I have just returned from an exhilarating few days in Jerusalem the 37th World Zionist Congress. Since Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland on March 29, 1897, the gathering of world Jewry has been the forum to move forward the Zionist enterprise, the national liberation of the Jewish people. While the work of nation building continues, much of the focus has shifted from building Israel the state to shaping Israel the society.
The Congress, made up of 500 delegates from Israel, North America and all around the Jewish world, ( 6 from South Africa) met in Jerusalem in the midst of the current wave of violence and incitement. At the Congress, delegates vote on resolutions that range from constitutional and budgeting procedures to passionate statements of values that reflect the diversity of Jewish community, practice and beliefs. The Congress then serves as the vehicle whereby the budgets and positions of influence in Israel’s national institutions are determined. These resolutions impact future priorities, programming and practices.
This matters as the Congress is a vehicle that allows Arzenu’s values, democracy, religious equality, religious pluralism, human rights, peace and social justice to be reflected in the policies of Israel’s government and its national institutions.(Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund and the Israel United Appeal)
Arzenu’s pre-Congress Program surrounding the WZC gave us the opportunity to meet with high level individuals that left significant impressions. During the opening session we were challenged by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the former Cabinet Minister to raise the level of discourse in the Congress. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the IMPJ took us through the growth of the Israeli Reform Movement and its impact on Israeli society. We spent an afternoon in the Knesset, meeting with MK’s from across the political spectrum. This was inspiring and challenging as they pulled no punches. We benefited immensely from meeting MK Michal Biran -Labour (Zionist Union) MK Michael Oren -Kulanu MK Ayman Odeh – Joint Arab List MK Benny Begin – Likud MK Tammy Zandberg – Meretz
The keynote address of the Congress was delivered by Prime Minister Netanyahu. He described the “ten lies that the Palestinians are telling”. Included in his remarks was a statement about the second World War, claiming that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem convinced Hitler to annihilate the Jews rather than simply expel them. We heard from the leader of the opposition, Yitzhak Herzog, who offered a more conciliatory message, and Minister of Defence Yaalon, whose address on the situation facing Israel was a highlight.
Yet the most important messages coming out of the 37th Zionist Congress were those delivered by the delegates themselves. Their votes indicated that Zionism has entered the 21st century with increasing focus on the character of Israeli society. The defining is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. By passing resolutions that called for the combatting of racism and hate crimes, fostering democracy and equality, promoting religious pluralism and supporting protections for the LGBT community, the delegates gave a clear message that the work of Zionism has entered a new phase.
With a vote of 359 – 190. we passed an historic statement supporting the LGBT community. It called for the World Zionist Organization and the Education Minister of Israel to support and develop educational programming for the LGBT community and to “enforce complete equality of their admission to Zionist entities and within National institutions”.
We insisted ( 382-163) that the government recommit its efforts to building an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The ARZENU group stood on that new platform by Robinson’s Arch on Wednesday, and envisioned what it will look like in the near future – it will be an incredibly proud gift to the Jewish people.
We overwhelmingly (525-24) passed a resolution against hate crimes committed in our name. After a summer that saw the rise of “price Tag” retributive violence committed by small groups of Jewish terrorists, this resolution was profoundly important.
Several resolutions were passed, sometimes by disturbingly narrow votes, reaffirming the Declaration of Independence’s vision of an Israel committed to the values of democracy and freedom for all its inhabitants.
We echoed the US Congress’s call for the recognition of the rights of Jewish refugees historically expelled from Arab lands and northern Africa..
We passed vital resolutions regarding the protection of Israel’s environment and precious water resources.
We affirmed classic Zionist mandates of promoting Aliya, supporting the best practices of absorbing immigrants into Israel, and promoting education and outreach to the communities of the Diaspora, especially in the face of growing worldwide anti-Semitism.
We also passed critical resolutions for transparency and clean government within the Zionist organizations and under this umbrella.
With our coalition partners, we also beat back some resolutions that proposed an alternative, and deeply troubling, vision of Zionism. While we all oppose BDS, attempts to combat the BDS movement can be twisted to suppress real democratic debate. Thus, there were resolutions that would sanction legitimate left-wing organizations within the Zionist tent, or would stifle the right to dissent and debate within our own community. I am proud to say that we stopped those resolutions in their tracks.
Clearly resolutions do not immediately establish realities on the ground, but they do give the indication to the direction in which Zionist thought and Israeli society, is trending. I came out of the Congress aware that our vision of a strong, proud, pluralistic and inclusive State of Israel is alive and well.
My thanks go to Arzenu Executive Director Dalya Levy in Jerusalem, for all her assistance, to my deputy, Reeva Forman, and to the following : JAKAMaR Trust, The Victor Daitz Foundation, and the Lazzarus Family Trust.
Prof Antony Arkin