J.J. Goldberg

In Jerusalem's Conclaves, Mind-Numbing Meets Ugly

By J.J. Goldberg

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky

Jerusalem is having an unusually mild fall. November began amid sunny skies, temperatures in the high 60s, light breezes and just the slightest hint of feathery drizzle to announce that after a bone-dry October, the rainy season was finally about to return.

Diaspora Jews are returning too. No, not the waves of immigration that generations of Israelis have been impatiently waiting for. These are the pro-Israel charities and advocacy organizations that gather periodically to review their work, pump up their spirits and sort out their differences. There’s a host of interlocking and overlapping boards, councils and delegate assemblies that meet in various parts of the world at various times of year. This week, in what’s apparently intended as a show of force at a time when Israel’s leadership feels it needs it, they’re coming to town at once for a rolling series of seminars, committee meetings, pep rallies and gala dinners, punctuated by walking tours and hokey musical performances.

Most Israelis hardly notice. It’s keeping Israel’s senior leaders busy, though. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various cabinet ministers have been hopping from hotel to convention center and back, delivering mostly the same speeches to mostly the same faces in slightly different formats. Peres talks again and again about the miracle of Israel’s growth and her love of peace. Netanyahu talks about the threats to which Israel will never surrender. Most eloquent is Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who talks about the challenges of the Jewish future, the meaning of courage and his days in a Soviet prison, though with his thickly Russian-accented English nobody is ever sure exactly what he’s saying.

First, there’s the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. That’s the big one. It meets in a different city every November, usually in America but once every decade or so in Jerusalem. It starts on Sunday afternoon. It usually draws thousands of delegates from across North America, though it’s being whispered around town in worried tones that attendance numbers are down this year.

Then there’s the annual Assembly of the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem-based social service body that gets most of its money from the federations. Its governing bodies are split roughly half-and-half between the federation donors who raise the money and Israeli politicians and bureaucrats who spend it. The agency Assembly started on Friday and ends Sunday night, when the federation Assembly begins. The agency’s smaller board of governors convenes after the federation Assembly ends next week. For the senior leaders in the System, as this network of organizations is known—people like Sharansky, board chairman James Tisch and key local federation leaders and Israeli agency department heads—that’s a week and a half of solid, mind-numbing meetings.

Then there’s the World Zionist Organization, or what’s left of it. It was founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897 with the goal of creating a Jewish state, structured as a confederation of the various rival groups that shared that goal—labor Zionists, Orthodox Zionists, “general” (apolitical or conservative) Zionists. It spun off the Jewish Agency in the 1920s as its operations arm in what was then Palestine, then formed a partnership with the Diaspora federations that were paying the bills. Its top governing body, the congress, meets only once every four years, but its governing council meets twice a year, and it’s meeting right now.

Since Israel’s founding the WZO has been slowly reduced from a state-in-waiting to an international advocacy group, then an educational service. Today it’s mostly a debating society where groups devoted to Israel’s welfare can argue over what it should look like. It can get ugly. But because the constituent groups still represent the range of pro-Israel opinion around the world, from peaceniks and socialists to settlers and Likudniks, from Reform to Orthodox, it’s one of the few places where Jews actually sit together, fight out the issues and vote. So besides ugly, it’s sometimes exhilarating.

When it comes down to it, after reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in budgets and monitoring department operations from Beer Sheba to Buenos Aires, the meetings this week and next are basically about two things. One is Israeli religious pluralism, or lack of it. The other is Pew—the latest international Jewish shorthand term, referring to the survey of American Jews released last month by the Pew Research Center. It’s caused a worldwide panic over the apparent dwindling of non-Orthodox Jewry.

The result of all this is a sort of paradox settling over Jerusalem this Sabbath. The non-Orthodox delegates have come to the various meetings in Jerusalem in a lather over women’s prayer at the Western Wall and the steady rightward drift of Israel’s government rabbinate. Orthodox delegates are getting hammered at one meeting after another. The Zionist governing council adopted a raft of resolutions, supported by a coalition of Reform, Labor Zionists and the far-left Meretz, that puts the World Zionist Organization on record demanding civil unions in Israel, expansion of the new, egalitarian prayer space at the Wall and prosecution of government employees who violate Israel’s anti-racism laws—code for Israeli rabbis who advocate boycotting, expelling or killing Arabs. It got so heated that the World Shas Union delegation, representing ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews, finally walked out.

And when Naftali Bennett, head of Israel’s modern Orthodox party Jewish Home, came to chat with a working group he’d helped assemble to develop new programs for Jewish education (that would be the partnership initiative I wrote about last week), the first hand that went up—while TV cameras were rolling, as they tend to do when ministers speak—was from a WZO leader urging him to abolish the Chief Rabbinate. He grimaced, talked about how complicated his job and asked for other suggestions. Another hand went up, from an American academic who warned him that young Diaspora Jews were alienated by Israel’s settlement policies, of which Bennett is the chief champion. That’s when Bennett said it was time for the press to leave the room.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: World Zionist Organization, WZO, Shimon Peres, Shas, Reform, Natan Sharansky, Orthodox, Naftali Bennett, Meretz, Likud, Labor Zionists, Jewish Home, Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish Agency, James Tisch, General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.