It’s election season, and American Jews are turning out in large numbers to vote with Israel on their minds.
No, we’re not talking about the U.S. presidential election or Israel’s upcoming Knesset elections, but elections for the World Zionist Congress – the only genuinely democratic body in which Jews from around the world get a say in how some $1 billion per year is allocated to projects in Israel and around the world through some of Israel’s largest national institutions.
When the last World Zionist Congress elections were held five years ago, some 56,000 American Jews voted and 11 parties were in the running.
This time, more than 54,000 votes have been cast since the voting period began on Jan. 21— about double the pace compared to the 2015 election and rising as the March 11 voting deadline approaches. In all, 15 party slates featuring 1,800 candidates are vying for 152 seats from the United States.
“American Jews want to have a voice,” said Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, which organizes the U.S. elections. “The high turnout is a strong sign of the renewed interest in the U.S. Jewish community in Israel and Zionism.”
To participate, voters must register online and pay the $7.50 fee ($5 for those 18 to 25).
That money, which covers the cost of running the election and is down from $10 per vote last time, buys you participation in the world’s largest exercise in Jewish democracy. Founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897, the World Zionist Congress is the governing body of the World Zionist Organization and the closest thing there is to a global Jewish parliament.
“This is the only elected body for all of world Jewry,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The U.S. election to the World Zionist Congress allows a direct and tangible opportunity for American Jews to participate in decision-making for the Jewish community in Israel and worldwide, regardless of their ideology.”
As the largest Diaspora Jewish community in the world, American Jews will elect more than a third of the congress’ total of 525 elected delegates. The balance will be divided between Israeli political parties, who will be allocated seats in proportion to their representation in the March Knesset elections, and Diaspora communities outside the United States. In addition, the congress includes about 200 unelected delegates representing a variety of international Zionist organizations.
Initially founded to promote the establishment of the State of Israel and support Jews who were settling there, the congress today determines funding priorities for the spending of some $1 billion annually. That money is channeled through beneficiary organizations, including the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
These elections will help determine how funding is apportioned to a range of communal priorities, including Jewish education, immigration and absorption, and various social projects in Israel. The congress will meet in Jerusalem in October to determine those priorities.
“The World Zionist Organization remains in place to continue the narrative of establishing Jewish sovereignty, returning Jewish exiles to Israel and supporting the Jewish people in their homeland,” said Michael Siegel, the board chairman of the Jewish Agency. “The WZO is the room where it happens. For me, it’s a privilege and an honor to be in that room.”
In the past, elections were comparatively sleepy affairs (the 56,000 voters last time amounted to less than 1% of American Jews). But this year’s contest, for the 38th Congress, is shaping up to be the most fiercely contested in memory.
The 15 American slates run the gamut of American Judaism. There are slates that represent Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. There are slates for Russian Jews, Israeli expats living in the United States and Sephardic Jews. Some oppose Israeli settlements in the West Bank and some want to ensure that money keeps flowing to them. (Platforms and candidate lists for all the slates are available at www.azm.org/elections.)
A big driver of the energy around the elections is the emergence of the anti-occupation Hatikvah slate, which took an aggressive approach to this year’s contest, partnering with well-known Jewish groups and recruiting some high-profile candidates such as the liberal journalist Peter Beinart.
“We’re at this turning point where there’s a possibility that the Israeli government is going to try and annex parts of the West Bank, or certainly there’s continual settlement expansion,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which is running as part of the Hatikvah slate. “Some of that is paid for by money that’s either from American Jews or other Jews around the world, or that’s allocated by them.”
On the flip side are groups with platforms committed to resisting any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, like Eretz Hakodesh and Herut.
“Not one inch,” said Karma Feinstein-Cohen, the executive director of World Herut and Herut North America. “I want peace but there’s no partner, so the best situation now is status quo.”
Morton Klein, the longtime president of the Zionist Organization of America, is heading a slate comprised of more than two dozen Jewish organizations that also oppose territorial concessions.
“We are putting more effort than we have in all the years I’ve been president of the ZOA,” Klein said. “Unlike other years, we’re having many events around the country with significant speakers that attract a crowd.”
Not all the slates are focused on questions of war and peace.
The Orthodox Israel Coalition-Mizrachi (“an ideology based on Torah values as the heart and soul of Zionism”) devotes much of its platform to ensuring continued financial support for Orthodox educational institutions in Israel and around the world.
The Reform and Conservative movements (the slates Vote Reform and Mercaz USA, respectively) are focused on working toward full equality for liberal Judaism in Israel.
The Russian Jewish slate, American Forum for Israel, hopes to use pro-Israel activism as a means to ensure greater integration for Russian-American Jews into the mainstream Jewish community.
Kol Yisrael, a slate led by the Israeli American Council and StandWithUs, wants to encourage “bold, new Zionist ideas” and foster participation from Jews of all backgrounds.
Other slates in the running include Israel Shelanu, Vision: Empowering the Next Generation, Dorshei Torah V’Tziyon, Ohavei Zion: World Sephardic Zionist Organization, Americans4Israel: Peace, Unity & Security and Shas Olami.
Elections are held online with an option for paper ballots and are open to any American Jewish resident over age 18, as long as they’re not also voting in Israel’s upcoming Knesset elections. The only other restriction is that voters must ascribe to The Jerusalem Program, which asserts that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and calls for ensuring a Jewish and democratic Israel.