls, which have shown a decreasing focus on Israel among American Jews — both grass-roots and organizational leadership — coupled with an increasing concern for questions of Jewish identity and religious education. The American Zionist Movement, which conducts American elections for the WZC, appeared to be responding to these trends this year in its advertising for voter registration. An extensive marketing campaign is urging voters to register for “The Congress of the Jewish People,” with no mention of Zionism in the initial plea.

But this advertising strategy does not appear to have reversed the tide. Seymour Reich, president of the AZM in the early 1990s, said his experiences at past congresses gave him an understanding of why interest continues to decline. “It’s internal discussions and resolutions that are passed and adopted and have no impact,” he said.

Delegates to the congress are chosen in proportional elections, similar to Israel’s parliamentary elections, with candidate lists presented by a range of so-called Zionist parties ranging from Labor- and Likud-linked groups to Orthodox and Reform Judaism.

The influence of WZC delegates rests mainly in their power to choose the senior executives who run the day-to-day operations of the WZO and its larger sister-body, the Jewish Agency for Israel. The two organizations historically were a single entity under the full control of the congress, giving delegates considerable clout in Israeli social policy and Diaspora communal affairs. In 1971, however, the Jewish Agency was split off as a separate body, responsible for Israeli immigration and social service programs. The Zionist congress and representatives of Diaspora philanthropic federations controlled it jointly. The WZO was left as a rump body responsible mainly for encouraging Jewish emigration from the West. The Jewish Agency currently boasts a $350 million annual budget, compared with the WZO’s $11.5 million.

With its arcane structure and its shrinking role, the WZC has struggled to make itself relevant. The last major upsurge of interest came in the late 1980s, when the congress became a forum for debate over the so-called “Who Is a Jew” question. Leaders of Reform Judaism, angered at Israel’s unwillingness to recognize their conversion procedures, mobilized congregants to vote in the 1987 Zionist elections, resulting in a peak 230,000 registrants. In the end, however, the mobilization had little effect on Israeli policy.

More recently, the WZO made headlines when a report commissioned by Prime Minister Sharon found that the organization’s settlement division was deeply involved in the illegal building of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Land settlement was one of the few responsibilities delegated to the WZO in the 1971 reorganization. However, the department is financed and run by the Israeli government, giving the WZO legal responsibility but little practical control. Despite protests after the critical report came out in March 2005, a spokesman for the WZO said that no action has been taken to change the settlement division.

At the last WZC, in 2002, discussion was dominated by an offhand remark by the Jewish Agency’s treasurer, suggesting that Russian immigrants to Israel mattered more to him than Orthodox Jews in America.

“Frequently the WZO doesn’t ask the right questions,” Boston’s Shrage said. “If the thing isn’t getting done, someone will rise up and try to do it.”

The most potentially influential of the new initiatives is the Israeli president’s planned World Jewish Forum. Katsav’s advisers call it a Jewish Davos, alluding to the yearly global economic forum in Switzerland. After first proposing the idea in 2002, Katsav met last June with 58 prominent individuals to formulate concrete plans. This week, the academic chair of the forum, Yedidyah Stern, announced that it would be held next fall during the Sukkot holiday and would be sponsored by Bar-Ilan University. Three working groups were named to assemble research on the forum’s three topics: Jewish literacy, Jewish education and Jewish identity.

“Somehow, most of the key issues for the welfare of the Jewish people have fallen in the cracks between the organizations and the congresses,” said Akiva Tor, Katsav’s adviser on world Jewish affairs.

While the forum is intended to reach beyond the usual Jewish leaders, the steering committee contains many familiar names in organizational life, including Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Kotler, and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

Tor said it is not yet clear what influence the forum will have over policy or budgets of the Israeli government or Jewish organizations. David Breakstone, head of Zionist policy at the WZO, said that American Jews interested in influencing policy today would do best to come to his organization.

“Somebody is going to make the decisions about big budgets,” Breakstone said. “Those who are not voting are sitting on the sidelines and letting others make choices for them.”


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