Every five years, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) convenes the World Zionist Congress (WZC) in Jerusalem. Founded by Theodor Herzl in August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, the WZO promotes Zionism and Israel, the Zionist enterprise.
For this year’s 38th Congress elections, which begins today, progressive Zionist organizations in the US have joined together for a strong push to encourage people—Jews, that is–to vote for their slate.
The requirements to be eligible to vote in the WZC elections are the following: “Voting is open to any adult Jew who is a United States citizen or permanent resident, pays the $7.50 ballot fee ($5 if you’re 18-25) and signs a statement affirming that they are someone who “views a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel to be the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future.”
There are 500 elected delegates, which are divided fairly equally among the United States, other world Jewish communities, and the Jewish community in Israel (where each Zionist political party in the Knesset has a corresponding number of seats). Over 1,500 candidates from 15 slates are running for the U.S.-held seats. Approximately 56,000 US Jews voted in the last election.
The official website of the US election of the WZC says “Vote for your voice in Israel.” The annual distribution of the WZO is $1 billion per year so the elected delegates decide how to spend nearly $5 billion over a five year period and also help determine the leadership and priorities of key Zionist organizations and Israeli institutions– the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency of Israel, and the United Israel Appeal.
To be clear, how the enormous amount of WZO money will be spent in Israel and the occupied territories will be determined ONLY by Jews.
The rationale of the progressive Zionist groups for their participation in the elections is to garner more power and influence to oppose the funding of settlements, support religious pluralism, and put forth a more liberal platform than that promoted by right-wing Zionists. Sound appealing? It may at first, but, in fact, the overall impact of such participation is deeply harmful.
The ideology of the WZO and the WZC is that Israel belongs to the Jews of the world and that, therefore, Jews outside of Israel deserve the right to determine policies, sit on boards, and direct funding and resources that, among other things, control the day to day lives of Palestinians. Israel, together with the WZO and other Zionist institutions, have a long history of privileging Jews at the extreme expense of Palestinians. Beginning with the Nakba, when 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their land and homes during Israel’s creation, Palestinian citizens of Israel have continued to be treated as third-class citizens subjected to racism and anti-democratic policies and actions, as well as ongoing intimidation and harassment. Palestinians in the occupied territories have routinely endured ongoing land theft, home demolitions, military checkpoints, arbitrary arrests, torture, and administrative detentions without trial or charge, and have no say in what happens to them.
Yet, progressive Zionists in the US are encouraging Jews in the US to participate in the WZC elections and to take advantage of their “right” to influence Israel’s institutions and policy decisions, rather than refuse to participate in a system that hands them a “right” that is not theirs. Through their participation, they also lend legitimacy to the institution itself. Let’s assume that, as a result of progressive Zionists asserting influence, some funds are directed to positive initiatives (which is a big “if” given how the WZC is well-known for its lack of transparency or any semblance of democratic process). However, even were this to happen, the consequences of one’s participation in this endeavor—that is, the endeavor of the WZO, WZC, and world-wide Zionist movement—are to serve and reify the exclusionary systems of apartheid and oppression that have maintained Jewish dominance and control in Palestine/Israel since 1948 and denied Palestinians their most basic civil, human, and national rights, including the right of return to their homes and land.
The problems inherent in the WZC are numerous, but the deeper point is an analogy that illustrates the fundamental problem with the WZO itself: Imagine if a white organization, or an umbrella organization of white groups, said they were going to invest millions of dollars into the US economy and institutions and that any white person in the US who registered and adhered to their principles (that is, adherence to a system privileging whites) could have a say about how the money was spent. That means no indigenous or Black people in the US could join–only white people. And what if some liberal/progressive white people decided to join with the intention of being able to control where some of the money would go (they might direct it to civil rights and other good causes, including many that could benefit those who weren’t white). But, of course, even if some of the money went to good causes, these progressives would still be part of—and would have signed a pledge in support of– a white supremacist organization and ideology that privileges white people over all others. This is not an exact analogy of course, and I also appreciate that that it’s hard to imagine a white organization with this ideology that progressives would join under any circumstances. But that makes me ask even more, why is there not the same reaction about participating in a racist, exclusionary institution like the WZO?
Participating in the WZC elections under the banner of progressive values effectively whitewashes the WZO’s impact on Palestinians. Such participation also violates the Palestinian-led, global call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which is one of the most effective and ethical ways to join with Palestinians in the struggle for justice. Participating in these elections doesn’t begin to tackle Israel’s unjust, apartheid system and its underlying Zionist ideology, but, rather, feeds that system and ideology and gives them more roots.