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'There’s a major need for communication between both sides'

Bernard-Henri Levy in unity plea amid right-wing Zionist Congress takeover bid

Philosopher speaks out as legacy Jewish organizations try to thwart power-sharing deal beneficial to the religious and right that threatens to marginalize progressive Jews

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy addresses the 38th World Zionist Congress, October 20, 2020. (Screenshot)
French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy addresses the 38th World Zionist Congress, October 20, 2020. (Screenshot)

Speaking at an unusually tense 38th World Zionist Congress on Tuesday, French celebrity philosopher, filmmaker, activist, and author Bernard-Henri Levy made a plea to keep Diaspora Jewry at the heart of the Zionist movement amid an apparent bid by right-wing and religious organizations to seize control of key Zionist institutions.

“The Diaspora is not some kind of remainder or remnant, cast away by history. On the contrary, it is something that should be integrated quickly into the mainstream of Zionism,” Levy told the congress in an online speech.

“In Diaspora life, Jewish existence, let’s say someone who’s Romanian, Italian, American, or French, there is something very noble in the existence of these Jews, something that cannot be reduced to the expectation of going to Jerusalem,” he said. “I don’t think that existence in the Diaspora, in exile, is somehow less-than.”

The congress, which runs from October 20-22, was intended to convene in Jerusalem, but due to the ongoing global health crisis, its format has been changed. All the panels and speeches, as well as voting by the 524 global delegates, are being conducted online in a massive virtual international gathering.

His speech came hours after several legacy Jewish groups like Hadassah, Naamat, Maccabi, B’nai B’rith International, the Women’s International Zionist Organization and Emunah took unprecedented steps to force a delay to vote until Thursday.

World Zionist Congress delegates representing the Israeli government are seeking to partner up with right-wing and religiously observant Jews abroad and effectively sideline a significant margin of center-left and religiously liberal groups, mostly from the Diaspora.

The agreement would divvy up some of the most prominent portfolios for Israel’s “big four” national institutions between representatives of the various politically right-wing, religious Zionist, and ultra-Orthodox factions, while leaving lesser leadership roles for the outvoted center-left minority.

The so-called Israeli “national” institutions — the World Zionist Organization (WZO) umbrella group, Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund, and Keren Hayesod – were all critical to the foundation of the State of Israel. Today, the four have a self-reported collective annual budget of over $1 billion.

The organizations, which constitute the backbone of world Zionism, are themselves apolitical, but their budgets can be wielded to further the agendas of the representatives heading them up. This can impact the execution and implementation of initiatives such as Jewish outreach, Jewish education, and recruiting new immigrants to Israel.

There are 524 delegates eligible to vote in the 38th congress – 199 of them from Israel, 152 from the United States, and 173 from the rest of the Diaspora. The American Zionist Movement holds elections for the US delegates, and representatives of other countries are selected by consensus. However, the Israeli delegates are directly proportionate to the Zionist political parties in Israel’s Knesset, meaning that the more Knesset seats a party has, the more World Zionist Congress delegates they are assigned.

Representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, along with hardliner Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, have partnered with the World Mizrahi and ultra-Orthodox Shas and Eretz Hakodesh factions to scrounge up a small majority which could pass the power-sharing motion. (Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party sits with the Likud in a government coalition, but is not obligated to align itself with the Likud in the congress and indeed is opposing the motion.)

The right-wing coalition believed it had a chance to take sole control of WZO spending because of its strong showing in this year’s election of the US portion of the World Zionist Congress.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the 37th World Zionist Congress conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center on October 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a bid to thwart this,  center-left and progressive Zionist groups called on legacy Jewish organizations that have voting rights to step in and help vote down the motion in favor of an agreement that would see “wall-to-wall” representation among the various denominations and political leanings.

The liberal groups who stood to be disenfranchised include affiliates of left-leaning Israeli parties, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Hatikvah, a slate of prominent US liberal Zionists.

On Tuesday, Sheila Katz, the National Council of Jewish Women CEO and a member of the Hatikvah slate in the Congress, said on Twitter that legacy groups including Hadassah, Naamat, Maccabi, B’nai B’rith International, the Women’s International Zionist Organization and Emunah stepped in to delay the vote on the right-wing plan until Thursday to renegotiate how the professional leadership will be selected.

In the past these organizations, which technically hold 240 votes, have almost always abstained from actually casting their votes.

The stakes are high for non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, who constitute a large majority of global Jewry but are vastly underrepresented in the World Zionist Congress due to lack of participation in the primaries.

Illustrative: A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Women of the Wall movement members hold Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, November 2, 2016. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

These groups have warned of a growing gap between themselves and Israeli Jewry, as Israel’s government continues to rely solely on its Orthodox rabbinate to conduct or approve lifecycle events such as marriages or religious conversions. The impact of this is more than sentimental – the Chief Rabbinate has the power to reject immigration applications or nullify marriages based on a person’s religious status.

The issue appeared to come to a head in 2016 when the Israeli government acceded to demands by progressive Jewry to build a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall’s Robinson’s Arch area – and then reneged. A temporary space has since been constructed, but it is frequently used by Orthodox yeshiva students to conduct gender-segregated prayers.

“No matter what happens, this would affect the Liberal progressive Jews, but in the beginning, it will mainly affect rabbis and organization representatives and other people who are involved, and that’s not most of these groups,” said Zvika Klein, the Jewish World Correspondent at the Hebrew-language Makor Rishon newspaper, who has been tweeting extensively about the upcoming vote.

“Most American Jews didn’t know what the deal was with the Western Wall plaza. Even though ideally they would agree with the idea that they need an egalitarian wall, it’s not something that they woke up in the morning and said, ‘wow, that’s what we need,’” said Klein.

Segregated-gender Orthodox prayer in the Robinson’s Arch pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, July 13, 2018. (Courtesy)

A right-wing, religious takeover “will definitely affect leadership, and leadership trickles down, so that’s not a good thing on the one hand,” Klein told The Times of Israel. “On the other hand, I think there’s a lot more need for communication between both sides.”

“For years, Reform Jews have mainly been talking to the left-wing secular Israelis, and right-wing Israelis are speaking to Orthodox Jews in America, and there’s not enough combining them,” he said. “I feel like if there was more communication there, things would be different. Israel’s gone very much to the right and America has gone to the left, so we’ve got to sort of step back.”

Israeli reporter Zvika Klein on a street in Paris, February 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)

Klein said that the Zionist movement has historically been largely left-leaning and non-religious, and that for many years representatives of the right wing and religious parties felt marginalized, though they too were part of the “wall-to-wall” coalitions. The current makeup of the World Zionist Congress may also reflect the political landscape in Israel, where more people are voting conservative and more religious, he said.

Klein also added that the addition of an ultra-Orthodox faction to the congress is a “game-changer,” since ultra-Orthodox communities were traditionally against Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel.

“At this point, it might make [democratic] sense that the right should have the power,” Klein said. “I just don’t think that in any situation people should abuse it. It was abused on the left for a period of time, and it may be abused now on the right if the motion is passed, but we’ll have to wait and see. Anything can happen.”

JTA contributed to this report

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