Reflections on the 37th World Zionist Congress
By Nick Gendler
I didn’t want to go. I really didn’t. Up until the point of being asked my experience of matters pertaining to the World Zionist Congress had comprised three tetchy meetings wherein various UK based factions battled (under the flimsy guise of “negotiation”) to secure the maximum number of delegate places at this years’ 37th gathering.
I didn’t want to go, but I’m not good at saying no, so I agreed to be one of our three UK delegates.
My expectations for a meaningful experience were, you will have surmised, fairly low, and the first evening in Jerusalem supported that prediction. A briefing of the worldwide Masorti family was overshadowed by an internal political row. If this is how meetings amongst friends go, what would it be like when I was in a room containing representatives of Shas and Meretz and all shades in between?
Monday morning, and the Masorti group began the day praying at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall. It was partly due to lobbying by our own representatives in the WZO that this place came to be. Now I understood that perhaps there is a point to me being here. I left in good spirits ready to play my part.
It turned out that my part was more than the walk-on role I had expected. We were divided into seven groups according to the congress committees that were to “debate” (I use the term loosely) the pre-submitted resolutions. I was asked to chair a group covering resolutions concerning the “The Ingathering of the Exiles”. Our task was to consider these resolutions along with the guidance prepared in advance by our leaders; to suggest amendments that would make the resolutions more acceptable to us; and to recommend to our delegates how to vote. I was daunted at being given this role, never having attended the congress before, but was ably supported by experienced colleagues.
The congress itself began with a day of plenary sessions; panel discussions and speeches including Prime Minister Netanyahu and his now infamous “When Hitler met the Mufti” schtick. That was pretty much it for day one.
We gathered early the next day to daven shacharit, and then were introduced to our new partners from the centre-ground political party Yesh Atid. I was a little overawed to be working alongside Rabbi Dov Lipman in Committee Three, but my fears were quickly set aside when I discovered that he was pretty much as bemused by the proceedings as I was. Some resolutions were passed to be ratified by the plenary the next day, others failed and the proposer inevitably demanded a Votum Separatum, i.e. that they should be considered by the plenary at a later date.
I don’t share the view of some that the Congress is an anachronism. For one thing, the WZO distributes significant funds to the Diaspora and it’s important that we influence how that money is distributed. For another, I mingled with hundreds of Jews of all political shades committed to Israel. People across the age range were asserting that Israel is important to them. This means something. Zionism is under attack and it was reassuring to be among people who wish to defend Israel’s right to exist, even if they disagree on how. Third, I believe the Congress is a barometer of attitudes towards what goes on in Israel and sends an important message to the government. Whether the government listens is another question, but ever the optimist, I have faith that the World Zionist Organisation influences what happens in Israel.
I have never lived in Israel yet I always feel I am at home, my home, amongst my people, when I’m there, and a sense of regret and longing when I leave. Being a delegate at the 37th World Zionist Congress deepened that connection with the country and I feel privileged to have been part of it. I could even be persuaded to go again one day. Assuming that by then I still haven’t learned to say no.
Nick Gendler is a member of New North London Synagogue and Co-Chair of Masorti Judaism.
Impressive Achievements for MERCAZ and Masorti at 37th Zionist Congress
The worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement, represented by its Zionist arm, MERCAZ Olami, and its umbrella organization, Masorti Olami, succeeded in preserving its key positions and safeguarding its vital interests in Israel’s National Institutions at the conclusion of the 37th Zionist Congress.
Masorti representatives were elected as follows: Dr. David Breakstone was re-elected as WZO Vice Chairman, Dr. Stephen Wolnek will continue as Co-Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, Rabbi Tzvi Graetz and Yizhar Hess will continue to serve with David on the WZO Inner Executive, and Gillian Caplin and Alan Silberman will join Steve on the WZO Expanded Executive. MERCAZ and Masorti will also maintain their representation on key Jewish Agency governing bodies and committees, including two of the twelve WZO spots on the 24-member Jewish Agency Executive filled by David and Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, as well as holding the chairmanship of a key committee of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund) overseeing KKL land policy.
Against this background, we can attribute our impressive and disproportional success to the hard work of our leadership and activists along with the reputation we have managed to generate for MERCAZ and Masorti.
With the Congress behind us, we now look forward to getting down to work in order to further the agenda that is, of course, the reason we are involved in all of this in the first place: fashioning Israel as an exemplary, pluralistic society every Jew can feel at home in; strengthening the bonds between the Jewish state and the Jewish people worldwide; advocating on Israel’s behalf, especially in these particularly trying times; advancing Zionism as the progressive movement of national liberation that it set out to be; and securing the resources and creating the opportunities for Conservative/Masorti communities around the world to continue growing so that individually and collectively we can contribute to ensuring a future for the Jewish people and the State of Israel we can all rejoice in.
It is, of course, the cooperation of our movement’s constituent bodies in Israel and abroad, coupled with the tireless efforts of our activists everywhere that make this all possible. Those in Jerusalem are well aware, and fully appreciative of this and salute this “army” of dedicated Conservative/Masorti Jews who so enthusiastically embrace the Zionist idea and give of themselves to advance the Zionist cause. May we continue to go from strength to strength.