Reflections on Political Involvement in the Broader World Jewish Community
For more than a decade, I have played an active role in organizations that represent the broad Jewish community. Starting as a delegate in the World Zionist Congress, I was elected to its Va’ad ha-Po’el (known in English as the Zionist General Council), to the General Assembly of the Jewish Agency, and to the executive board of the Jewish National Fund. After being elected president of the Religious Zionists of America (RZA), I have participated in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is the semi-official voice of American Jewry to the American and Israeli governments. There is ample precedent for participation in the Conference of Presidents by figures connected to Yeshiva. The late Rabbi Israel Miller (vice president of YU) and Rabbi Julius Berman (chairman of the board of RIETS) both served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
My ongoing participation involves interacting with Jewish leaders who span the religious and political spectrum. My primary goal has been to represent Orthodoxy, particularly its rabbinate, as principled yet respectful and friendly with those with whom we disagree. At conferences in Israel, I would sit on buses next to non-Orthodox participants, often women. At meals, I would rotate eating with secular representatives of right and left-wing Zionist parties and leaders of different religious factions. While these actions are only symbolic, they can hopefully reduce the stereotype of unfriendly Orthodox rabbis who look down at others.
The World Zionist Organization and its congresses date back to 1897, when it was founded by Theodor Herzl. Israel’s participation in the annual congress is comprised of representatives of the Israeli political parties that define themselves as Zionist, chosen by the results of the Israeli elections. Zionist groups in other countries choose their delegates based on the results of national elections of Zionists, conducted for this purpose. In America, the largest delegations represent Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews.
With the vast majority of world Jewry living in Israel and the United States, the delegations from these two countries dominate the congress. Their perspectives and mentalities differ but alliances are made among them to gain leadership positions in the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish National Fund in Israel. The issue of recognition of the non-Orthodox in Israel comes up regularly. The makeup of the delegations, primarily non-Orthodox, guarantees that resolutions promoting pluralism are passed. Mizrachi, the group of the Orthodox Zionists, fights to preserve the present system in Israel in order to maintain halakhic standards for conversion and the role of the Israeli rabbinate.
In general, resolutions directing the Israeli government to adopt policies have little effect since the government is free to ignore them. Losing the votes of the organizations that promote pluralism has limited consequences for Israel. It is still important, though, that the Orthodox have a large delegation showing strength in Jewish communities worldwide. The Israeli participants often know little about the Diaspora and are not aware of the growth of Orthodoxy.
In order to participate, one has to be a Zionist, but since there are major disputes between different Zionist groups about every major issue facing Israel, agreeing on a definition of who is a Zionist is difficult. Traditionally, to be eligible to participate, one has to sign the Jerusalem Program, a general statement that reflects the consensus definition of Zionism and its mission.[i] The Jerusalem Program was first adopted in 1951 to replace the original Basel Program with an ideological statement that reflected the creation of the state.
In 2004, this statement was revised. The Reform and Conservative representatives demanded that a statement accepting pluralism be included in the Jerusalem Program. Allied with the primarily secular Israeli parties, this would have made continued participation by the Mizrachi virtually impossible, ending an association with the World Zionist Organization that had lasted for over a hundred years. It would have also had a ripple effect on Mizrachi having any influence in the Jewish Agency, fifty percent of whose delegates represent the WZO, as well.
Primarily because we had developed a good working relationship with the non-Orthodox representatives, a delegation of three — Harvey Blitz, Sondra Sokal, and I – succeeded after months of lengthy, unsuccessful negotiations to find a new language for incorporation into the Jerusalem Program that all could accept. The formulation is “marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people.”[ii] This choice of words focuses on respecting those with whom one disagrees generally and does not mention religion at all.
The ambiguity of this language is helpful for creating a space for coexistence; the Orthodox can read this as an endorsement of mutual respect without acceptance for religious difference, while the other groups can read it as an expression of religious pluralism. This compromise has enabled Orthodox groups to continue to participate, and has led to the recent election of Avraham Duvdevani as the first WZO chairman from Mizrachi.
I have been told many times that the fact that an Orthodox rabbi, who had demonstrated friendship, had been an active participant in these discussions played a significant role in the decision by the non-Orthodox to accept this wording even though they already had the majority of votes needed to pass a version of the Jerusalem Program that would have explicitly included accepting pluralism.
Was this a major accomplishment? It depends on one’s perspective. If one accepts the premise that we as Orthodox Jews care about all Jews and are prepared to work with others whose perspectives and ideologies fundamentally differ from ours for the welfare of Israeli Jewry, then it is significant. There is an ongoing dialogue between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry about standards of conversion, a dialogue in which the Jewish Agency has a voice. Without meaningful Orthodox participation, our perspective on Jewish identity would be absent from the debate. Tone, as well as content, is critical to ensure that others will hear what we have to say.
In many areas, there is a growing disparity between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities of the United States. This plays out in the political arena both with respect to Israel and to internal American issues. In the Conference of Presidents, which is taken seriously by presidents and prime ministers, personal friendships make a difference. If we want to be part of the decision-making process then we have to participate fully, relating to others with mutual respect.
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.