What began as a mission to add our voices to the chorus of over 400 delegates to the World Zionist Congress quickly took on dramatic significance for the Congress and the Zionist movement more generally — and indicated the seriousness of the battle we have in front of us to finally freeze the settlements, end the occupation, and achieve a two-state solution.
Let me start from the beginning.
When J Street’s delegation of staffers and lay leaders landed in Israel just over a week ago to join the Congress, we hoped to engage with the Congress on the most pressing issues of the day for supporters of Israel. In particular, we wanted to engage in a conversation about how best to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic home through a two-state solution.
The storied history of the Congress would be our guide — founded in 1897 by its first President, Theodore Herzl, the Congress was where all the various Zionist streams would come to respectfully debate, converse, and argue over the future of the Zionist project, both before and after the founding of the State of Israel.
I was asked to serve as Vice Chair of the Settlement Committee at the Congress. The appointed Chair of the Committee was part of Avigdor Lieberman’s party’s delegation (really!). Because the Congress represents views across the political spectrum, we expected a candid and vigorous conversation over the future of the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and the settlement project in the West Bank.
It became clear soon after the Chair kicked off the proceedings that there was a much broader range of views in the room than he and his allies on the right had expected. J Street’s delegation was proud to join the voices of Israelis, Americans and other Jewish leaders from around the globe who have serious concerns over the current state of the settlement enterprise and its deeply negative impact on Israel’s security and future.
Surprised by a Committee representative of more diverse political views than they were usually presented with, the Chair abandoned his appointed role and stormed out of the committee, accompanied by a number of his political associates. Per the rules of the Congress, the Vice Chair then assumed the position of Chair. Now here I am, Vice President of Policy and Strategy at J Street, Israeli army veteran, and Chair of the Settlement Committee at the World Zionist Congress.
Despite the rancor that resulted in the Chair’s departure, what followed adhered to the best ideals of what Theodore Herzl had hoped the Congress would represent — a full and reasoned conversation about how to carry out our people’s dream for a state of our own in our historic homeland.
With progressive delegates outnumbering those representing pro-occupation parties, the committee could have easily descended further into the political abyss by ramming through resolutions and not taking into account the deeply held views of all in the room. We decided on a different tack, recognizing that chairing this committee was an opportunity to demonstrate to the Congress and the Committee that it was possible to have a serious, fact-based, and frank discussion on these incredibly contentious issues.
At the end of more than 4 straight hours of such discussion, numerous members of the committee – from the left and the right – told me that they found the committee proceedings to be both serious and fair.
What happened the following day in front of the full Congress would not end so happily.
When the time came, our first resolution was put in front of the Congress. It read in part:
The Zionist Congress resolves:
- To call upon the Government of Israel to stabilize the relationship with the American government;
- The Zionist Congress calls upon the Government of Israel to act in the spirit of the Bar Ilan Speech- in which Prime Minister Netanyahu called for two states for two peoples– in order to maintain the democratic and Zionist character of the State of Israel;
- To support the Prime Minister in his decision to freeze construction in the Territories;
- The Zionist Congress calls upon the Prime Minister to continue his activity of this nature.
The Congress voted overwhelmingly, about 3 to 1, to pass the resolution. Immediately after it was passed, a group from the right-wing parties took over the stage, ignoring calls to sit down and to allow the democratic procedure to continue. They belted HaTikva as loud as they could — even though the resolution that was just passed by the World Zionist Congress was, in my view, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream of a democratic, Jewish Israel far more than their anti-democratic protest.
Two young Australians from opposing political perspectives then took the stage to rightly excoriate the protesters for not living up to Herlz’s hopes for the Congress. Our delegation head Dror Morag also had a few choice words for the protest that inspired a standing ovation from the silenced majority of the Congress.
The Executive Committee (Vaad haPoel) then decided to halt the proceedings and refer all remaining resolutions to a later meeting of that committee.
But the vote took place and the vote stands. The World Zionist Congress is on record supporting a two-state solution, the settlement freeze, and calling for a stabilization of the relationship with the American government.
On a personal political level, J Street was proud to have supported and helped pass a number of resolutions out of committee that represented our viewpoints on the settlement project, sending them to the full Congress for consideration.
Our participation has already helped focus the Congress’ conversation over the future of the Zionist project and the necessity of the immediate achievement of a two-state solution. We’re already planning for next time.