VOTING (FOR MERCAZ) IN THE WORLD ZIONIST CONGRESS ELECTIONS
By Rabbi Gordon Tucker
I’m speaking to you today wearing my hat as a member of the Executive Committee of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel. And its former Chairman. But there is a continuity between this talk and so many that you heard rom me during my 24 years as the Rabbi of this congregation. On occasion after occasion, I undertook to inform and educate this community about urgent matters concerning religious pluralism — indeed, religious freedom — in Israel. And why it should matter to us.
This is not really just a talk. It is an exhortation. Because we are in the midst of an extended, but still finite, election period for delegates to the next World Zionist Congress, to be held in October of this year. Yes, the very same World Zionist Congress that was convened for the first time by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, it has been held approximately every 5 years, and this will be the 38th such gathering since Herzl.
To vote from the U.S. for one of slates running in this election, you must be a permanent resident of this country, have turned 18 by June 30 of this year, pay a $7.50 registration fee, and not be voting in the Israeli Knesset elections next month. Voting is by individuals, not by households, so spouses and adult children over 18 all have a right and a responsibility to vote.
Now why is it important to do so? And for whom are we urging you to vote?
Slate 6 is the slate known as the Mercaz slate of candidates. I remember well when Mercaz was first formed, in 1978, and the decision quickly made, by then Chancellor Gerson Cohen of JTS, to endorse and bless its founding. Although Mercaz is a Hebrew word that means “center”, the English consonants in its name were intended as an acronym for “Movement to Reaffirm Conservative Zionism”. This is important in itself. It was a re-affirmation, because Conservative Judaism has the proud history of being the only major movement in Jewish religious life in this country that never harbored a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist faction. Both Reform and Orthodoxy did in the past (and there are still anti-Zionists in parts of the ultra-Orthodox world). But Solomon Schechter threw in his lot with Zionism from the outset of his leadership of our movement, and Mordecai Kaplan, with his insistence on the primacy of Jewish peoplehood, did as well, repeatedly and pointedly. So Mercaz was indeed a re-affirmation of what was already in our DNA.
Why was a reaffirmation necessary? Well, that’s pretty much the essential story here. By the late 70s, it was clear that the bargain that Ben Gurion had made in 1948 with the Orthodox, and increasingly ultra-Orthodox, rabbinical authorities was creating an untenable situation in which Judaism in the Jewish state was being defined more and more monopolistically as Orthodox Judaism. And we are not speaking here of the open, modern Orthodoxy that we know among our friends and neighbors – but rather a rigid, unyielding, and intolerant religious establishment. An establishment that used the state power that they were granted over religious life to delegitimize, deny funding to, and more and more often denigrate in humiliating terms the Judaism that you and I practice and believe in. So Mercaz was born, a bit more than 4 decades ago, and it represents us in these periodic elections to the World Zionist Congress.
I was a Mercaz delegate at the 33rd Congress in 1997. And while I cannot tell you that the 3-4 days of that event were the most riveting and edifying days of my life, I can tell you that beyond all the inevitable bureaucratic procedures attending the Congress, it was clear that something quite substantive was at issue and at stake.
You see, the monopolistic religious structure that is still in place – incredible as that may seem – means that there is massive and direct government funding for the Orthodox institutions: synagogues, youth groups, even rabbinic salaries, and Orthodox-dominated religious councils that in turn fund such things as Mikvehs from which our people are generally excluded. And while the idea of government funding of religion is alien to us as Americans, it is the way things happen in Israel. Except. Except, of course, for our movement, and other non-Orthodox communities. Whereas competition with other religious groups is the last thing on our minds of people building a religious community, the government has created such a competition. But now, having been forced to compete, we are not doing so in an open, accessible market, but rather in a system that is loaded, like phony dice, against us.
What comes out of this skewed structure is a perverse twisting of what Zionism was always supposed to be about. Zionism was about allowing Jewish culture to flourish without the constraint of foreign domination, so that Jewish political life, intellectual life, moral development, and its religious expression could reflect the full range of what the Jewish people believe and aspire to. Alas, the last in this list – religious expression – has been hamstrung by invidious funding decisions that cut us out, and by offensive rules and insulting rhetoric that besmirch our reputation. Offensive rules include such things as declaring weddings done by Conservative rabbis not only to be invalid, but illegal. I myself officiated at the joyous wedding of my colleague Rabbi Adam Baldachin to our own Maital Friedman in Ramat Rahel in 2006. I was not detained by the police (though I suppose I could have been), but the wedding was only recognized in Israel because of a civil wedding that took place before a Justice of the Peace in the United States. How crazy is that? And the insulting rhetoric includes frequent salvos from the empowered rabbinic authorities that we are a cult, that we are bent on destroying the Jewish people by sullying true Torah religion, and slanders so much worse that should not be dignified with expression from this Bimah.
So where does the World Zionist Congress come in? Simply thus: the more delegates we elect to the Congress, the more seats we will have at the table in the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund, and other organs. Since they are not formally government organizations, through them we can obtain precious funding to nurture the religious culture that we offer daily to an Israeli population that wants and needs it. 2-3 million dollars can flow to our movement in Israel and throughout the world if we are represented well there. More, if we can up our election results. Last time around, in 2015, there were some 56,000 total votes from among all American Jews (A number that is itself embarrassingly low). Our movement accounted for under 10,000 of them. It got us to some important seats at the table, but it was not nearly enough. I should add here that in the last election the Reform Movement turned out nearly twice as many votes for their Arza slate. And we know what in part accounts for that. The Reform Movement, consistent with their own conscientious way of observing Shabbat, has always been able to use the times with the largest turnouts – Shabbat services – to have people literally sign up, pay registration fees, and complete the voting. We are unable to do the same. But it would be a horrible irony if the fact that we take a more traditional view of Shabbat observance in the synagogue were to work to our detriment in Israel, where we are slandered as being untraditional. It means that the urgency of getting out the vote is that much greater.
The overall American turnout is expected to be significantly larger this year, which means that, just to break even, we need to increase our absolute vote by a significant amount. This is by no means impossible. It shouldn’t even be hard. Think of it. We are but one synagogue, and with our 750 or so households, if each of those households were to produce votes from our members, and from the adult children in universities or working in the city, there is the potential of well over 1000 votes from this one single community. It takes about 5 minutes to do it. And $7.50. Are the ideals of Zionism important enough to you? Is the reform of Israel into a state that honors and helps flourish all forms of Jewish expression important enough to you? I know you well enough to know that they are. And thus your mandate is clear: Vote!
And just so it is crystal clear: the groundwork has been done by our heroic rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Israel. There are today more than 80 Masorti Kehillot throughout Israel. Some 2,000 of our teens are in the Noam Youth Movement, and more than 700 attend Camp Ramah-Noam in the summers. More than 800 B’nai Mtzvah are celebrated each year in our congregations, and because of that, more than 100,000 people have had direct experience of the intellectually and spiritually open, egalitarian Judaism that comports with the values of most Israelis. We have phenomenally talented young rabbis, and a clear majority of the congregants in our kehillot are native born Israelis.
Are Israelis ready for it? Of that, there is no question. The whole reason that there is a second “Mulligan” coming up for the Israeli elections is because following the previous two elections, coalition building foundered on the issue of breaking the Orthodox religious monopoly. Were there no insistence on the part of some potential coalition partners about breaking that monopoly, we’d have had an Israeli government in place 9 or 10 months ago.
There’s more. A survey by the respected Israeli pollster Rafi Smith after the September Knesset election revealed that 57 percent of the Jewish Israeli electorate did not want any incoming governing coalition to include or depend on parties that are Haredi (Ultra) Orthodox. That 57 percent majority also wanted any coalition that was formed to support religious freedom in Israel. And 69 percent said that support for religious freedom was a significant factor in their September vote.
Other surveys consistently show that 64 percent of respondents want there to be separation of religion and state in Israel. 64 percent do not want any religious body to have governmental authority in Israel. And 62 percent want Israel to recognize a range of Jewish conversion ceremonies — not just Orthodox ones blessed by the Chief Rabbinate.
In other words, when you vote, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are not only voting for what is good for us — you are voting for what is good for – and wanted by – a significant majority of Israelis.
At the recent rally against anti-semitism, one sign next to me read as follows: “We didn’t wander the wilderness for 40 years for this”. And surely, we did not cross the Sea together, eat the Manna together, thirst for water together, and fight the Amalekites together only to be made into second class Jews in the Jewish state.
There’s one more thing, which is perhaps more important that all I’ve already said. Failure to have our values and passions reflected in our votes and our proportional representation will fortify the lie that the Israeli government has put out in recent days. Namely, that the American Jewish community – outside the Orthodox world – needn’t be taken into account. They think we don’t really care about Israel and Zionism, and they smugly predict our demise in a generation or two. The strategic thinking is that the Christian Evangelical community is far more concerned about Israel than are Conservative and Reform Jews, and that they will be around longer and have more clout in America. So focus on them instead. This is no fantasy – this thinking is articulated and documented. God forbid that our failure to be heard will confirm this mischievous nonsense in the minds of some Israeli government officials.
I am certain that you believe that we are more interested in the success of the ideals of Zionism than are the Evangelicals. And so you know what to do right now, in this election period. You have until March 11. But please don’t wait until then. Because we want you not only to vote and to tell your partners and children to do so. We want you to tell your friends, share this information with them, and make sure we are there in the numbers that will truly reflect who we are, and the Zionism and State of Israel in which we believe.