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35th Congress closes on promising note, but some delegates leave skeptical

By Daphna Berman

The 35th World Zionist Congress closed yesterday in Jerusalem with promises for renewal and resolutions calling for change. But left in its wake are various degrees of skepticism and disillusionment, together with questions regarding the future of an organization about which many of its delegates remain unsure.
Dozens of resolutions were approved during the closing proceedings yesterday, ranging on topics from Hebrew education to equality for Israeli Arabs and internal restructuring to the struggle against anti-Semitism. Most of the closing day, in fact, was spent inside the large hall within the capital's International Convention Center, lifting cards and voting according to party lines and interests.
But some delegates left the hall wondering what all the day's hand-raising really amounted to. "This has definitely been a meeting point for a lot of good people with a lot of good ideas, but they are passing resolutions that are highly impractical," Noam Lokshin, a Mizrachi delegate from Toronto said after the closing session. "A Congress that would serve as a place for people to come together a discuss ideas is fine, but the notion that you need a central body to make legislation is cute and quaint, but not really true."
And Lokshin isn't alone in his criticism. Many delegates at the Congress are itching for a renewal in what they say is a stubborn culture of status quo. The Congress is a highly politicized arena for handing out jobs to second- and third-tier Israeli politicians, which means that many Israelis aren't eager to implement serious change.

A 'politicized' Congress

Many key decisions are made in closed-door negotiations before the delegates from abroad even arrive, leaving many participants frustrated that they've been brought to the Congress under the illusion of a democratic process.
"The Congress is so politicized that it's hard to get anything meaningful done," said Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia. "Delegates from around the world who work throughout the year as volunteers expect some meaningful dialogue, but a lot are disillusioned and it's a shame and a pity."
Political parties, he said, need to "think seriously" about using the Congress as a vehicle for pushing their political agendas and appointees.
"If this doesn't change, it has a limited life," he said.
A resolution that was passed yesterday called for the establishment of renewal committee which would examine the WZO with plans to remodel and renew the organization. It was agreed upon unanimously, with raucous clapping, cheers and howls from the crowd. The original resolution had called for more drastic changes, such as separating the chairs of the Jewish Agency from the WZO so that the latter organization could assert its independence. Kadima, which currently holds the joint chair under Zeev Bielski, vetoed that proposition.
"This new resolution is the first step towards a path of reinvention, but I am not sure that it has the legs and the breadth to bring about the kind of change that is needed," said David Borowich, a delegate from New York who is the founder and chairman of Dor Chadash, a group that works to bridge the gap between American Jews and Israelis living in the United States. "The WZO doesn't need renewal, it needs reinvention. The organization came about to serve a certain need, but it has fulfilled those needs. It now needs to address new realities, in which there is a secure state with six million Jews and aliya is down to a trickle. It needs a new sense of relevance."

Forum for all

But some delegates yesterday also defended the Congress, which they say provides a forum for activists who don't have deep pockets and may not have much sway in other Jewish forums. The event, which takes place every four years, has also become a much appreciated meeting ground for the exchange of ideas and proposals-however symbolic they may be. Representatives from all of the political and religious streams within the Jewish establishment get together to dialogue, argue, and reach common decisions on issues and resolutions, even if they don't carry much weight. "The Congress is the one place where people who don't usually talk to each other can meet and work out compromises," said Philip Meltzer, head of the Reform movement's delegation. "Are there flaws? Yes? Do we need to make it more relevant? Yes. But the concept is still valid."
The halls of the Congress also resonated with hints - however few and far between - of unadulterated idealism. One 19-year-old Likud activist from Argentina who plans to immigrate in the coming years said the Congress was better than he could have ever imagined, while a 23-year-old delegate from Canada said he saw himself following in the footsteps of Herzl's contemporaries. Another young participant pointed to the voting card he held in his hand during the closing session and said proudly: "A card like this is what determined the difference between Uganda and Israel," referring to the Congress' 1905 decision to reject a proposal to establish the Jewish state in Africa.
Meanwhile, despite the official closing of the Congress, three WZO nominations that are also co-chairs of Jewish Agency committees have yet to pass a Jewish Agency advice and consent board [see box], which is composed of fundraisers from abroad. At the heart of the issue is the politicization of the appointment process and a struggle between the WZO officials - known as "the Zionists," and the fundraisers - known as "the Americans." The issue is expected to be resolved in the coming days, but in some ways, this behind-the scenes struggle is just one more manifestation of the various forces advocating change.
The fundraisers, who represent big money, insist on assessing and approving each of the three candidates, in what they say is an attempt to make the organization more effective and less a place for political handouts. Members of the WZO, meanwhile, say it's a way for the wealthy donors, who conducted the interviews in the penthouse of the Tel Aviv Hilton, to "bully the Zionists into silence." Also at issue is whether the Israeli co-chairs should continue received a salary, when the co-chairs from abroad do not.
"This is a clash of cultures because what you have is an organization that serves the Diaspora but is run by Israelis," said one insider. "The Zionists sometime put people in positions who are not competent and so the philanthropists want to implement a business model, without recognizing the human aspects. But the Zionists also need to become more efficient. It's in the best interests of the Jewish people to compromise."

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