By Larry Gordon
Zionism is probably both the most maligned and misunderstood national movement in the history of credos of the world.
Back in 1975, the United Nations General Assembly adapted a resolution that called Zionism a form of racism and racial discrimination. That ugly international episode was just one in a series of ongoing attempts to slander the state of Israel—and, of course, Jewish people everywhere—in one way or another.
In 1991, the UN saw the folly of their ways to an extent and revoked the Zionism-is-racism resolution. That was an important step in rectifying an extreme injustice, but the phrase that denigrates Israel and Jews managed to persevere nevertheless and is still a chant in many anti-Israel protests to this very day. Somehow, the reversal of the Zionism-is-racism resolution is not as well-known as the original damaging resolution.
As our sages say about the relationship between the biblical Yaakov and Esav, it is a matter of natural law that Esav harbors hostility to his twin brother, Yaakov. So the fact that the descendants of Yishmael and Esav harbor enmity toward Israel is unfortunate but not shocking or real news.
The issue for today’s purposes is not how the non-Jews view Zionism but rather how Jews both here and in Israel feel about it. Zionism is the national and religious movement of the Jewish people. If you are Jewish then you are a Zionist whether you subscribe to all the details involved in Zionism or not.
Closer to home and within our diverse American Jewish communities, our own little but intense debate continues about whether we as Jews—and in this case, religious Jews—are Zionists. Those in the religious communities who claim to be non-Zionist or anti-Zionist don’t really know what real Zionism is. The more ignorant one is, the more ardently opposed he usually is to Zionism.
Last weekend, I attended a Shabbaton in New Jersey that brought together delegates and supporters of the Eretz HaKodesh party, which is part of the overall World Zionist Organization (WZO). The original WZO was founded in 1897 by Theodore Herzl. Needless to say, a great deal has changed over these 125 years.
For decades, the religious dimension of WZO has been dominated by groups, or delegates, identified with the Conservative and Reform factions (as far as we are concerned) of American Judaism.
Last year, leading up to the WZO elections, which take place every five years, Rabbi Pesach Lerner and an assemblage of forward-thinking Jewish leaders looked at the WZO setup and came to the following conclusions: (1) there is something wrong with that combination of factions, which always leaves Torah-observant Jewry in a cloud of dust; (2) and we can change that by campaigning to have our own delegates elected this time around.
And that is exactly what was accomplished after a long and intense campaign for delegate seats. The new Eretz HaKodesh faction gained 25 seats on the 500-person WZO board, and as Rabbi Lerner explained over Shabbos, a Jewish governing body that has been categorized as center-left for decades is now considered center-right on important traditional issues of Jewish life.
In a significant segment of our communities there is a lack of information about the WZO in these modern times. To summarize in one paragraph, these are the issues that come under their rubric, as stated on their website. “Since 1948, the National Institutions have worked cooperatively to advance the Zionist enterprise, complementing and interacting with one another in areas as diverse as aliyah, land reclamation, settlement, strengthening Jewish life in the Diaspora, Zionist education, rescue of endangered Jewish populations, partnering with Jewish communities around the world, combating anti-Semitism, fundraising, Israel advocacy, and fashioning Israel as an exemplary society as an expression of the Zionist ideal.”
If you read the above, you quickly come to the realization that there is nary an important part of Jewish life today that is not potentially impacted by the WZO.
Here’s a crucial detail we have not yet mentioned—the WZO budget is $1 billion annually, with much of that directed at Diaspora communities like ours here in the U.S. as well as in other countries around the world where there are Jewish populations. And while the money is vital in supporting the work of many organizations, there is another aspect of being involved—the way in which the WZO distributes funding and the participation in the decision-making process of the world body.
On the matter of religious life in the U.S., without the participation of significant and increasing numbers of Orthodox delegates, the impression remains that funding our lifestyles is neither a priority nor important. The reality is that prior to the creation of Eretz HaKodesh there was, of course, Orthodox representation in terms of a plethora of organizations, but the involvement of Eretz HaKodesh moves a number of agenda items more to the right.
What that means is that perhaps to a greater extent than in the past, when so much of the WZO was dominated by liberal Jewish thought, now when WZO delegates meet with the Israeli government, WZO, and Jewish National Fund representatives, they hear more about fundamental concerns of Jewish life.
That effectively translates into additional or new funding for yeshivas, yeshiva students, yeshiva personnel, summer programs, educational trips to Israel, and much more. The victory of Eretz HaKodesh has moved the WZO agenda appreciably to the right and has even alarmed the liberal Jewish streams of Judaism who have always dominated the Diaspora representation in the organization.
The new balance of power—the Reform movement still has the most delegates but now Eretz HaKodesh is in third place—has the potential not just to reshape the agenda but also to redirect funding and the public image of the priorities of world Jewish communities.
The addition of Eretz HaKodesh to the mix can mean that the Israeli government may get the idea that no longer is egalitarian prayer at the Kotel the most important agenda item for the American Jewish community—and that concerns Reform Jewish leaders.
Prayer at the Kotel is not the only issue that some in the Israeli government feel is agenda item number one for American Jewry. There is also—as the group’s name, Eretz HaKodesh, indicates—concern about protecting the sanctity of the land of Israel according to the perspective of Torah values. That can impact on issues such as conversion to Judaism and whether mass transit should be permitted to operate on Shabbos as a matter of law.
Then there is the internal struggle within the chareidi community about whether it is counterintuitive or perhaps not even permitted, according to some chareidi leaders, to be involved with Zionism on any official level.
Today when you think of Jews who are anti-Zionist, you think of the Neturei Karta, a wild fringe group riddled with dysfunction and purveyors of colossal chillul Hashem. While that thinking today can be largely displaced, it is still deeply ingrained to an extent in the psyche of that community, with Zionism perceived as being the national Jewish movement that some believe exists to supplant a traditional halachic way of Jewish life.
On that matter, when I discussed it with Pesach Lerner last weekend, he said that we cannot expect this perception to be changed overnight, though his group is addressing it. It will be a long educational process that some chareidi leaders already understand, which is why they agreed to help and support the Eretz HaKodesh drive for delegates and representation on the WZO board.
Today there are 152 right-leaning delegates on the 500-person board of the WZO and that is inclusive of the 25 Eretz HaKodesh delegates. Rabbi Lerner and his leadership team have their sights set on the 2025 election, with the goal of doubling or tripling their amount of delegates.
This is an exciting and important movement in which to participate. At stake here is the health of the state of Israel and the future of Am Yisrael.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.