An open letter to my American Jewish friends: Tell me you care

PM Netanyahu stands before the U.S. Congress and claims to speak in your name. I’m not going to tell you whether you should feel reassured by that or enraged. I am going to tell you that you have a voice of your own, and a way to make it heard.

Now that we who live in Israel have had our say regarding its future, it’s time for you to have yours. As long as we keep insisting that others recognize this country as being the nation state of the Jewish people, we had best internalize that for ourselves. Which means both of us agreeing that you need to take some responsibility for the direction it is moving in.

My argument is the same whether the results of last week’s election in Israel leave you feeling delighted or devastated. Whatever the outcome of the coalition negotiations that are about to begin in earnest, there are matters relating directly to you and the nature of Israeli society that are going to be impacted by decisions made not in the Knesset, but by another set of National Institutions: the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. And the leadership of all of those bodies, and the way in which hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be spent, is going to be determined by elections to the World Zionist Congress, the closest thing we have to a parliament of the Jewish people.

Democratically chosen every five years, the 750 or so delegates to that gathering set policy and establish the governing apparatus that will ultimately decide myriad issues that impact on the character of Israel and its relationship with world Jewry. Among them: how Government of Israel funding earmarked for Jewish education in the Diaspora will be spent; the degree to which the Western Wall will be accessible for non-Orthodox prayer; whether the Reform and Conservative movements will receive funding for their institutions alongside those of the Orthodox; where, and to which segments of the Jewish community around the world, Israeli emissaries (shlichim) will be sent; if, and how forcefully, the recognition of all streams of Judaism will be an issue raised with the Israeli Government; and the extent to which the WZO Settlement Department, which operates over the 1967 borders as well as within Israel’s periphery, will be supervised.

Whatever your position on these matters we need you to speak up. Zionism means engaging with Israel, and this simple act of voting for the World Zionist Congress is a concrete and meaningful way to do that. Yet to date, in the two months that the internet ballot box has been open, only some 27,000 of you have taken the five minutes required to let us know that these things matter to you. And this in spite of the fact that there are eleven different parties vying for the 145 delegates up for grabs. They represent the entire political and religious spectrum of American Jewry and are spending an unprecedented sum of money in reaching out to their constituencies as well as to the unaffiliated. Clearly something is wrong. I can think of two possibilities.

One, you don’t care. Two, we in the WZO have failed miserably in making the case as to why these elections are important. I prefer to think it is the latter. However uncomfortable that leaves me feeling, it is a far better option than imagining that we are all alone in this arduous task of state-building. Which brings me full-circle to why I am writing this piece to begin with.

When I next meet with PM Netanyahu in my capacity as vice chairman of the WZO, I need to be able to tell him that Israel matters to you, as well as what sort of state you envision evolving here. If he is going to continue speaking in your name, at least let him know what you’d like him to say.

Others are already telling him, loud and clear. The ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist parties, which it appears will inevitably be a part of the emerging coalition, have wasted no time in stating publicly that the price they are demanding in return for their support is the revocation of legislation and government decisions promoting leniency in matters of marriage and conversion, the annulment of punishments that were to be imposed on the ultra-Orthodox who refuse to abide by laws regarding conscription, and grossly disproportionate funding for their institutions.

The World Zionist Organization stands for something quite different: equal support for all streams of Judaism, based on The Jerusalem Program, the ideological bedrock of the Zionist movement, which explicitly recognizes “the multi-faceted nature of the Jewish people.”

Some of the parties running for the Zionist Congress advocate this approach and champion an Israel that will be pluralistic and inclusive. Others do not. Some call unequivocally for a two-state solution. Others emphasize the territorial integrity of the Land of Israel. Some push for environmental sustainability. Others focus on the need to develop Jewish national consciousness.

This is your opportunity to set the agenda for the Zionist movement. Your inaction will allow others to establish its priorities. The Prime Minister will hear those who raise their voices. Or he will hear only a resounding silence. Either way he will continue to speak in your name. Whatever your position, I urge you to hold him accountable. Tell him you care. And tell him what you think. Make your voice heard at www.MyVoteOurIsrael.com. There are those of us who are committed to translating your vote into tangible deed.