First, let me report on successes. The 37th World Zionist Congress, comprised of diverse political and religious groups from Israel and around the world, passed resolutions committing the World Zionist Organization to:
- educate world Jewry about the principles embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and refine Israel’s democratic character
- enhance recognition and tolerance of different streams of Judaism, including in its partnership with the Israeli government
- support the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall
- refrain from working with groups that support hate crimes
- reduce its own the carbon footprint and that of related agencies, including the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund
- prevent fracking on JNF-administered lands
- support equality for the LGBT community in Israel
The Congress passed several resolutions, some with overwhelming margins, insisting on greater transparency and accountability within the organization (which has a massive yet opaque budget.)
Now, let me reflect on the…how shall I say it? …madness of the voting session of 37th World Zionist Congress. Robert’s Rules of Order were nowhere to be seen—in fact, its unique parliamentary procedures seemed tailor-made to produce disorder. Meaningless official speeches and endless filibustering ate up voting time. The electronic voting system had not been adequately tested and inspired little confidence, leading to several moments of outright chaos as groups of delegates shouted that they hadn’t been counted, even rushing the stage a couple of times. The pièce de résistance: four hours into the proceedings, all voting was suspended to make time for an awards ceremony before the Congress’s conclusion. In the end, more than a third of the 91 resolutions were left unaddressed, instead being sent to the General Zionist Council. This blow to transparency left most of the delegates deeply dissatisfied, especially those of us from Diaspora communities. (A truly hysterical and sadly accurate account of the proceedings by Gabriel Webber, a British delegate to the ARZENU bloc, can be found here.)
Throughout the Congress, many of my colleagues and I came to question whether our involvement in the WZO elections and Congress (and the time and money invested) had been worthwhile. While the theme of the Congress was “Non-Stop Zionism,” the official proceedings at best demonstrated little relevance to the revitalization of Zionism. The outrageous conduct of the election plenary lent credence to the suspicion that most decisions were made behind the scenes. This demoralizing charade cast doubt on whether the resolutions that passed will be carried out, or whether they will remain mere words without financial and programmatic effects.
Yet the Reconstructionist contingent is taking heart from stories from our colleagues in Israel who are working toward civil and democratic society there. For example, the director and board chair of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance reported the air of excitement at the passage of the resolution supporting LGBT rights, particularly in the wake of the murder of Shira Banki at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance this past summer. They tell us that the symbolism of the vote by a substantial majority (62%), among other signals of support, was itself meaningful. However frustrating the Congress’s proceedings had been, we received a helpful perspective from a delegate from South Africa at the wonderful Reconstructionist minyan on Shabbat morning. Having attended three Congresses, she assured us that despite their flaws, this week’s proceedings were significantly improved from past years, both in how they were conducted and in what we accomplished. Hers was a helpful and hopeful perspective.
Even so, the three Reconstructionist delegates on the ARZA slate—David Roberts, Sharon Kleinbaum and I—know we speak for other Reconstructionists and for Reform Jews when we insist that we want more than symbolism. Words are not enough. Time will tell whether the WZO will fulfill its obligations, and whether our efforts to reform the organization will bear fruit. We leave hopeful that our participation made a difference, inching the organization a bit in the right direction. And we leave grateful for the extraordinary opportunity to connect with passionate Jews from around the world.