The World Zionist Congress: What you need to know
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Election PrimerParliament of the Jewish People

The World Zionist Congress: What you need to know

38th World Zionist Congress elections explained

Theodor Herzel gives the keynote address at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1898.
Photo from the National Library of Israel via Wikimedia Commons
Theodor Herzel gives the keynote address at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1898. Photo from the National Library of Israel via Wikimedia Commons

You can’t miss the ads. They’ve been on social media, in Jewish publications and at synagogues and temples across the country, stressing the importance of voting in the ongoing election. No, not the 2020 presidential election. Instead, the American Zionist Movement wants you to vote for a slate of representatives for the 38th World Zionist Congress.

While the idea of voting is nothing new to American Jews, the process and mechanics used by the AZM are unfamiliar to most Americans, as is the purpose and makeup of the Congress.

Here then, is a brief history of the WZC, how voting works and what the body does:

History
Theodor Herzl established the Zionist Congress in 1897 as the legislative branch of the Zionist Organization. In 1960, the word “world” was added to both organizations. The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897.

According to Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the purpose of the first congress was to “unite the Jewish world and create a global political movement that began to push for the creation of the State of Israel.”

Following the initial meeting, the Zionist Congress met every year until 1901. From 1903 until 1913 and from 1921 to 1939, it met every two years in different European cities. Congressional meetings were interrupted during both world wars.

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the congress has met every four or five years in Jerusalem.

Purpose
The modern WZC is billed as the “parliament of the Jewish people.” It allocates nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and world Jewry, including the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael — The Jewish Nation Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The WZC doesn’t only allocate funds, though. As Block explained, the “the congress is like a political convention that meets every four or five years and sets the direction and overall policies and next leaders of those national organizations which serve as quasi-governmental institutions — JNF, the Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemet.”

Each of those institutions, according to Block, “have thousands of programs in Israel-social services, aliyah, programs for Jewish education around the world.” The direction of those programs is set at each session of the congress.

Composition
The World Zionist Congress is made up of 525 elected delegates and other delegates from international Jewish organizations. Americans make up a third of the delegates, which are elected.

The U.S. electoral process is different from the rest of the world. In other countries, with smaller delegations, leaders are chosen rather than elected. (In addition to the United States, both Canada and the United Kingdom elect delegates.)

Election
U.S. Jews can vote for one of 15 slates which represent most movements and ideas in modern Jewry. Reform and Reconstructionist movements, check. Conservative, check. Orthodox, check. Two-state solution, check. The ZOA Coalition even has the “Make Israel Great” party as a partner.

Each of the slates will receive representation proportional to the votes they receive, meaning if Israel Shelanu receives 10% of the vote, it will make up 10% of America’s delegates. Those delegates are from across the country. Pittsburgh has several candidates in different platforms.

One of those delegates, Susan Friedberg Kalson, views the elections as a “chance for Diaspora Jews to represent our interests. This is how we can have a say in the billions of dollars in funding and other resources within Israel.”

No Pittsburgh delegate, however, is guaranteed to be one of the representatives who go to Israel as part of the congress. According to Rabbi Aaron Meyers of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, who served as a member of the 37th World Zionist Congress in 2015, the delegates sent are all rated on various qualifications by each slate. Those with the highest scores are sent to serve on the congress.

This year’s vote will be historic. It promises to be one of the largest in history. As the Jerusalem Post noted in an article published earlier this month, more than 54,000 votes have already been cast since voting began Jan. 21, about double the pace of the 2015 elections.

Process
To be eligible to vote in the current election, you must be Jewish, at least 18 years of age, be a permanent resident of the United States, not vote in the March 2 Knesset election and affirm your commitment to the Jerusalem Program.

The Jerusalem Program, according to the American Zionist Movement, is the official platform of the Zionist movement. Among other things, it counts as its foundational beliefs the unity of the Jewish people, its bond to Israel and the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem in the life of the nation.

The voting process operates on the honor system, meaning the rules are more guidelines than qualifiers. For instance, Block explained, a person must “self-identify” as Jewish, leaving open the door that some of those voting might be more “Jew-ish” than Jewish.

Anyone interested in voting should visit azm.org/elections before March 11 to register. There is a $7.50 fee, which covers the cost of running the election and “serves as a verification process,” Block explained.

While the process may seem peculiar to some Americans, voting for a slate that represents your values and beliefs about Israel serves the same purpose as voting in the presidential election — it’s an opportunity to have your voice heard and your influence felt.

As Block puts it, “There’s a lot on the line historically, if you look at what the Zionist Congress does, it represents what’s going on in the Jewish world at the time. There may be a big push now for greater money for Jewish security around the world because that’s something that costs a lot and it concerns everyone, everywhere.”
The 38th World Zionist Congress will be held in Jerusalem on Oct. 20-22. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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