Why the World Zionist Congress Elections Matter

Categories: Letters From Leadership

The Truth: it is hard to raise interest in the upcoming elections for the World Zionist Congress. Yes, the same movement founded by Theodore Herzl in Basle, the same organization that gave birth to the modern State of Israel. It is desperately difficult.

The World Zionist Movement has been maintained in parallel to the Knesset for fifty-seven years. Some would argue that the WZO became obsolete once it achieved its main goal: to found a nation state. Perhaps the fact that the WZO is a lesser facsimile of the Knesset, without the authority and legitimacy, explains why it is hard to raise eyebrows for the regular four-year elections.

So, why try? Others have written eloquently about the Zionist imperative, about pluralism, even about affecting Israeli foreign policy. In fact, these arguments form a cacophony echoed between the competing slates every four years. ?Vote for us, bring peace.? ?Vote for us, bring security.? ?Vote for us and bring pluralism.?

My own slate has, for many years, participated in such sloganeering.

My secret: I am not convinced. As much as I want to affect the Israeli policies that enrage me, as much as I want to make Israel a better place, I am convinced that grand issues are the purview of the Knesset, the Government of Israel, rather than the World Zionist Congress.

No matter how passionate the speeches or how strong the resolve the WZO will not (and should not) affect the policies of the Government of Israel. Politics are inherently local–especially Zionist politics. Elected State officials are only beholden to their constituents (constituents who hold the carrot of reelection and the stick of withholding their sacred vote). Diaspora representatives to the WZO hold neither.

It would be enough to convince me if the elections were simply a way of supporting the youth movements. But we have seen their entitlements shrink to a pittance paralleling the declining budget of the WZO. This is not where the answer lies.

So, why bother?

The answer is found in the murky annals of the settlement enterprise.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War Israel found itself occupying a vastly expanded area of land including the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Though the Jewish Agency already had a Settlement Division, the Government of Levi Eshkol formed a parallel institution within the WZO charged with supporting settlements beyond the green line.

Why the duplication?

After the war, the US government determined that donations for use beyond the Green Line would not be tax deductible.

The WZO Settlement Division was wholly funded by the Government of Israel while the Jewish Agency?s Settlement Division was funded both by the Government of Israel and through grants from Diaspora institutions.

The veil was complete. Donations from the US continued to be tax deductible; the predicament was solved.

In 1999 Salai Meridor broadened the scope of the WZO Settlement Division to include culture, infrastructure, and housing with the approval of the anti-Oslo Netanyahu government. Settlements proliferated while the Israeli government continued negotiations ostensibly aimed at peace through the creation of a Palestinian State.

To make matters worse, the recently released Sasson Report, prepared by Talia Sasson a former advocate for the Attorney General, indicated that the WZO Settlement Division undertook widespread illegal activity in its pursuits. For example, the Report alleges that the WZO Settlement Division knowingly facilitated the building of outposts on Arab land that they did not own.

The Report recommended that the Division?s activities be frozen.

After many somnambulant election campaigns the stakes are finally high and the fight is real.

I am not running in this election for some nebulous reason. I am running to bring pitched battle to the Settlement Division. Settlements over the Green Line come at an enormous cost to Israel. They come at the expense of Israel?s moral authority, they take the lives of Israeli youth in their defense, they drain the meager State coffers that could instead be used to fight poverty, and they prejudice any hopes for a peace accord with the Palestinians?for the Palestinians too deserve their own secure and contiguous land.

I am running in these elections in an effort to make sure that the WZO does not support the self-destructive settlement enterprise in any fashion and that gives me hope.

About Jamie Levin

Jamie Levin was Executive Director of Ameinu and is now pursuing an advanced degree in Canada. Jamie has long been an activist for progressive Israel, serving as the elected National Director of Habonim Dror North America in 2001-02. Jamie completed an MS in Political Economy from the London School of Economics in 2004, specializing in the economic aspects of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
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