This year, from 17 to 21 June, the Congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was held in Jerusalem, the thirty-fourth such congre ss to be held since the World Zionist Movement was launched in Basel, Switzerland, by Theodor Herzl in 1897. At first the Congress met annually, then biennially, in various European cities, but since the establishment of Israel it has been meeting every four years, always in Jerusalem. The WZO can be said to have created the Jewish state, and its importance has continued to this day as a major fundraiser and mobilizer of support; the Congress is its highest legislative body. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA); (18 June 2002), the Congre ss is “the parliament of the Jewish people, which determines the policies and programs of world Jewry.” As such, its resolutions and proceedings, largely ignored in the Western media, deserve close attention.
The thirty-fourth WZO Congress was immediately followed by meetings of the Assembly and Board of Governors (BOG) of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). These two organizations have been inextricably intertwined since the establishment of the Jewish Agency in 1929 under the British Mandate. The basis for the Jewish Agency’s establishment was Article 4 of the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine (1923), which recognized “a Jewish agency” as “a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating” with the Mandatory (Britain) in the establishment of the Jewish National Home. Article 4 recognized the WZO itself “as such agency,” empowering it to secure the cooperation “of all Jews” willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish National Home. Six years later, the WZO created a separate body to assume this function, the Jewish Agency (its name was changed in 1959 to the Jewish Agency for Israel), and the two bodies have existed side by side ever since. Both share the same chairman (Sallai Meridor), the same treasurer (Haim Chesler), and the same offices in the United States, and both have their headquarters in Jerusalem. In 1960, JAFI was granted tax-exempt status in the United States.
The 34th WZO Congress was attended by 1,200 delegates and alternates from Israel and other countries, while 300 “activists,” mostly young leaders, attended as observers. The 548 official delegates represented thirty-three different countries, though in essence the WZO Congre ss is largely an Israeli-American body, with 66.6 percent of the official delegates coming from Israel (190) and the United States (145). (Also from the United States were thirty-two Hadassah delegates who were not part of the official delegation.) The rest of the country delegates came from the thirty-one other countries in the following descending order: Former Soviet Union (32), France (24), Canada (19), England (18), Argentina (17), Australia (12), Brazil (10), Hungary (7), etc. There was only one delegate from Africa (South Africa) and one from Asia (India). Twelve other European and Latin American countries sent one delegate each.
Elections in the United States for the delegates to the 34th Congre ss took place in April 2002 under the auspices of the American Zionist Movement (whose president is Moshe Kagan) using on-line registration for the first time. According to the JTA (3 August 2002), all American Jews are eligible to vote if they subscribe to (1) the “Unity of the Jewish people and centrality of Israel in Jewish life”; (2) “the ingathering of the Jewish people in the historic homeland . . . through aliyah from all countries”; (3) “the strengthening of the State of Israel based on the prophetic vision of justice and peace; (4) “the preservation of the identity of the Jewish people through the fostering of Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education . . .”; and (5) “the protection of Jewish rights everywhere.” According to the Jerusalem Post Web site, 112,292 American Jews registered to vote for the 34th WZO Congress; 88,750 (79 percent) actually voted. This compared to 149,371 who registered to vote for the 33rd Congre ss in 1997 (the centennial anniversary of the 1st Congress), of whom 107,822 (72.19 percent) voted. According to the same source, one of the candidates in 2002 was a U.S. congressman, Representative Benjamin Cardin (D-MD).
The 145 official American delegates chosen for the 34th Congre ss came from eleven slates—three representing religious organizations, eight representing secular ones. The three broad religious movements—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox— together accounted for 84 percent of the total delegates. Though Reform was the largest group, with 42.24 percent, its numbers decreased compared to the last Congress in 1997, as did those of the Conservative movement. The Orthodox movement, on the other hand, registered significant gains, accounting for 20.23 percent of the total delegates in the 2002 Congre ss. The remainder of the delegates— only 16 percent of the total—was made up of secular groups. Of these, Meretz USA had the most delegates, followed by the Labor Zionist Movement, though the “left wing” lost delegates vis-`a-vis the last Congre ss, while the representation of the right wing increased. A new American group, Herut USA, allied with the Likud, was represented for the first time.
The JAFI Assembly meetings that followed the WZO Congre ss ran from 21 to 24 June and had as its theme “Israel and the Diaspora: One Family, One Future.” Five hundred participants from Israel and abroad attended. According to the JAFI Web site (27 June 2002), the Assembly called on JAFI to play a leading role in the fight against “anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Holocaust denial.” A meeting of the JAFI Board of Governors followed the Assembly gathering. Half of the 120 members of the BOG are from the WZO. Of the remainder, 20 percent are chosen by Keren Hayesod, the worldwide non-American central Zionist financial institution, and 30 percent from United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations that underwrites the JAFI budget of more than $350 million per annum (according to the JTA of 18 June 2002) for expenditure on immigration and settlement and worldwide religious and political programs.
The opening of the 34th WZO Congre ss was presided over by the president of Israel, Moshe Katzav, accompanied by the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert. The Congress was addressed on successive days by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, National Security Council head Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, and leading opposition MK Yossi Sarid. Speakers from abroad included Professor Arthur Hertzberg of New York University and the Anglo-Jewish historian Sir Martin Gilbert. The Congre ss celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Mizrachi Religious Movement (as a member of the WZO) and of the establishment of Keren Kayemet (the Jewish National Fund), the central WZO land colonization institution.
The 34th WZO Congre ss passed eighty-five resolutions subsumed under the eleven rubrics listed in the preamble. Only thirty-one of the eighty-five resolutions are reproduced below because of space constraints, but the titles of the other resolutions are provided. (For the full text of the resolutions, see http://www.azm. org/ election/resolutions.html.)
The resolutions do not by themselves give full account of the true intent and policy of the Congre ss or its main components. For a more accurate picture, the minutes of the congressional discussions (not yet available) are essential, as are the accompanying media comments. The resolutions on aliyah (Res. 10–17), for example, give the impression of a consensus, whereas the issue remains divisive. According to Forward (21 June 2002) and JTA (18 June 2002), the WZO/JAFI treasurer, Chaim Chesler, goaded the Orthodox on 17 June with a statement to the effect that “one-half Jew [i.e., a non-convert from the former Soviet Union] living in Israel is as good as a Jew who prays three times a day but stays in Brooklyn.” This caused Orthodox delegates to storm the stage en masse.
Similarly, the resolutions on the “democratic” character of Israel (Res. 2–9) as well as on “pluralism” and “freedom of religion” (Res. 71–82) conceal hidden nuances and contradictions. According to Ha’Aretz (19 June 2002), when High Court president Aharon Barak on 18 June lectured the Congre ss on the need for equality of treatment between the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel, he was heckled by delegates of the National Religious Party and by secular right-wing ones. According to the same source, “members of the Zionist movement” are concerned by moves to make Israel “a state of all its citizens” rather than the state of the Jewish people. According to JTA (11 June 2002), Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union USA and a delegate on the Religious Zionist Movement slate, opposes “any resolution that endorses equal rights for all denominations [ e.g., Orthodox, Conservative, Reform] and religions” in Israel. To Blitz, “a Jewish state has not just ethnic meaning but religious meaning.” It should be noted here that the term “democratic,” which occurs frequently in the resolutions, does not so much refer to relations between Jews and Gentiles (in this case, the non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel) but is rather used in opposition to the term “halachic” (Jewish religious law) in the intra-Zionist dialogue concerning inter-Jewish relations (Res. 71–82).
The nuances of the WZO resolutions are most apparent in those relating to settlement (Res. 18–22). Here there are two-layered implications. The reader initially has the impression that WZO is exercising self-restraint by confining its colonization effort to the Galilee, Negev, and Arava—all regions within Israel—only to learn from Ha’Aretz (16 June 2002) that the motivation is “concern about Arab and bedouin growth in these regions.” Similarly, the reader would assume, from repeated references in Resolutions 18–22 to these regions inside Israel as the only ones subject to colonization, that the WZO opposes colonization in the occupied territories. But from Forward (21 June 2002), we learn of “new” WZO/JAFI programs “to transplant entire Jewish communities from the Diaspora to Israel” and that of nine groups slated for resettlement in the initial phase, three are due to settle in the West Bank. Forward (21 June 2002) also informs us that a cornerstone ceremony of one of the communities, a group of seventy families from Monsey, New York, led by Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, was scheduled to be held at the settlement of Kochav Yaakov, near Ramallah, during the very week the WZO/JAFI meetings were held. We also learn from the JAFI Web site (27 June 2002) that Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, presented the JAFI BOG with a check for $2 million earmarked for bringing Jews to Israel from all over the world. One wonders whether Ha’Aretz (17 June 2002) was alluding to these efforts when it reported at the opening of the 34th WZO Congress that “groups of new immigrants encouraged by the Zionist Movement and with financing from Christian fundamentalists are being sent to set up communities in Judea and Samaria.”
Two issues addressed by the 34th Congress deserve close attention. Resolution 36.4 calls for the establishment of “working groups” in every country “which will work with members of the legislature to bring about legislation that will outlaw [sic, emphasis added] anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism, and Holocaust denial.” Resolution 54 specifically “calls upon the President of the U.S., Mr. George W. Bush, to pardon Jonathan Pollard and free him.” It further calls upon “all Jewish and Zionist activists in the world, and in particular in the United States, to participate in the activities to free Jonathan Pollard from continued imprisonment.”
The WZO Congre ss has a good track record in translating its resolutions into U.S. legislation and policy. This is attested by the adoption of the Zionist policies of opening the doors of the former Soviet Union to the mass emigration of Jews to Israel and of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to “united” Jerusalem. Both these policies, initiated by the WZO, found their way in a relatively short time to Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. It will be interesting to see how WZO Congress resolutions 36.4 and 54 will fare in comparison. The latter issue has been on the WZO agenda for at least the last two Congre sses, and it seemed within reach in the final days of the Clinton administration. It will also be interesting to see how the definition of “anti-Zionism” will be handled. Will we all, for example, have to acclaim Ariel Sharon as a “Man of Peace,” or will the charge apply only to negative accusations of him as state terrorist?
Neither the elections in the United States for the 34th WZO Congress nor the week-long meetings of the Congre ss and the JAFI Assembly and BOG that followed warranted a single line or a single reference in, for example, the New York Times. The reason cannot be that the New York Times considers the affairs of the “parliament of the Jewish people” to be of no concern to the American Jewish community or to observers of the Middle East or to the American public at large. Is it not “news fit to print” when a U.S. congressman is standing for elections to the World Zionist Congre ss or when U.S. Christian fundamentalists are funding the transplanting of whole Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey to the West Bank? Whatever the reason for the media’s silence, Middle East scholars, and particularly graduate students, in U.S. universities and abroad are strongly urged to explore the fascinating universe of the WZO/JAFI: its ideology, relationship to the “homeland,” its rituals, its interlocking institutions, its political vocabulary, and its points of similarity and divergence in tactics, resources, access, and influence with the organizational arms of other ethnic pressure groups in the United States (Armenian, Cuban, Greek, Irish), and the bearing of all of this on U.S. national interest and foreign policy and on the peace and security of the Middle East.
Walid Khalidi, a founder of the Institute for Palestine Studies and its general secretary, is a former professor at Oxford University, the American University of Beirut, and Harvard University.