Journey to the World Zionist Congress

October 18, 2015

“Aren’t you scared to be there right now?”

This was the question a friend asked me when I told her I was heading to Israel this week to participate in the World Zionist Congress.

The truth is, I am scared. The news of increased violence and terror over the past weeks is devastating and terrifying. But at the same time, there is no place I’d rather be right now than Israel and nothing I’d rather do than gather in Jerusalem with hundreds of fellow Jews from around the world to help chart a course that could bring about a better future for a country I love so dearly.

The World Zionist Congress helped birth the State of Israel. Now it convenes every five years or so to determine policies and budgets for the World Zionist Organization (WZO), the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KK”L-JNF) and the Jewish Agency for Israel – major Israeli and international bodies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on Jewish education, social services, urban renewal and rural settlements.

This may sound mundane and bureaucratic, but it’s not.

The KK”L-JNF, a household name in the American Jewish community, controls 13 percent of the land in Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel, which deals with immigration and absorption, as well as Zionist education, has an annual budget of $475 million and is apartner of the Jewish Federations of North America. Both organizations are partially controlled by the WZO.

The WZO’s Settlement Division is responsible for rural development in all of in Israel, but it has been identified primarily with the building and bolstering of settlements in the Palestinian Territory. It is estimated that a significant percentage of the Settlement Division’s funding – hundreds of millions of dollars – went to settlements in the West Bank in 2014. What’s more, while its entire budget comes from the Israeli government, the Settlement Division is a completely private entity. That means it isn’t subject to government accountability rules or oversight, which is why the precise budget details are unknown. The situation is so egregious that Israel’s Deputy Attorney General called it a “governmental twilight zone.”

Continued expansion and entrenchment of settlements over the Green line – in the Palestinian Territory – impede the possibility of a two-state solution and of a secure and peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. So, as a Jew and as a Zionist, how could I not jump at the chance to participate in such and important and consequential gathering?

The first Zionist Congress was convened to transform the dreams and aspirations of World Jewry for a home of their own into a reality – the State of Israel that we care about so fiercely. If this recent horrible surge in violence has shown us anything, it’s that the inspired work of Israel’s founders is not yet complete. We must make the choice to help complete the Zionist dream. We must make the choice to help Israel reach a diplomatic compromise with its neighbors that will allow it to thrive in peace and security.

That’s why I’ll be attending the 37th Zionist Congress, along with my colleague, former J Street U President Benjy Cannon, as a member of Hatikvah, the progressive Zionist slate. We will be introducing and advocating for a resolution calling on the WZO, the Jewish Agency and the JNF to be fully transparent about how, where, and why they spend their money.

A choice for full financial transparency is a choice for an Israel that better reflects our Jewish and democratic values.

It is also a choice for an honest conversation with our Israeli brothers and sisters and our Jewish community about whether the Israel we’re building right now is the Israel we want for our future. Do we want an Israel where money is syphoned from underdeveloped communities inside the Green Line to fund settlements that entrench an occupation which puts the two-state solution at risk?

Benjy and I will keep you posted on how the Congress votes. In the meantime, if you know any delegates going to the Congress or if you’re affiliated with the American organizations represented there – including the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Reconstructionist Movement (which is represented on the Reform Movement’s ARZA slate), please do your part and urge your leadership to make a choice for transparency and for a better Israel.