Va’yahee erev, va’yahee voker, yom shaynee! And there was evening, and there was morning, the second day! (Gen. 1:8)
Today, the business of the World Zionist Congress itself began. Actually, before it began, the negotiations had to be finished. And it was, about 3 feet from my breakfast table in the hotel dining room. You see, the Congress is kind of a misnomer, it is more like a parliament where parties make agreements to have coalitions (here they call them factions) and, in the process, you agree to use the collective votes of the faction to get as much control for the parties making up your faction over whatever is at stake. In a government, like the Knesset or the British Parliament, that means as many ministerships as your and coalition can get. Here, it means getting as many positions within what are known as the three National Institutions, both paid and unpaid (like chairman of the board): The JNF (think land, planting trees and blue boxes for tzedakah), the Jewish Agency (think shaliachs or emissaries to Jewish communities around the world and immigrant absorption) and the WZO itself which controls certain things like Zionist education programs around the world among others.
The ink was hardly dry two tables over as the parties in our faction decided how we would use our collective votes in this manner. The Reform Movement delegations from around the world put our votes in with the Labor party (Israel’s and their global partners), the Meretz Party and Zionist Youth Movement (HaNoar HaTzioni). Together, we make up the largest faction in the entire WZO. Because of that, we will have leaders that share our values and ideology leading the boards and departments in part or in the whole at each of the three organizations. All of that was before the opening gavel!
Once we began and voted (rubber stamped) those new appointees, we heard from former Supreme Court Justice Tova Strassberg-Cohen who warned of a crumbling of the unity of the State of Israel as more and more Israelis did not fully participate in the shared discourse of society.
This was followed by the main event of the day – an address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As with any head of state, there was a lot of security before-hand, a lot fanfare during and a lot of chatter afterwards. From the get-go it seemed that the PM wasn’t there to actually address the WZO, rather, his remarks were targeted at the media. How do we know this? Well, at the WZO, the largest gathering of Zionist officials (half of whom are Israeli and the other half comprising a large group of fluent Hebrew speaking non-Israelis), the PM spoke in English – not the language of Zionism! I don’t recall the PM even using the world Zionist (if he did it was in reference to his grandparents making aliyah in 1920). Instead of addressing issues of Zionism in the year 2015 and the years to come, he focused solely on the current wave of violence. He enumerated ten myths being circulated and then debunked them on by one. The first was the libel that the Israeli government is trying to undermine Islamic sites (particularly the Mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). Israel is doing no such thing – I agree totally with the PM, as I did on 5 other of his points. Two others, I think that the PM was fudging or obfuscating the truth, he is, after all, a politician! As an example, the PM said that Palestinian violence could not be caused by the settlement issue. He proudly claimed that in his first term as PM he built more than 5,000 units a year in the West Bank and now he’s only building 1,500 units a year, so the Palestinians couldn’t be more angry now, they should be less. What the PM didn’t mention, regardless of how you feel about the Occupied Territories, is the fact that the Palestinians don’t want any new units in the West Bank, nor did he mention the cumulative effect of going from zero settlers to more than half a million during the years of the occupation is not producing an anger free environment. There were two others that where I disagreed, but they were on small matters, semantics really about the use of force and how every country would react the same way as Israel. I don't think that is true in both good and bad ways. Other countries would be far harsher than Israel has been, and others would not use as much deadly force as Israel has lately. In the end, the PM was kind of lifeless, which is unusual for him. Usually, no matter what the subject, there is humor, fists pounding the lectern and raised voices. But, there was none of that today. I think he was tired, due to the situation, I am sure he’s short on sleep. More than that, however, he was treating his speech more like a press conference and I think that’s what it really was we delegates just happened to be there!
After that, it was a day of panel discussions on various topics related to the conference theme of “Non-Stop Zionism.” The first dealt with the connection between Judaism and Zionism. Professor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary summed it up best by saying once cannot exist without the other. Today, world Jewry would suffer without the State of Israel and the State of Israel would suffer without world Jewry and its religious people (meaning all kinds of Jews no matter what the denomination). Later, there was a discussion on religious freedom in Israel and how the liberal streams of Judaism are second class citizens, how secular Jews are forced to interact with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement by the State and how, in the long run, it is Israel and all Jews, who will lose out because of this. Rabbi Chaya Baker, a Conservative Rabbi from Jerusalem was so amazing in how she dealt with a fellow panelist, a secular professor who was, more or less saying that Reform and Conservative Jews should stop whining about equal rights and just take what you get and wait and see if things will change on their own. She ran so many circles around him and beat him up with is own words so many times that he might as well have been gagged and bound by the end – he was motionless and speechless!
The last was a panel on how to combat the global BDS movement. The panel was very interesting in that even the most ardent anti-BDS person on the panel (they were all against it) said that we are overdoing the issue. As a researcher, she said that isn’t one country in the world where anti-Israel sentiments are more than 50% when real research is done (except in the Arab world), meaning that we have more allies than those who are against us. She also told us that while there is a tough atmosphere on US campuses, Americans have the most favorable views of Israel in the entire world! One of the PM’s former media aides was also on the panel and felt that much of Israel’s dealing with BDS is misguided because it fundamentally doesn’t understand how to combat BDS among non-dyed in the wool anti-Semites/anti-Israel camps. The terms we use don’t work because we try to tell them our story from our point of view and not their own. We shouldn’t tell Americans to love Israel because it is a “democracy just like Israel,” because even the most unlearned American knows that Israel has an official religion and therefore is, in the most fundamental way, not a democracy in the way Americans understand it. Instead, the message should be that we share the story of liberating the oppressed and downtrodden to give them freedoms to pursue life, liberty and happiness in the same ways, we’re both melting pots, we thrive on immigration generation after generation and so on. A last example was of a failure to understand the nature of media in today’s battle to thwart anti-Israel movements. Israel tries over and over to combat images with words – from Op-Eds to the PM’s speeches all over the globe, to eloquent diplomats dispatched to every country. Israel doesn’t realize that no one is listening and they certainly aren’t reading. Everything today is about images in the Internet/FB/Instagram/Snapchat world. The powerful example is that every defense of Israel seems to come down to the David versus Goliath story, one that is well known around the world in almost every culture (small David with just some rocks and his slingshot versus Goliath with armor, a helmet and real weapons). Israel is always shouting from the rooftops that they are little David (small little country) versus Goliath (the whole Arab world). Since, no one is listening, they rely on images to vet this account of things. And what do they see? Israeli soldiers, all over the media, with weapons, helmets and body armor fighting people who are armed with rocks. The very invocation of the David story bolsters the Palestinians and lowers the credibility of Israel. This isn’t about just use of force or not, merely about perception of the situation. To combat BDS, it is very clear, Israel and her advocates, like all of us at the WZO, need a new arsenal of terms and images to fight in a new way in the modern era.
Since I have done little more than sit, since I boarded my El Al flight, in the two and half days since I was here, I decided to skip lunch and have a run instead. I ran down and back up the mountain that houses Israel’s national governmental institutions: the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Israel Museum (and the ministries of Finance, Immigrant Absorption and a few other unsightly government buildings) – the view was just spectacular and I just had to get my feet onto the holy soil of Israel. I also couldn’t abide just being holed up in a hotel or a conference center during the current violence, I had to be out among the people – our people – it was a great run.
I learned so much today, it was a very good day!
P.S. Another Israel first - today I met up with a former bar mitzvah student who is now a first year cantorial student at HUC Israel!
Shomer, shomer Yisrael, shmor shayreet Yisrael…am echad goy echad – Guardian and Protector of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel…one people, one nation – Jewish Hymn (based on the Psalms)