The World Zionist Congress: finally, closure


  • Day -2: a young lad from south London finds himself caught up in international politics
  • Day -1: Israel’s own game of thrones is played out in front of the delegates’ eyes… in the Knesset’s corridors of power
  • Day 1: DI Netanyahu unearths a cold case… maybe there was a miscarriage of justice at Nuremberg after all!
  • Day 2: it’s all to play for in Committee #4 as Arzenu goes head-to-head with the evil L.I.K.U.D. Corporation

The Last Plenary

The tone for the final day of the WZC was really set by the opening words of the Likudnik chairing the chaos: “You won’t have seen the first resolution because it’s not printed in your booklets. And I don’t need to read it out, it’s not controversial.” (But perhaps the Grand Mufti told him to take that approach.)

And thus the 750 delegates were thrust into a 4-hour pseudo-democratic marathon which, fortunately, happened after the invention of the word ‘omnishambles’ because it means I can use it here.

The WZC’s constitution, which, three times longer than that of Denmark, reflects the relative global significance of the organisation, has two unique features guaranteed to erase any semblance of democracy from its proceedings.

The first is the right of any member of the 50-person “Inner Executive” to speak at any time on any topic, enabling lengthy filibusters from parties determined to stave off voting on controversial proposals such as those in favour of Israeli democracy.

The second, “votum separatum” (having Googled this phrase, its only use outside the Zionist movement appears to be in Czech court procedure), gives any delegate the right to insist that a motion which failed to get through committee stage should nevertheless be debated by the whole Congress.

In other words, the entire committee process from day 2 – with all its anarchy, violence and racism – was completely, utterly, 100% pointless because those motions which didn’t pass got a second bite at the cherry anyway.

So the plenary spent hours grinding its way through over 80 resolutions. These included one which read:

Whereas we are witnessing the increase of anti-Semitism that occasionally borders on the life-threatening,
The 37th Zionist Congress resolves: to take advantage of the situation.

(Actual, genuine direct quote from the resolution.) Another provided that “any individual who is found to be assisting the BDS movement will be suspended from the WZO” – well, that’s the whole of Likud out for starters.

Possibly the most ambitious proposal was:

The WZO shall appoint a Commissioner for the Young Generation who shall direct all activity for young people in Israel and around the world.

Yeah: move over Bear Grylls, there’s new youth activities in town!

Voting took place in a ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ format, pressing ‘1’ for YES and ‘2’ for NO in a 30-second window while ticking-clock countdown music blared out of the speakers. Results were displayed on-screen immediately afterwards.

This would, therefore, have been an excellent system, if only it were different in one respect, ie. had it actually worked.

As it was, delegates exhausted all of their 30 precious seconds waving the devices around, pressing buttons repeatedly, praying that it would register their vote before time ran out and they discovered their undesired apathy to have passively supported the annexation of the West Bank or the suspension of Israeli democracy.

Even after multiple mock votes (including: “Is today Thursday?”, to which 9 people answered ‘no’ and 3 abstained) the system didn’t work and order began breaking down in the room. People demanded revotes whenever a result went the wrong way for them, but seemed less concerned about irregularities whenever they were satisfied by the outcome.

The real stars of the day, though, were the translators. The woman who spent the whole 4-hour period whispering to me was hysterical. At one point, the hubbub became too multi-layered for her to follow, but the chair insisted that she continue. Every English-speaking delegate had a testy, “Yes, yes, yes!” piped into their ears.

Apparently with no object other than amusing herself and humiliating the Inner Executive that was putting her through the ordeal, she made sure to interpret any secretive conversations happening within range of the platform microphone.

Sit down and stop disrupting things! … You’re breaking the constitution! That’s what they’re saying at the podium.

Although it was admittedly slightly odd when she translated ‘LGBT’ as “lesbian, sexuals and genders”.

When it became clear that the Congress had exhausted its room booking without having got through even half of the resolutions, people became really furious. An angry mob surrounded the podium, throwing things (including flowers, which to be fair was quite charming) and yelling and pulling and grabbing at each other.

They were not happy with the top table’s suggestion to delegate all remaining decisions to the General Zionist Council – there’s another of those bodies with a name solely designed to provoke anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

It was rejected by an electronic vote. The top table felt this was misguided so thought a revote would be in order – this time by show of hands, with the result to be estimated by the chair. Said chair took the most casual of glances out at the sea of writing, fighting bodies, and declared, “It is passed. The Council will take the rest of the resolutions.”

This might sound a little outrageous, but as I’d been warned that the minutes would in any event reflect whatever the Congress Presidum (don’t ask) wanted regardless of their correlation with reality, perhaps it doesn’t make much difference either way.

The chair begged them to “maintain the Zionist, democratic atmosphere”, but to no avail. And so the livid mass of delegates poured out of the Congress chamber, Likud organised a quick impromptu fist-fight outside; and that was the 37th World Zionist Congress.

Serious afterword

I’ve been lampooning the WZC relentlessly because that is the nil level of respect that it deserves. It’s a self-obsessed, anti-democratic mess that is filled with racists.

It is responsible for many of the phenomena that are prolonging the Israeli-Arab conflict. It brings the Jewish people into disrepute.

But… (my haters often complain that I never say anything positive about Israel without adding a ‘but’; this time, though, something positive follows the but)

But… some good things happened. Resolutions got passed supporting the LGBTQ community and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. The dastardly settlement-building JNF is now mandated to be at least slightly transparent about its dastardliness. The WZO is now banned from working with organisations that commit or incite hate crimes.

These are positive developments, and it took five days of delegates’ fighting, and five years of whips’ wranglings, to bring them about.

Similarly, I had a wonderful time visiting a Palestinian girls’ school in East Jerusalem and planting kumquat trees with the girls there.

They were enormously pleased to meet two coach-loads of friendly Jews and are clearly future partners for peace: any Jew even tempted to say “They hate us” should visit and see that there’s no ‘they’.

And above all, it was my privilege to sit in a party grouping with dozens of other Reform and Progressive religious Zionists from around the world.

Treading the middle-ground between the blazing racist extremism of the far right and the blazing racist extremism of the far left can be lonely and frustrating, as my ever-increasing volume of hatemail and threats eloquently shows.

But this week, we all got together, from all the way around the globe, and worked in unison to bring about positive change and fortify each other with laughter against the horrors around.

Assuming the WZO doesn’t shut down in the coming five years (which would be no bad thing…) the next Congress is in 2020.

I fully intend on being there and doing more of the same. Someone has to, and if we got positive results this time, then how much better can we do with five years of work under our belts.

The World Zionist Congress: day 2

Whoever would have guessed that this week would see the nations of the world scrambling to demand recognition for having carried out the Holocaust?

Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday – you remember, the one about lies – was somewhat liberal in its interpretation of history. Bibi claimed that the Grand Mufti of Palestine had come up with the idea for the gas chambers (that’s the last time I go to a school Mufti Day). In fact, the Prime Minister rather helped to exonerate poor old misunderstood Mr Hitler, who had apparently only wanted to expel the Jews.

Yesterday, though, the world was having none of it. Herzog MK, Leader of the Opposition, who addressed the Congress plenum, dismissed the claim as completely made up, as did senior Israeli Holocaust historians.

The German foreign ministry was also unhappy and released an angry statement insisting that they, and they alone, were responsible for the Holocaust. It was to the effect of:

It vos us! IT VOS ALL US! Do not go giving ze credit to zese Palestinians: we planned ze whole zing. We held many meetings, employed many technical experts. The Mufti had nothing whatzoever to do vith it!

The day continued with the infamous committees: delegates were divided between groups looking at, for example, “Structure of the National Institutions in the Mirror of Time”. Clear as a bell.

I joined ‘A Free People In Our Own Land’, where the wonderful Rabbi Lea Mühlstein did her best to preside over three hours of unholy and occasionally violent rabble.

The free people within certainly did not deserve their own land. The right-wing parties present were so right-wing that they practically fell off the aeroplane.

One representative proposed a series of amendments to remove all motions’ references to Israel being a democracy, literally going so far as to oppose a motion to “refine Israel’s democratic institutions”. Another insisted that their own single-word vision for Israel be slotted in at regular intervals: “Where do you want to insert the word ‘Jewish’?” “At line 19, line 20, line 21… everywhere!”

Another proposed an extra clause stating that the World Zionist Organisation would not endorse the Koran as it is a “hate text” – because currently, of course, the WZO does little else but endorse Muslim holy books. When Yesh Atid voted against this particular bit of lunacy, they were denounced as “Yesh Atid l’Islam” (‘Yesh Atid for Islam’).

Someone’s resolution, and I have no doubt this person genuinely believed themselves to be a true liberal, called on the Israeli government to “support the Bedouin, or at least do them no irreparable damage”. That seems fairly comprehensive. Another asked, “Why are we demanding that an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall be ‘visible’?” Er, because they hadn’t invented invisible walls in Temple times?

The proposals regarding the rights of the LGBTQ community were highly controversial. “Why on earth does Israel have to be a ‘beacon’ of LGBT rights?” demanded one Likud representative. Their alternative suggestion was that Israel should aspire to lag behind other countries in this important moral sphere, making only perfunctory efforts to include all its citizens.

We were privileged, though, also to hear from possibly the only man in the world capable of making the aforementioned Likud representative appear progressive. They represented a party called, and this is actually its actual name: “Loving the Greater Israel”.

This delegate, who had somehow managed to sneak into the committee room by heavily disguising themselves as a human being, wanted to amend the LGBTQ inclusion resolution to add the clause: “as far as as is consistent with our religious beliefs.” Or in other words, only killing a reasonable number of people at Jerusalem Pride and only once in a while.

Someone else took issue with the title of the resolution – “The gay community” – and insisted that “if we care about LGBT then we care about everyone so I propose adding in the Ethiopians”. (Thus was born the LGBTE community…) Some wag from B’nai Brith North America then proposed adding in the Canadians too, and soon everything was in complete chaos.

People were standing up and screaming at each other, calling for recounts, accusing the chair of bias (imagine anyone being biased in favour of LGBTQ rights!), complaining, “You are not following the protocols!” – of Zion, presumably – and even, in one case, threatening to “fetch the Attorney-General”.

Chair Rabbi Lea stood firm in the face of this particular menace. “Fine, you can go and get the Attorney-General if you like,” she replied, to which the complainant shot back rather cryptically, “It’s not my job!” Er… quite. Then when Lea expelled someone else for persistently interrupting and swearing at her, he threatened, “I’ll tell the President!” and it all got a little bit silly. ‘I’ll tell Obama!’ ‘I’ll resurrect Herzl and tell him to Segway over here!’

The anarchy was too much for the interpreters sitting in the translation booth to keep up with, so they took to chatting amongst themselves, swapping opinions on the proposals being debated, and so on – all broadcast through the delegates’ headsets.

The actual violence didn’t kick off until the Truth & Reconciliation Commission motion. My party had proposed a South African-style healing process run jointly by Israeli Jews and Arabs. Boy oh boy did people oppose this. A Likud delegate said that no true Zionist could support such a thing, so those of us who were in favour must be infiltrators and imposters and needed our credentials inspected by the Congress hierarchy.

The chair told him to sit down and behave himself, so he launched himself across the room, fists clenched, and screamed into her face that she was facilitating “a bunch of racists” (I could sue him for that…).

Then Security was called, and according to surveys, security is most Israelis’ biggest political concern, so this was somewhat apt.

Then things descended into non-stop Zionist anarchy.

Today is the last day of the Congress and the day that those resolutions which made it through the committee stage are debated ‘on the floor’ (as in, writhing around fighting on). Join me again tomorrow morning for the final WZC sketch!