How Diaspora Jews Can Vote on Israel's Future

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Voting on Israel's future (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime

Dear Diaspora Jews,

Have you, like me, been watching the invective campaigning going on right now as Israel prepares for elections? Did you replay Knesset Member Stav Shaffir’s viral speech and ask yourself, what does Zionism mean today? Are you following the headlines about new political parties, trying to keep track of the ousted politicians, speculating about the strategies of forming a coalition?

Don’t you wish you could vote?

You can. Zionism, as a movement that represents worldwide Jewry, does have an elected body with representatives from Israel, the U.S. and other countries where Jews reside. This institution, the World Zionist Congress (WZC), meets every five years to discuss issues of importance to Jews around the world, including Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, peace and Israel's future.

A brief refresher on the WZC's history: It was first convened by Theodore Herzl in Basel in 1897. Zionism was garnering more and more support at the time, and especially under Herzl's leadership, the movement was advancing toward the creation of a Jewish state. Yet, despite the movement's overall progress, there were still many competing visions of Zionist ideas, strategies and priorities. The World Zionist Organization emerged as the umbrella group encompassing the various streams of Zionist thought, and the Congress was formed in order to maintain a democratic system for Zionist activism. The WZO is still, to this day, an umbrella organization, consisting of movements across the political and religious spectrum. Some of the Zionist organizations that are currently running for seats in the WZC include HaTikvah, ARZA, ZOA, Mercaz and more.

Full disclosure: I am contending for the WZC on the ARZA slate, and I used to work for the World Zionist Organization. My own affiliations aside, I hope this article will encourage Diaspora Jews to cast a vote in general, not for any slate in particular.

The make-up of the WZC has a tangible effect on Israeli policy decisions. For example, if the congress is made up of more progressive representatives, WZO funding will go toward NGOs and non-profits that support the two-state solution, gender equality and religious freedom. If the congress is made up of primarily right-wing representatives, WZO funding will be allotted to settlement building, anti-BDS activism and anti-deligitmization efforts. You can read the platforms of each party, and see the differences for yourself. These are real issues, with real consequences.

Aside from the opportunity to cast a vote, which everyone should, the WZC elections pose an opportunity to consider the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Israel often tries to position itself as a state that acts in the interest of world Jewry. Despite this rhetoric, there isn’t always a straightforward way of involving Diaspora Jews in policy decisions. So much so that Israeli citizens abroad cannot vote in the Israeli election: There is no absentee ballot system in Israel! Which raises the question: Is Israel a place that represents Jews, or just Israelis at home?

The WZO takes a strong stand on this question, positioning itself as the mechanism for Jewish participation in Israeli policy decisions. Eligible voters are Jews over the age of 18 who are comfortable with the WZO's guiding principles, known as the Jerusalem Program. The Jerusalem Program is a complicated stance for some, but it is in line with the original intentions of the Zionist movement; the WZO maintains that the Jewish state is a place with which every Jew in the world is entitled to engage in tangible ways.

This is a fraught time in Israeli politics, and a critical moment in the relationship between Israel and America. Now more than ever we all see that allegiances are not unconditional and political relationships are not self-evident. We watch the drama unfolding but still feel far away. Lobbying Congress or donating to an organization still puts us a few steps removed from making serious changes. We care more than the usual options for activism allow for. Voting in the WZC elections is an opportunity for American Jews to cut to the chase: Help elect the party that best epitomizes the Zionist vision you support. 

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