by Liat Deener-Chodirker
Every few years, Diaspora Jews have the opportunity to vote for the World Zionist Congress, which oversees the World Zionist Organization. The congress sets budgets and policies for major Israeli and international organizations that spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year—much of which is American Jewish money—on Jewish education, urban renewal, social services, and settlements. While the Congress itself exclusively oversees a budget of more than $30 million, it also has joint authority over the Jewish Agency’s $475 million budget.
Just like the Israeli government, the WZC is made up by proportional representation. Of the 500 seats in the WZC, the American delegation holds 145, Israel holds 190 (allocated by the Knesset makeup), and the rest of Diaspora Jewry holds the remaining 165 seats. How the 145 American seats that will be allocated to each of the 11 American slates running is determined by the votes cast by American Jews this year, between January 15 and April 30.
Moment interviewed two undergraduate students who are running on slates for the WZC to hear their thoughts on the importance of this election. Benjy Cannon—whose great-great-grandfather was in the first World Zionist Congress—is running on the Hatikvah slate, and Alyssa Gabay is running as a part of the Alliance for New Zionist Vision slate.
Q: What is your involvement with Israel and how did you end up running on a slate for the World Zionist Congress?
Benjy Cannon: I am the national board president of J Street U. I’m also a contributing Jewish world blogger for Haaretz.
Alyssa Gabay: I’ve always been involved with Israel. My family’s Zionistic, I’ve gone to camp Moshava, and in high school I ran a Bnei Akiva chapter. I spent a year in Israel at [the seminary] Nishmat.
Q: Can you please provide a brief background on your respective slate for the World Zionist Congress?
Cannon: The Hatikvah slate is a collaboration between Ameinu, which is the home of progressive Zionism in the United States, Partners for Progressive Israel, which is kind of like the Meretz counterpart in the United States, and Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair, which are socialist progressive American [Jewish] youth movements. Hatikvah represents an American counterpart to the Labor and Meretz parties, and is a mirror of the Israeli left in the United States. The first thing that stood out to me about Hatikvah is their unabashed criticism of settlements, the occupation and the dangerous anti-democratic elements in the Israel government as part and parcel with their Zionism and pro-Israel activism. And the second thing is this real appreciation of young American Jews to Israel’s future and the future of the American Jewish community, [as seen by] their partnership with Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair and the fact that I, a 22 year old student, am third on the list.
Gabay: The Alliance for New Zionist Vision is made up of three organizations, Lavi Olami, Kumah and Doreinu. One thing that makes our slate unique is that we’re made up [exclusively] of young individuals who are either on college campuses or young professionals. We have people coming in who have many different perspectives, from the left to the right. One of our goals that makes us unique is that we’re trying to make Zionism relevant again. I think that a lot of my peers don’t feel it’s relevant anymore. But if we can get a greater pull for Zionism, through asking what the next step is for the Jewish people in Israel and around the world, we’ll make Zionism relevant.
Q: The World Zionist Congress seems to be relatively unknown to many Jews. Why do you believe that is, and what should people know about the World Zionist Congress?
Cannon: I think the reason that not a lot of people know about it is because it convenes once every five years and it’s an old institution of the global Zionist movement. What I think people should know about it is that if you have concerns, anxieties, fears and hopes for Israel’s future, this is a place where you can cast your vote. It’s set up so that your voice matters and is supposed to influence the decision-making process. Especially if you care about progressive values both in Israel and the United States, this is a serious place to make your voice heard and wield your power.
Gabay: I think that people don’t know about it because nobody perceives it to be relevant, exciting or important anymore. It does seem like that archaic entity that Herzl started, but it’s actually a strong body of Jews from across the world. There’s a lot of potential that can come from that. It’s a failure of Zionist education that the majority of Jews don’t care and think that we’re in a post-Zionistic era. For the past 2,000 years a lot of the changes in the Jewish community were external and coerced by the outside places that we lived. Now we have the opportunity to be a nation again, and make more internal decisions.
What do you believe is at stake in these elections?
Cannon: In a lot of ways, it’s what was also at stake in the past elections in Israel. There’s a future for Israel that’s democratic, that’s just, that actively pursues a two-state solution and peace with its neighbors and one where democracy ebbs away control of the county through religious institutions, more settlement constructions, the intention of the occupation, the persistent denial of human rights to Palestinians in the West Bank and racism against Arabs who live in Israel. I think that those two visions are really what’s at stake.
Gabay: I would say that [what’s at stake is] continuing further down the line of this less relevant and less exciting Zionism. The more things [in Israel] stay as the status quo, the fewer Jews think about these important issues and [feel] affected by what happens there. That’s really what’s at stake. The conversations and the things we want to make relevant are at risk.
Looking at the demographics of people running on the various slates, it is clear that there are many young adults and undergraduate students running. Why do you think this is and what is significant about the demographic makeup of the slates?
Cannon: The fact that there is a serious generational difference between how young people engage with Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the way older generations do [is significant]. The slates involved are really taking to heart this idea that young people have to be active participants and part of the conversation and decision process.
Gabay: Our slate is exclusively young individuals and that’s really important because people who are younger and on campus are the ones who are hearing the criticism against Israel firsthand and know what type of Jewish identity issues their peers are struggling with.
The settlement division of the WZO has emerged as one of the primary funding mechanisms for settlements in the West Bank. While other divisions of the WZO are jointly funded by money from the Diaspora and the Israeli government, the settlement division has become funded and controlled solely by the Israeli government. However, because it is not an official government body, it is not held to standard government rules of transparency or disclosure. Recently, the WZO passed a few new resolutions regarding the settlement division that aimed to increase transparency and reassert the WZO’s control over the department. If these resolutions were to be implemented, which they likely will not be, it would end the Israeli government sole control over this division. What is your opinion on the passing of these resolutions?
Cannon: The recent initiative to wrest control of the settlement division back into the public is extremely significant and indicative of what the World Zionist Organization and the World Zionist Congress can accomplish. We know that there is money being funneled from social service programs within the green line into the settlement enterprise. But we don’t know the extent of it and it’s hard to deal with so many of the issues—it’s true for American Jewish institutions and it’s true for Israel—unless we’re shining a clear bright light on it. It’s critical if you care about a two state solution and an end to the occupation for these votes to pass and for the WZO to own a process of transparency vis-à-vis settlements.
Gabay: For the Alliance for New Zionist Vision, the candidates on our slate have a variety of opinions. I think that I would feel comfortable saying that everyone on our slate believes that we are past the two state solution at this point; it’s just a matter of what it means to be past the two state solution. That would definitely vary from individual to individual. In general, I do feel it’s very important to be part of the Judea and Samaria area and to have a Jewish presence there. What that means is not necessarily the way things are [currently]. I think that the status quo for what’s happening in Judea and Samaria needs to change.
This interview reflects the personal opinions of Benjy Cannon and Alyssa Gabay, and is not representative of the viewpoints of the slates they are running on or any affiliated organizations.