Anti-occupation, Pro-religious Pluralism Activists Aim Big in World Zionist Congress Vote

U.S. Jewish progressives hope to help decide how $1 billion in annual funding at World Zionist Organization is allocated – including curbing money for West Bank settlements

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Jeremy Ben-Ami, left, SooJi Min-Maranda and Peter Beinart.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, left, SooJi Min-Maranda and Peter Beinart.Credit: J Street / JD Scott / Natasha Mozgovaya
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

Over 122 years since Theodor Herzl founded what is today known as the World Zionist Organization – the gathering that launched the movement to create a Jewish national home – Jewish American progressives are running together for the group’s congress at a time when Zionism and progressivism can seem at odds.

The name of the slate is Hatikvah, Hebrew for “The Hope” and later the title of the poem that became Israel’s national anthem. Hatikvah aims to have an impact on the organization that allots $1 billion annually to Jewish causes, though some of the money has gone to settlement building in the West Bank – something the new slate hopes to block.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and powerCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 57

Hatikvah’s candidates for the World Zionist Congress say they want to bring their progressive values of justice and equality to the workings of Zionism on the ground – both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

That means championing issues such as an end to the occupation and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious pluralism and a fight for the democratic rights of all of Israel’s citizens.

“This is about deciding on priority and strategy – why wouldn’t Diaspora Jewry want to have a real say on how money is spent and policy decided?” asks Kenneth Bob, a member of the slate. Bob is president of Ameinu, an organization of progressive Jews in North America that focuses on political and social justice issues there and in Israel.

“We’ve won the attention of our fellow progressive Israel groups in America to say, ‘Yes let’s play in this game,’” Bob says.

He and others in Hatikvah say they also hope the new campaign and the slate’s wider pool of candidates than in the past will help galvanize liberal American Jews, including the younger generation.

For some, years of frustration with Israel’s increasingly hard-line, right-wing government have strained ties. What Bob calls “the Trump-Bibi bromance” has only exacerbated those tensions, he tells Haaretz.

“But we see becoming part of the WZO as something they can do constructively to bring change,” Bob says.

Beinart on board

The Congress decides on funding and policy decisions for the World Zionist Organization, and delegates help determine who will lead the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, which fall under its umbrella.

In the past the Hatikvah slate was made up of four organizations, but this year it’s running as a collection of 11 groups and individuals including some of the most famous American Jewish progressives – who would be newcomers in the Congress. Among them are Peter Beinart, the commentator and columnist; Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women; and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, the liberal, pro-Israel lobby.

Organizations represented also include Aleph, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair, the Jewish Labor Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women, the New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel and T’ruah.

Elections only take place once every five years for the Congress, which will gather this fall in Jerusalem. Voting takes place online and will last from Tuesday to March 11. All Jews over 18 are eligible to vote.

There are 152 seats for the American representatives in the Congress, and in the last election Hatikvah won eight seats. The other two-thirds of delegates represent other countries in the Diaspora and Israel.

If Hatikvah can win enough seats, it hopes to help block the expansion of Jewish settlement building and the buying of land in the West Bank. There are divisions within both the World Zionist Organization and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund that buy land in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

“We want to be at the table to discuss this, and the only way we can do this is if we have a significant delegation,” says Hadar Susskind, campaign director for Hatikvah.

Hatikvah is one of 13 slates in the American contingent competing against one another to be delegates at the Congress. Among them are slates from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements of Judaism, as well as tickets representing right-wing views, the Sephardi community and Israelis now living in the United States.

Critical but engaged on Israel

Brad Brooks Rubin, who lives in the Washington area, is a volunteer at the New Israel Fund, which helps fund progressive Israeli nonprofits. The fund, one of the organizations running with Hatikvah, is among the candidates running as an individual.

In the past Brooks Rubin ignored elections for the World Zionist Congress, but this time, through Hatikvah, he found a way that matched his identity as a supporter of left-wing causes in Israel, he says.

“It’s a way to push back on an effort to be pushed to the side and be part of this very core institution in Jewish life,” he says. “It appeals to me as an answer to this inner conflict I’ve had, so instead of running the other way, I’d like to try to be connected to a mainstream organization that has an important role.”

Brooks Rubin says he has struggled with what he describes as dueling orthodoxies – that an American Jew must buy into the narrative that everything Israel does is wrong or believe that anything Israel does should not be criticized publicly.

“I felt alienated from both of those camps, and being on this slate is a way to reclaim that you can be critical and supportive of Israel but to be involved,” Brooks Rubin explains.

Women make up over half the Hatikvah slate, and the ticket includes a number of prominent Jews of color.

SooJi Min-Maranda, the executive director of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, is both. “I come to the slate recognizing the reality that my Jewishness is questioned from the get-go,” she says, as someone who converted through the Reform movement. Reform conversions conducted in Israel are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

As a Jew by choice, an immigrant to the United States and a Jewish person of color, Min-Maranda says running to take part in the Congress “gives me a way to be counted and to participate in a meaningful way – to demonstrate the full range of what being Jewish looks like … as I check every wrong box for a ‘typical Jew.’”

Min-Maranda also notes that she is married to a non-Jew.

If elected, the issues she plans to focus most on are the dignity of refugees, asylum seekers and foreign workers in Israel, as well as the status of the LGBTQ community and Jews of color both in Israel and the Diaspora.

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