World Zionist Congress: There Has to be a Better Way

I probably should wait a few days before writing this article. It would, undoubtedly, come out much less hot and bothered if I did. But deadlines being what they are, I am obliged to write it now. I apologize in advance- I think- if it offends certain sensibilities…

I am in Jerusalem, having just attended the 36th World Zionist Congress as a delegate of MERCAZ, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. Now that the Congress is, mercifully, over, I can safely say that if one really cares about Israel and loves her for all the right reasons, attending a Zionist Congress is just about the worst prescription you could write for your Zionist health, especially in these precarious times for Zionism around the world.

The mechanism and workings of the World Zionist Organization (the WZO), the Jewish Agency, and all the other bodies that are involved in the Zionist enterprise are far too Byzantine and complex for me to try and explain them here. I’m not quite sure that I understand them myself. But basically, there is a certain amount of money that gets spent via the WZO on Zionist activities in Israel and throughout the world, and all the Israeli political parties and world Zionist organizations vie for their fair share. The monies involved are not trivial, nor are the jobs that come along with the upper echelon portfolios in the WZO. It is a major political arena, and like all such political arenas, people don’t always behave nicely.

Now throw in the ever-present, just-beneath-the-surface animosity that all too often defines the relationships between the various religious denominations in America, and, of course, the not-always-beneath-the-surface seething animosity that characterizes religious-ultra religious-non-religious relations in Israel, and maybe you begin to get the idea of just how nasty this kind of congress can be. It is all well and good to think nostalgically of Herzl in Basel at the first Zionist Congress, but that was then, and this is now. Not the same.

One would think that, given what is going on now in the world regarding Israel, this might be a golden opportunity for Zionists from around the world to come together and express solidarity with Israel, and to give serious thought to what it means to be a Zionist when the rest of the world vilifies Israel.
I didn’t see too much of that. What I saw was a lot of proverbial mudslinging.

When non-Orthodox elements attending didn’t buy into the religious/nationalist ideas of certain representatives, they were accused of being traitors to the Zionist cause and to Israel- in so many words. It led to a lot of booing and hissing, and almost a few fistfights- really. And when the Orthodox elements became frustrated with the efforts of their non-Orthodox counterparts to bring the struggle for religious pluralism to the fore at every chance, they too, I’m sure, were made to feel marginalized and condescended to, and they reacted in kind.

At one point, I literally walked out of the proceedings, because I realized that being there was actually doing spiritual harm to my feelings about Jews and Israel, and that surely isn’t why I went to Israel. I went to feel proud of being a Zionist, and to meet and work with others who are committed to what I consider to be a sacred cause, at a very critical time for Israel. I wouldn’t say that I lost my Zionism there; God forbid. I can’t imagine that happening- ever. But it certainly wasn’t my proudest moment as a Zionist, or as a Jew.

And then, to top it all off…

I’m finally leaving the hotel (the Crowne Plaza, near Binyanei HaUmah, where the Congress was held), and I go outside to get a cab to the car rental place where I was picking up a car, near the King David Hotel. "Oh no," said the doorman. "You’re not going anywhere for a few hours. There are about ten thousand Haredim protesting against a recent Supreme Court decision, all the streets around here are closed. Forget it."

Why the Haredim were protesting is for another article, maybe next week. And I’m happy to say that one or two cabs actually got through, and I got where I was going. But it was not the best week here… not by a lot.

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About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.