The JTA headline on the recent World Zionist Organization elections says “WZO Elections Send Pluralist Message – But Who’s Listening?” Perhaps the reason why no one is listening is because that isn’t really the message, at all.
The Reform movement is celebrating their win of 55 of the 145 total seats. The JTA points out that the non-Orthodox voices remain the majority: “Of the 145 delegates up for grabs in balloting for the U.S. slate to the WZO’s 35th Congress of the Jewish People, 89 went to parties representing progressive religious movements — Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist.”
This is, however, a shallow victory. Of far greater import are the trendlines to be followed by comparing this election with previous ones. In the last election, the Reform movement won 61 seats, over 40%, and in 1997 they took 70 seats, nearly half the total. This time around, the Religious Zionist slate won 35 seats, taking second place from the Conservative movement’s Mercaz for the first time — and more than doubling their 1997 tally.
Overall, one of the most interesting results is the fact that fewer and fewer people seem to care. While nearly 108,000 people participated in 1997, this year fewer than 75,700 bothered to vote.
And perhaps the loudest message of all is heard from one of the groups that cares most of all about the Land of Israel, yet refrained from voting — as they have every time. I am speaking, of course, about the charedim. Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote about this through Am Echad resources, and pointed out that over 100,000 people, mostly charedim, turned out for the Siyum HaShas, completion of the Talmud, last year. If half that number had voted, they would have formed the largest slate in the election — with all of the tremendous economic benefits to be had as a result.
Yet they did not vote, and that says a great deal. For those interested in reading Rabbi Shafran’s piece, I’ve enclosed it here.
Pride and Principle
Rabbi Avi Shafran
The Reform movement is proudly proclaiming its success in the recent elections for the American slate of the World Zionist Organization’s “35th Congress of the Jewish People,” having garnered the most delegates (although six fewer than in the previous election, in 2002). Reform Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, contends that the election result “demonstrates that our message… has become the dominant voice of American Zionism.”
Well, that depends on how one defines Zionism. Which, in turn, turns on a question that likely puzzled thoughtful observers of the WZO’s recent election: Where were American haredim?
Slates of candidates were fielded by a number of Jewish movements and organizations, including the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionist Federation and the Religious Zionist Slate.
But a slate representing the haredi community was nowhere to be found in the election results, and that was no accident. Although haredi events (prayer gatherings and major happenings like the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas) have drawn tens of thousands of participants, and haredi voting blocs are a treasured prize to politicians in some of the largest Jewish communities in the United States, haredim chose, as always they have, to decline to participate in the WZO elections.
The reason might be hard for some to understand, but it’s worth the effort.
In order to vote in the elections, one must affirm a set of ideas known as “The Jerusalem Program.” It is the credo of the contemporary Zionist movement, and stresses the “centrality” of the “State of Israel” in “the life of the [Jewish] nation.” (Ironically, the very idea of Jews returning to the Jewish ancestral homeland was once vehemently rejected by the Reform movement – and still is by the Reform group known as the American Council for Judaism. Mainstream Reform, however, changed direction in the 1940s.)
There are no greater “zionists” than haredim, who pray daily and fervently for the Jewish return to Zion; who are so disproportionately overrepresented in the rolls of both those who make aliyah and those who visit Israel regularly; and who are so strongly supportive of ensuring Israel’s security. Yet, for haredim, Israel the state is one thing; Eretz Yisrael, the holy land promised by G-d to His people, another. And to a haredi, the “centrality” of the Jewish people can be only one thing: our Torah.
To a haredi, the laws and wisdom of the Jewish religious tradition are not only what defined our nation at its inception, and what allowed it (along, in fact, with its yearning for the Jewish ancestral land) to persevere for millennia in exile, but what alone can ensure its future.
Thus, while it might bring economic benefit to the haredi world in Israel and elsewhere were haredim to field and elect candidates for the World Zionist Congress, as a matter of honesty and conscience, haredim cannot in good faith subscribe to the credo on which such participation is contingent, a credo that subtly but objectionably places a country in the place of a divine mandate.
And so when, as a response to the broad pre-election Reform registration campaign, inquiries came in to Agudath Israel from its constituents, each caller was informed of what registering entailed, and advised to forego participation.
There’s something worth pondering here. When haredi citizens of Israel exercise their democratic privileges to advocate for their needs, they are all too often portrayed as pursuing lucre even at the expense of principle – even though all they are doing is what every constituency in a democracy does: endeavor to access government assistance to which they have claim.
A truer proof of the principle pudding, though, lies in the WZO elections example. By participating, haredim stood only to gain (and gain they would have; just think of how the votes of the more than 100,000 Jews who participated in the Siyum HaShas – the majority of them haredim – would have changed the election’s result). By not participating, not only was potential funding of projects forfeited but control of the World Zionist Congress’ American division largely relinquished to a Reform movement openly intent on undermining the influence of halacha in Israel, hardly a comforting thought to Jews who value traditional Jewish standards. Principle, though, is principle.
A timely coincidental contrast to the haredi distancing from the WZO elections was presented by another recent development on the American scene. On the very day the election results were announced, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that universities accepting money from the federal government must, as per a 1994 law, permit military recruiters on campus. Some universities had objected to such presence on principle, since the Pentagon bars open homosexuals from serving in the military.
Perhaps it’s too early to judge, but at least at this writing, none of the universities objecting to the presence of military recruiters has taken the step of announcing that it will forego its federal funding in order to maintain its commitment to what the schools have framed as a civil rights issue. Perhaps it’s cynical to predict that few, if any, will ever actually do so. But betting men might well lay odds.
Because in most of contemporary life, ideals are often put on splendid but flimsy pedestals. As Groucho Marx famously said “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them – well, I have others.”
Well, some don’t.