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Reinvigorate the World Zionist Congress

With more and more voices joining the debate on Israel, it's time to silence the cacophony and centralize the discussion

There are similarities and differences between the state of Zionism today and the way it was in the first decades of its existence. But the underlying feature in both periods is that it was always a boisterous movement, with a plurality of ideas, and a discussion about and by Jews.

Today’s cacophony of voices trying to define Zionism (and how they matter for Israel’s policies) represents similar disputes to those of the old days — the sparring between Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, the different emphases between Gordon and Borochov, the fierce disagreements between Ben-Gurion and Weizmann. The main difference is that today’s discourse is meaner, uglier, and more intolerant. And we need to address this.

When Zionism was first formalized into the World Zionist Organization in 1897, its plurality of ideas was translated into a raucous democratic structure. In order to promote the movement, give it widespread legitimacy, and incorporate as many communities as possible, democratic elections to the organization (based on proportional representation) were considered necessary. These structures were later transferred to the Yishuv and then to Israel itself. But that democratic structure ensured that the WZO, in the discussions held by the Zionist Congress, included representations of the various parties and ideologies within the movement, so each could have its say about the meaning and future of Zionism.

Myriad voices

Today there’s no shortage of commentaries on Zionism, and the discourse now incorporates both non-Jewish voices and anti-Zionists. Peter Beinart’s new blog, Zion Square, includes Zionists from both the left and the right, but also Yousef Munayyer, who supports the full right of return for Palestinian refugees, and Hussein Ibish, an Arab American commentator. Elsewhere, many Jews who do not work on Israel — take David Frum and Matthew Yglesias, for instance — still feel compelled to comment every once in awhile on the nature of the Israeli state and its underlying Zionism.

In the larger landscape there are Jewish voices from the hard left, such as the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, that actively oppose and work against the Jewish state; Jewish voices from the moderate left, such as Peace Now and its branches and J Street, that oppose right-wing and hawkish Israeli governments but not Israel itself; Jewish voices from the moderate right — the Anti-Defamation League, for instance — that are uncomfortable questioning particular Israeli policies even when they are couched in Zionist terms; and Jewish voices from the hard right that see any critique of Israel as an attack on Zionism itself, e.g. the Zionist Organization of America, Alan Dershowitz. I am unsure, as of its recent convention, where to place AIPAC on this spectrum.

Diversity is important. Alan Dershowitz (photo credit: Gidon Markowicz/Flash90)
Diversity is important. Alan Dershowitz (photo credit: Gidon Markowicz/Flash90)

Diversity is important, even necessary. Yet too often, many of these voices try to shut out those they disagree with. At the same time, the tendency is to self-isolate, and there is much preaching to the choir. This is not Zionism, which was always a very big tent.

As it has several times in the past, the movement is today standing at a crossroads, as a number of forces and processes converge to impact on its very existence: The growth of non-traditional, autonomous Judaic communities; questions about the new generation’s commitment to Israel; the emergence of different advocacy groups in the United States; changes to Israel’s demographic configuration; and the creeping incorporation of the West Bank into Israeli legal, political, and normative structures.

Centralize the debate

It is time to construct a central institution to bring together all the discussants, ideas, and groups. There is no need to re-invent the wheel: the World Zionist Organization once existed as the place to hold debates about Zionism and plan for its future. Why not re-invigorate it to fulfill a similar role today? We hold annual conventions for our political advocacy groups, our religious streams, our community institutions; it’s time to have something similar for Zionism.

We do have some institutions — the Jewish Agency, the Ruderman Family Foundation’s “Israel-Diaspora Program,” the Jewish People Policy Institute, to name a few — that broadly incorporate discussions of Zionism. But a more specific place to hold multiple, yet specific conversations about Zionism has much to offer. It would focus the dialogue on Zionism itself, help set a more respectful tone of disagreement, make sure that all voices are heard, bridge the still-massive gaps in understanding between the Israeli and the non-Israeli communities, and provide some badly-needed unity to the movement at a critical time in its existence.

Common norms and objectives would need to be adopted. Let me lay down a challenge here by suggesting a few starting points: First, Zionism as a movement whose goal includes the security and redemption of Jews as a people. Deceptively simple, perhaps.

I have not directly called for a Jewish state to be the ultimate goal. Though I support such an entity, I also believe that we need — like the Zionism of old — to be as inclusive as possible, to incorporate as many groups and ideas as possible, and to debate the merits of different proposals. Only by doing so can we re-generate the vigor, legitimacy, and sense of purpose that drove the early Zionists and carried them to the creation of Israel.

Second, Israeli political parties should be detached from the WZO. Allowing them to form groupings in the organization brings Israeli political rivalries and fights into what should be an inclusive and broad-based institution.

Third, fighting anti-Semitism should no longer be a goal of the WZO. It is no longer directly germane to Zionism, and there are plenty of other organizations that do this. Duplication is a waste.

Finally, a focus on “settlement” should not be part of the organization’s mandate. It’s no longer needed. There is a sovereign Jewish government with legal responsibility for this now. There are also a host of moral, normative and legal problems regarding the meaning and direction of “settlement” that is beyond the scope of the WZO.

All of these ideas and more should be debated, as we bring the WZO and Zionism into line with contemporary realities and trends. But let’s at least have a conversation between us.

About the Author
Brent Sasley is Assistant Professor in Political Science, at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Israel and Middle East politics, and works on the politics of Jewish identity