New Orthodox Party in U.S. Is Big Surprise of World Zionist Congress Election

Despite Reform movement gains, progressive bloc loses ground

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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The 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, June 22, 2006.
The 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, June 22, 2006.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A rigidly Orthodox party, running for the first time, is the big winner of the World Zionist Congress election held in the United States, according to preliminary results announced on Monday.

Eretz Hakodesh (“The Holy Land”) – which champions “traditional religious values and Jewish rights in the entire Land of Israel” (code for Israeli annexation of the West Bank) – emerged as the third largest party, garnering more than 15 percent of the total vote. Eretz Hakodesh made attacks against Reform Judaism the focus of its campaign.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

Voting for the U.S. delegates was held online over the course of seven weeks. A total of 15 slates, made up of nearly 1,800 candidates, competed for the 152 seats alloted to Americans in the WZC.

Elections for the so-called “parliament of the Jewish people” are held every five years. The WZC allocates about a billion dollars a year to Jewish causes. Its delegates determine policy for the World Zionist Organization and can influence appointments to its affiliate organizations: the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal, and Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund).

In the last election, parties representing progressive American Jews won two-thirds of the total votes. In this latest round, mainly thanks to Eretz Hakodesh’s strong showing, parties representing progressive American Jews won less than half the total vote.

Vote Reform, a party representing the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in the United State, won 25 percent of the vote – more than any other single party. It also came in first in the 2015 election, but will probably have fewer seats in the upcoming congress because many more votes were cast in this election. The number of seats each party will receive has yet to be determined.

Leaders of the Reform movement expressed satisfaction with the results.

“Our voter turnout rose 50 percent” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the vice president of Israel and Reform Zionism for Union for Reform Judaism. “This shows that Israel and Zionism are important to Reform Jews in the United States,” he added.

U.S. delegates account for about one-third of the total WZC seats, Israeli representatives for another third, and representatives of Jewish communities elsewhere for the final third. The number of seats allocated to each Israeli party in the WZC is based on its share of seats in the Knesset.

Responding to the results, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values and head of the Eretz Hakodesh campaign, said: “Our motivation was to protect the holiness of the Land of Israel and cultivate traditional Jewish practices and beliefs, and we are grateful to all those who volunteered and voted on behalf of our new slate.”

The party that won the second largest number of votes was Orthodox Israel Coalition – Mizrachi, which represents the Modern Orthodox community. Mercaz USA, which represents the Conservative movement, came in fourth place, after placing second five years ago.

The latest WZC election aroused more interest than usual in the United States, with more than double the number of votes cast this time than in the previous election. According to the preliminary results, 123,629 American Jews voted in this election – compared with 54,098 in 2015. It was the highest number of votes since the election was opened to the entire Jewish community 30 years ago.

“We are thrilled that so many people participated and look forward to seeing those voices represented at the 38th World Zionist Congress,” said Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement. The 38th World Zionist Congress is scheduled to be held in Jerusalem in October.

Hatikvah, a progressive slate that included many new organizations – as well as high-profile Jewish liberals – picked up 7,932 votes in this round, more than double the number it won last time. The slate says it intends to use its clout to prevent the WZC from funneling money into West Bank settlements.

Commenting on the election outcome, Kenneth Bob, the president of Ameinu, an organization of progressive Jews in North America and a member of the Hatikvah slate, said: “We are pleased that we more than doubled the number of votes we received from the last election and thus will have more delegates. We look forward to being an active and vocal force at the congress in October. We also built a coalition that raised the progressive Jewish voice to a new level of public awareness which will remain active going forward.”

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