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The World Zionist Congress — a global Zionist body that formed more than a century ago but retains significant influence in Israel — is holding elections for U.S. delegates to its global assembly. At stake is leadership of an organization that helps manage agencies in Israel with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
While past voting for the congress has attracted little attention beyond a small circle of American Zionist groups, liberal U.S. Jewish leaders are hoping this time will be different: They are pointing to the election as a way their communities can register discontent with the direction of the Israeli government after Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election last month.
Hardline American Zionists are mobilizing as well to advance their priorities — including support for Jewish settlements on occupied land claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
"This is a real election. It matters," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, the synagogue arm for the largest American Jewish movement. "It's a part of every public talk I've given for the last four months."
"It's important to vote because the World Zionist Congress decides where substantial moneys go," said Morton Klein, national president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, or ZOA. "But nobody understands it."
The congress is the top legislative body of the World Zionist Organization, which formed in 1897 as a global movement for a Jewish state. The organization started the Jewish National Fund, which acquired land in early 20th-century Palestine, and the Jewish Agency, which settled immigrants there.
Once Israel was established in 1948, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency continued operating, but took on new roles in partnership with the Israeli government. The Jewish National Fund, known best by U.S. Jews for its blue fund-raising tins and tree-planting projects, is a major landowner in Israel. The Jewish Agency, no longer handling large waves of immigrants, has recently expanded funding for educational and other programs that shore up Jewish identity worldwide. The World Zionist Organization has its own programs, including financial support for streams of Judaism in other countries, such as the Reform and Conservative movements, that are marginalized within Israel, where the Orthodox hold sway.
The World Zionist Congress meets every four or five years to help set policies for the agencies and elect members of key committees and agency executives who carry out those policies. This year's congress will meet in Jerusalem in October.
The Jewish National Fund "is about where we buy land. We have an interest in that money not going across the Green Line," Israel's pre-1967 war frontier with the West Bank, said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
The World Zionist Organization has another role that has caused controversy: A settlement-building division within the organization is funded entirely by the Israeli government. The unit remains under the umbrella of the non-governmental Zionist group and is therefore not subject to Israeli public disclosure laws.
Last December, police raided the division's offices as part of a corruption investigation. Two months ago, the organization's executive committee passed resolutions that would put the unit under the full control of the Zionist organization and force disclosure of the division's budget. It's not clear what practical effect the resolutions will have.
"We can't directly tell the government how much money to allocate, but we can shine a light on it," said Ken Bob, campaign chairman for the liberal HaTikvah slate in the elections, which wants to freeze settlement building in the occupied territories. "I think we can have some impact here."
A measure of U.S. Jewish attitudes
The vote for the World Zionist Congress is a measure of Jewish American attitudes toward Israel at a sensitive time. Netanyahu vowed while campaigning that a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch — contradicting the goal of a two-state solution favored by the U.S. government and many American Jews — and drew complaints of racism when he warned on election day that Arab Israelis were voting "in droves." He has since struck a more conciliatory tone.
But his ongoing feud with President Barack Obama — highlighted by a controversial speech to Congress over the White House's wishes ahead of the Israeli election — and Netanyahu's harsh criticism of a U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran after the election are generating additional tension. American Jews in recent years have been splintering into hard left and right camps over Israeli policies, a polarization reflected in the U.S. election for delegates.
"That Prime Minister Netanyahu emerged as the leading candidate with the authority to form a new government has put a number of American Jews in a difficult position, or a questioning position," said Rabbi Robert Golub, executive director of Mercaz USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Judaism, which is running candidates seeking recognition for the movement in Israel. "We hope they will translate this sense of alienation and discomfort with the Netanyahu government to greater involvement in the elections."
The Zionist Organization of America platform for its candidates supports Jewish settlements in the territories, more spending on countering anti-Israel activity at colleges and an end to U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority.
The dovish HaTikvah slate includes leaders from the New Israel Fund, the pro-Israel lobby J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
The ZOA's Klein filed a complaint with the Zionist organization's election authorities to bar HaTikvah, claiming some members support the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement. Bob said HaTikvah opposes the movement known as BDS and called Klein's accusation "a frivolous smear campaign." The complaint was dismissed in early vetting, but Klein has appealed to the Zionist Supreme Court, which convenes panels of judges to handle such conflicts.
Other political slates emphasize environmental protection in Israel, reform of the congress itself or a greater role for Russian-American Jews. But the major synagogue movements — Conservative, Reform and modern Orthodox — have the advantage because of their ready-made networks to get out the vote.
Getting out the vote
Rabbis and leaders of Zionist groups have spent weeks trying to drum up interest in the election through synagogue visits, conference appearances, Facebook and Twitter postings, email blasts and robocalls. Every American Jew who turns 18 by June 30 is eligible to vote if they agree to the World Zionist Organization principles — known as the Jerusalem Program — and pay an administrative fee of $5 or $10. Voters can cast ballots by mail and online until April 30. On Facebook, the HaTikvah slate posted a photo of several people leaning over a laptop at a Passover seder with the tagline "voters swarm to the polls."
"We're running advertisements. We work with synagogues, asking rabbis to talk about it," said Martin Oliner, chairman of the Religious Zionists of America, an Orthodox group running a slate under the banner "Vote Torah."
The last election, in 2006, drew about 80,000 votes, even though a few million American Jews are eligible to cast a ballot.
Israeli political parties have the largest share of delegates to the Congress, while Americans have the second-largest national delegation, providing 145 of the 500 participants, or 29 percent. Other countries have their own process of choosing delegates. Within the U.S. delegation, the Reform movement has the largest share, with 54, followed by 35 for the Orthodox and 33 for the Conservative movement, with the rest distributed among other political slates.
"Very often we're told, especially in the Diaspora, we shouldn't express our view very loudly," Jacobs said. "When you're asked and you don't vote, that's a huge missed opportunity."