The 36th congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) opens in Jerusalem today, bringing together hundreds of delegates drawn from political parties in Israel's Knesset as well as from Zionist and Jewish organizations in the Diaspora. On the agenda are subjects ranging from the condition of Zionism in Israeli society and worldwide, to settlement in Judea and Samaria, to Israel-Diaspora relations. Unfortunately, no matter how stimulating the speeches may be, no one anticipates any fateful decisions or even any serious grappling with existential questions.
This is a far cry from, for example, the sixth congress in 1903, Theodor Herzl's last, which wrestled with whether, in the face of spiraling anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, Jews should settle for a homeland anywhere at all rather than holding out for the land of Israel. Or take the momentous twelfth congress, held in an atmosphere of comparative optimism with the end of World War I and the issuance of the Balfour Declaration; there, the assembled Zionists debated their relations with the Arabs.
Then there was the seventeenth congress of 1931, which took place in the shadow of continuing Arab violence and ended in organizational rupture over demands by Vladimir Jabotinsky that the movement openly declare its aim to be the creation of a Jewish state. Exactly two decades later, three years after the birth of Israel, the congress met for the first time in Tel Aviv, where delegates sought to map out the relationship between movement and state.
By contrast, the prosaic issue confronting today's congress involves the possibly baleful influence of the WZO's newest constituent, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party—undoubtedly nationalist, but with no philosophical connection to Zionism—on religious pluralism inside the movement.
Some will ask whether vestigial bodies like the WZO—and the Jewish Agency, for that matter—serve any real purpose. Both are funded largely by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Israeli government. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, is seeking to revitalize that organization by means of a new mission: actively fostering Jewish identity and unity between the Diaspora and Israel. As for the WZO, its main role is to provide patronage and funds to constituent organizations, the best of which promote youth movements, educational programs, and scholarships, dispatching emissaries to Diaspora communities and advancing the cause of aliyah.
All the while, Zionism today is under unremitting intellectual and political assault around the world, and it is excruciatingly obvious that the case for Zion has to be made anew—as if the fate of the entire enterprise hangs in the balance. If the World Zionist Organization is not up to the task, who is?
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