Right-wing groups force voting delays at World Zionist Congress amid sparring over resolutions

Delegations move to slow passage of motions that criticize government’s judicial overhaul, support LGBTQ Jews; votes to take place online next week

Delegates to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, April 20, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Delegates to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, April 20, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A meeting of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem was marred Thursday by chaotic scenes as delegates sparred over votes on resolutions that were expected to pass easily before being delayed.

Electronic voting was due to take place on a range of resolutions, including one that criticizes the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans, a motion in support of LGBTQ Jews, a resolution backing the current version of Israel’s Law of Return, and recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions.

Instead, right-wing delegations to the WZC filed a petition to hold votes individually on each resolution in place of an abbreviated process. Video from the conference showed delegates shouting “shame” in opposition to the delaying tactic. As many more votes will have to be counted, the move was aimed at preventing the passage of the motions by the end of the event on Friday.

Right-wing groups that opposed the resolutions said the switch in voting method was indeed meant to drag out the procedures at the congress and argued that it was necessary after it became apparent that the draft resolutions would pass quickly in the shortened process.

Following protests by hundreds of delegates to the conference, in which more than 2,000 Jewish leaders and youth from Israel and around the world participated, the group’s presidium, which determines procedure, voted to hold an online vote in the coming days.

“This is a victory for the center-left-liberal bloc that will result in the passage of resolutions against the government’s policy, without concessions,” said WZO Vice Chairman Yizhar Hess in a statement. “The right tried from the very beginning to prevent there being votes at this Congress. They failed at the beginning. They failed again today.”

The extraordinary meeting was held in light of Israel’s 75th Independence Day next week.

Earlier Thursday, some delegates marched from the Jerusalem International Convention Center to the Supreme Court in solidarity with Israel’s anti-overhaul demonstrators who, for months, have been holding protests across the country to express their sharp opposition to the government’s efforts to remake the judiciary. Current proposals, if passed, will bring most judicial appointments under political control and curb the powers of the high court to act as a check on government.

The bid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system has deeply divided Israelis, causing unprecedented societal upheaval. Though the prime minister paused the legislative efforts late last month, ahead of the Knesset’s Passover break, to allow for compromise talks with the opposition, coalition members have vowed to press ahead as soon as lawmakers reconvene later this month.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners, which include far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in addition to right-wing Likud, as well as a sole lawmaker from an anti-LGBTQ faction, have also fueled tensions with world Jewish communities over demands to limit any influence by non-Orthodox Jewish streams, cease official state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed outside the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, and scrap the so-called “grandchild clause” in Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent, provided they don’t practice another religion.

Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right parties including ones that advocate for curbing rights to Arab Israelis, LGBTQ Israelis, and non-Orthodox Jews, has drawn deep concern from across the Diaspora, as has the government’s effort to weaken the judiciary, which historically has acted to protect minorities.

Proponents of the overhaul say judicial reforms are necessary to bring back the “balance” between the branches of government and rein in a judiciary that they argue has overstepped its bounds.

Critics say the plans will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights.

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