June 23, 2010
If you really want to get a handle on the troubles dogging Israel’s relationship with the Jewish Diaspora, look no further than the World Zionist Congress, which opened with great fanfare in Jerusalem on June 15 and limped to a whimpering close two days later. You talk about two Jews and three opinions? This brawl involved 550 Jews with 1,100 sharp elbows and 2,000 years’ worth of grudges.
An explosion was waiting to happen, and it happened on the final morning, when the delegates voted 3-to-1 to endorse an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace deal and praise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement freeze. After the vote was tallied, a group of Orthodox and Likud-allied delegates rushed the stage, began singing “Hatikvah” at the top of their lungs and refused to budge. As tensions mounted, the voting session was cut short and the remaining business kicked over to an executive committee. First-time Diaspora delegates called it a disillusioning and frightening experience in Israeli incivility. Seasoned congress hands called it business as usual.
The Zionist congress meets every four years, bringing together representatives from across the spectrum of Jewish political and religious movements in Israel and around the world. Its main business is choosing officers and setting policy for the much-larger Jewish Agency. This was the 36th congress since Theodor Herzl gaveled the first one to order in Switzerland in 1897, launching the march to Jewish statehood. The congress and the body it governs, the World Zionist Organization, used to be dominated by Labor, Likud and Orthodox Zionism and served as a vehicle for mobilizing the Diaspora. Recent decades have seen the American-based Reform and Conservative movements gain mounting influence. They see it as their toehold in Israeli politics.
This year, two new delegations showed up, representing growing trends in their respective communities. From America came the dovish, left-leaning J Street. From Israel came the Sephardic-Haredi Shas party.
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