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Parliaments and Progress?

October 23, 2015

This is the third dispatch from RRC President Deborah Waxman, who is currently in Israel serving as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. Her previous installments can be found here.

Right before Yom Ha’atzma’ut this year, a reporter asked me “Has Zionism changed since 1948?” The question startled me, because its framing implied the possibility that the answer could be “No.” A Reconstructionist perspective helps us recognize that everything evolves. This is especially true of an ideology like Zionism, which seeks to unite the Jewish people and to establish and sustain a nation-state, both of which are living entities. A Reconstructionist approach to Israel and Zionism is founded on engagement with Israel: engagement across the breadth of Israeli life and society, engagement that can vary from person to person based on their particular interests and commitments

The World Zionist Congress is all about how Zionism has changed, and how it needs to continue to change. Delegates from all over the world have gathered to discuss the aspirations and obligations of Zionists and to set policy for its guiding institutions. One of the ARZA leaders described the Congress as the “parliament of the Jewish people,” and I find it thrilling to experience face-to-face the people who make up “worldwide Jewish peoplehood.” I met a German woman who is the Conservative rabbi in Berlin, and a Russian Reform rabbi who studied at Leo Baeck College in London. I connected with the sole French delegate to ARZA, whose children went to Camp JRF due to his longtime friendship with Camp founder Rabbi Jeff Eisenstat and with his wife Rabbi Sarah Messinger, a Reform rabbi. I have met folks from New Zealand, Australia, England, Canada, and across Israel, South America and the US. Amazing. The international nature of this endeavor requires tremendous exertion by the organizers: for most sessions, participants are equipped with simultaneous translations into English, Hebrew, French and Spanish.

While the outward form of our work, discussion and parliamentary procedures, may seem academic, the consequences are concrete. We are reflecting together on Zionist ideologies and their real-world translation into programs. In particular, the ARZA slate and its allies are deeply committed to reforming the World Zionist Organization to function with greater transparency and accountability.

On the first day, we heard panels drashing on Hatikvah, discussing what it means “to be a free people in our land”; considering the failures and the mandate of Zionism; reflecting on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. On the second day, delegates broke into cross-party committees to work through the 152 resolutions proposed by the various Zionist parties. Until early October, the ARZA slate—the delegates who would vote on the resolutions—only knew about the resolutions submitted by our resolution committee. The complete set of resolutions was not distributed until five days prior to the start of the Congress, leaving very little time to prepare. Some committees were highly functioning (mine!) and others full of controversy and filibustering (that was the case for those of both David Roberts and Sharon Kleinbaum).

Ninety-one resolutions made it out of committee for consideration by the full plenum. Some were voted down, and others never made it to the floor due to filibustering. More than half are directed at reforming Zionist institutions and procedures. It is unclear what will happen if additional filibustering happens on the floor of the plenum and whether and where any unaddressed resolutions will get handled. Everything about this process demonstrates the current lack of transparency and how deeply problematic it is.

World Zionist Congress voteWhen I am speaking in North America, I talk a lot about how democracy has changed Jewish life. The main point I emphasize is that in democracy we use persuasion, not coercion. In a monarchy or autocracy or religious state, coercive methods can be used to enforce behavior. In pre-modern Jewish communities, herem, excommunication, had real power to ensure people stayed in the Jewish community and obeyed halakhah. In our day, we embrace individual autonomy, with communal mandates mediated through democratic methods, not autocratic means. Progressive Jewish communities don’t want coercion, which means we must use persuasion and make our case—effectively, we hope—in the open arena of ideas.

My participation in the World Zionist Congress has made me think about another mode of democracy: legislation. This really is a congress, seeking to legislate and to have impact. Yet parliamentary procedures can be manipulated, and we can spend endless time on motions and minutiae. None of us can quite tell if this process is truly meaningful and effective, or just tremendous exertion serving to distract and mask other activities. Is this a constructive way to act? I’m not entirely certain at this point in the proceeding. And still we need to be here. Liberal Zionists have historically opted out these institutions because of such practices. Yet the only way to change anything is to show up, exercise our votes, and insist on accountability and transparency in addition to our substantive demands of a commitment to religious equality in Israel, women’s rights and gender equality, and working toward a just and secure peace through a two-state solution. (You can read the full ARZA platform here.)

I’ll write again during the airplane ride home, and look forward to our ability to reflect back on this experience. With any luck, I’ll have good news to share about the success of ARZA’s platform.

Click here for my full interview with the Jewish Ledger.

Click here for a link to Rabbi Jonathan Kligler’s reflections on our movement’s Israel Task Force.


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