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!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.