A Primer on the World Zionist Organization: No more than an arena for dividing the spoils
Ron Skolnik is the Executive Director of Meretz USA, a 501c3 educational nonprofit affiliated with the World Union of Meretz, whose Israeli affiliate is the Meretz-Yachad party holding six three seats in the Knesset. Originally written for Israel Horizons.
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
— George Orwell, “1984”, Part 1, Chapter 1
Consider this a primer in the underside of Zionist politics. At first blush, not the most riveting topic in the world. But don’t reach for the delete key just yet – unless you really aren’t concerned about how decisions get decided, deals get dealt, and money gets divvied up. And, to tell you the truth, it’s an incredible Orwellian tale, if you take the time to navigate the labyrinth.
You see, unbeknownst to most Jewish Americans, even those active in the Zionist world, the democratic nature of the Zionist movement is under severe attack – in the name of democracy and Zionism!
For those who don’t have the patience, here’s a three-bullet executive summary:
- The World Zionist Organization (WZO) has a hand in policy and controls millions of dollars.
- The World Zionist Organization is controlled by its 500+ elected delegates.
- The large Zionist organizations with the lion’s share of delegates want to consolidate control of the WZO by dismantling the electoral process.
Now to fill in the details: The World Zionist Organization is the international umbrella and operational arm of the Zionist movement. Its various departments support Zionist education, the cultivation of young leadership, and settlement (link in Hebrew only) throughout Israel – unfortunately including the West Bank and Golan Heights.
According to the latest reports, the WZO holds approximately $85 million in assets and works off a budget of $12-$14 million dollars a year. Just as important, the WZO has a 50% share in the running of the Jewish Agency, whose annual budget is close to $300 million.
The WZO is made up of, and controlled by, delegates from countries around the world. The American delegation, making up 29% of the WZO, is second in size only to that of Israel, at 39%.
According to its constitution, the WZO is a democratic body: “The delegates [to the WZO] shall be elected in each electoral area (country) in accordance with a method consistent with generally accepted democratic principles” (Article 19); the American Zionist delegation has indeed been elected in this manner for many years, and Meretz USA has been an active participant in the electoral process.
But some seem to feel that Zionist democracy has outlived its usefulness or no longer serves their interests. At the June 2009 meeting of the “Zionist General Council” (a.k.a. the “Va’ad HaPo’el”) – the highest decision-making body between the quadrennial meetings of the WZO Congress – a coalition of large political groupings (I’ll call them the “status quo powers”) managed to engineer a constitutional amendment that undermined the very definition of democracy: The need to ask the support of the electorate at regular, guaranteed intervals.
Under this anti-democratic amendment, a 75% majority in any country would be allowed to declare “extenuating circumstances,” cancel elections in that country, and re-appoint the delegates who had been chosen in the previous election – in this case, in 2006.
Fortunately, this amendment was overturned several weeks ago by the “Zionist Supreme Court” (yes, there is such a thing), which termed it “null and void” since it “contradict[s] … accepted democratic principles.”
Uncowed and undaunted, the large Zionist organizations – who have little to gain by new elections, but much to lose – chose a new tack. But get ready, because here it gets complicated.
Seizing upon an article in the WZO constitution that allows elections to be skipped if only a single slate of candidates is brought forward, the “status quo powers” rammed a decision through the American Zionist Movement (AZM) that prohibits the submission of candidate lists by Zionist organizations – like Meretz USA. Instead, it obliges all the organizations to become part of a “stand still agreement” in which each organization receives the same number of delegates as were elected in 2006. That is, even if the organizations – like Meretz USA – don’t agree and do wish to run.
Through the wonders of legal alchemy, the AZM has established the new legal principle of “non-consensual consent,” while simultaneously reenacting the 75% clause that had just been declared unconstitutional! (Meretz USA and others have submitted an appeal.)
Truly a work of Orwellian proportions.
No American, of course, wishes to be perceived as being undemocratic. So the “status quo powers” have offered a number of arguments to explain why democracy needs to take a vacation:
“Too expensive,” said representatives of some large, well-funded organizations.
“Elections won’t change anything, anyway,” argued others, who, with a straight face, pleaded their adherence to democratic principles.
Most tragic-comic was the courageous Zionist who maintained that elections should be waived to protect the Zionist movement. After all, reasoned the delegate, how would it look if we held elections and almost no one went to vote?
No one can read the minds of the “status quo” delegates, and no one can say for sure what their real political motivations are. But according to “Mercaz,” the Zionist organization representing the Conservative movement, it’s all about the money.
“In order to advance the goals of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in Israel and around the world,” reads a recent column in the Conservative movement magazine, “it is imperative for Conservative Jews to support MERCAZ in the upcoming elections. To date, Conservative Jewry’s involvement in the WZO under the MERCAZ banner has netted the movement’s institutions … more than $30 million in allocations.”
This candid appraisal of the system is in no way meant to denigrate Conservative Judaism, nor that movement’s legitimate and praiseworthy struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. Nor should it be understood that the Conservative movement’s use of the WZO is any more pecuniary than that of the Orthodox or Reform religious streams, or many of the other Zionist organizations that are represented there.
But with the American Jewish community becoming increasingly estranged from organized Zionism (the number of votes in AZM elections has been in freefall), it is imperative that the Zionist movement rid itself of the culture of backroom deals and allocations if it is to recapture the imagination of the broader public.
The enormous success of J Street over the past 18 months has demonstrated that there are many ostensibly unaffiliated American Jews who are thirsting to engage with Israel. If the American Zionist Movement seeks to connect with the people it wishes to represent, from all political persuasions, it must first re-embrace democracy. It needs to endorse elections as a tool for inclusion, involvement and legitimacy.
And it needs to help purify Zionist politics of the perception that the WZO is no more than an arena for dividing the spoils.