1. It’s time to vote…for a Jewish body you’ve never heard of
You can just feel the tension in the air. Millions of Jews all across the world are getting ready to fulfill their democratic duty and send in their ballots. And it all starts this week.
Wait, you’re not excited about the World Zionist Congress elections?
Oh, you mean you’ve never heard of the World Zionist Congress? Or any of the 15 slates vying to represent American Jews in the WZC?
Well, you’re not alone.
This historic body, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897, is the oldest representative Jewish institution and the only one in which all Jewish diaspora is represented and democratically elected. The elections will go on for almost two months, and in October 2020, the new Congress will convene in Jerusalem.
What do those lucky Jewish activists who get elected actually do for you? They will be able to influence some of the largest Zionist organizations (which you’ve probably never heard of either): the World Zionist Organization, Jewish National Fund, and the Jewish Agency for Israel. In other words, they can get your voice heard in institutions that shape key issues relating to Israel as well as its relations with the diaspora: Jewish pluralism, the role of Jews living outside Israel in Zionist policy, and—above all—allocating funds.
The fun part is that everyone can vote, although voting requires some effort. You need to register, approve the WZC platform and pay $7.50 ($5 if you’re under 25).
And there are people out there actually fighting for your vote.
There are 15 slates running. Some of them are familiar faces, representing major American Jewish denominations, including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. There are also slates of Sephardic Jews, liberal Orthodox, Haredi Jews and political movements.
As is often the case in these elections, the interesting stuff is happening in the left and right ends of the political spectrum.
On the right, the Zionist Organization of America—a veteran group that has seen an increase in influence in recent years thanks to its pro-Trump agenda and a stream of financial support from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson—is heading a pro-settler, anti-BDS coalition with bodies that include, among many others, a Russian Jewish group called Make Israel Great. The slate boasts endorsements from top Likud cabinet ministers and from heads of the settler movement.
Even more interesting is the major drive on the left, under a slate named Hatikvah. This is a progressive coalition that includes groups such as J Street, T’ruah, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and many others. Its candidate list is a who’s who of American progressive Zionism, from Peter Beinart to Ruth Messinger and Rabbi Sharon Brous. Hatikvah is putting a real effort into energizing voters (or at least making them know these elections exist and progressives are running) and hopes to make a change by increasing liberal representation in the international Jewish bodies. “We are the ones that push the progressive agenda, especially on issues of settlements and the occupation,” said Hadar Susskind, campaign director for Hatikvah. “Our biggest challenge,” he added, “is that the vast majority of American Jews don’t know what this is and what it’s about.”
2. Follow the money
So, what is it about?
Above all, like with any other organization, it’s about the money. A whole lot of money that is made up of Jewish donations and allocated to causes in Israel. In fact, there is about $1 billion on the table, and those sitting on the boards of the Zionist organizations get a say on how it is spent.
For Hatikvah, a good showing in the election could help tilt the funding stream to settlements in a way that was not possible in the past. Currently, anti-settlement liberals don’t have much of a say in the WZC, which is made up of Israeli representatives (that follow the political makeup of the Israeli Knesset and therefore lean to the right) as well as representatives from the U.S. and from the rest of the Jewish world. If Hatikvah lives up to its promise and makes gains in these elections, it could form a coalition with liberal American religious denominations, progressives from countries like the UK and Australia and representatives of the Israeli left, to create a bloc with some influence on the allocation process.
It probably won’t make an immediate change, and it definitely will not stop the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but it can provide progressives with a vehicle to influence and be part of Zionist policymaking at a time in which many in the left feel alienated and choose to disengage.
3. There’s even an Israeli-American slate
As yet another sign of the growing involvement of the Israeli ex-pat community in American Jewish life, the first-ever slate of Israeli Americans is running in the upcoming WZC elections. Israel Shelanu (“Our Israel,” in Hebrew) states that Israeli Americans make up 7.5 percent of Jews living outside Israel. This number is based on a generous estimate of 700,000 to 1 million first and second-generation Israelis in the U.S.
Israel Shelanu argues that Israeli Americans have been left out of the discussion for long enough. “On the one hand, we are not represented by the State of Israel (as we live abroad), while on the other hand, outside of Israel we experience concerns and needs that are not necessarily being addressed; NOW it’s the time to change it!” the group stated.
On a practical level, it is asking for the creation of Israeli culture centers in every major Jewish community and promises to serve as a bridge between American Jews and the State of Israel.
4. Legislating BDS
Republican Lee Zeldin is taking another bite at passing an anti-BDS bill in Congress. Last week, Zeldin presented the Anti-Israel Boycott Act which would penalize U.S. companies that adhere to boycotts of Israel led by the United Nations or the European Union.
Coming in an election year, the bill could put Democrats in a tough spot, forcing them to publicly debate and choose sides on an issue that has divided the party.
Currently, Zeldin’s bill has 60 co-sponsors; 59 of them are Republicans.
5. Bibi skipping AIPAC. Again
Last year, Netanyahu had to cut short his visit to Washington due to the flare-up of violence along the Gaza Strip. His planned speech at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was delivered via satellite from Israel, instead of in front of a roaring crowd of thousands of pro-Israel advocates.
And this year, it’s safe to say that Bibi will have to skip the event again.
AIPAC’s conference falls exactly on the day Israelis go to the ballots (for the third time within a year), and there’s no way Netanyahu will want to be abroad in these crucial days.
It also comes out just as Democrats prepare for Super Tuesday, the day that may decide the fate of their primaries. So, expect many video greetings and satellite speeches, and less in-person contact with the candidates on the stage, in the hallways and in top-donor closed-door meetings.
On the other hand, this does leave the field wide open for President Trump to stop by and get all the attention.