It’s bad enough that Israel is being attacked by terrorists, now mostly in the West Bank and less in Jerusalem after Israel’s government imposed strong security measures separating East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods from West Jerusalem Israeli neighborhoods. What is perhaps even more searing to the Jewish soul is the way some Jewish delegates at the World Zionist Congress behave towards their fellow delegates.
We of ARZENU (the world Reform Zionist movement) were warned that yelling and delaying tactics would be likely in committee meetings and in the plenary sessions, especially when discussing contentious resolutions. The warnings were prescient. Almost from the beginning of our committee meetings one Mizrahi (the nationalist right-wing religious delegation) delegate starting screaming from the moment the Chair, Rabbi Lea Muehlstein of the United Kingdom (an ARZENU delegate) opened the session.
The rules of debate in committees according to the WZC are determined exclusively by the chair. Roberts Rules of Order do not apply. Some chairs are more fair than others. The chair of this session gave all voices equal time, and when she thought the issue had been completely discussed she called for a vote.
The two most contentious resolutions were those concerning the “Establishment of an Egalitarian Prayer Space at the Western Wall,” introduced by ARZENU, and “Recognition of Support for the LGBT Community,” also introduced by ARZENU.
Jewish Agency Head Natan Sharansky, the Women of the Wall (WOW), the Conservative and Reform movements, and the Chief Rabbi of the Wall have already agreed that a third section in the Western Wall site would be established equal in size, funding and visibility for a dignified space of worship for the Conservative and Reform streams and for Women of the Wall. This WZC resolution was meant only to confirm what the Israeli government and interested parties have already determined, and to push forward towards the realization of this new prayer space.
After debate the resolution passed with a substantial majority. When I saw my friend and Chair of WOW, Anat Hoffman and asked how she felt about the good news, she said:
“John – nothing has happened to move this matter forward in the government over the past year and more, this resolution notwithstanding, and given the controversy over the Waqf charge that the status quo on the Temple Mount is being questioned, and given that the area we want for the egalitarian prayer site is only 50 yards from Al Aqsa, Israel isn’t going to touch this issue now.”
So much for that.
The LGBT resolution was the next especially contentious fight. The resolution commended the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett (the head of Mizrahi faction) for announcing an increase of support for the Israeli LGBT community. The resolution called on him to ensure adequate funding for “Israel Gay Youth” and other LGBT organizations so as to secure the role of members of the LGBT community within Israeli society. It also called on Minister Bennett to ensure that all Israeli students (and in particular in the Orthodox school systems) take part in programming that promotes diversity, inclusion and equality for the LGBT community, to support equal rights for the LBGT community in all Zionist entities and to encourage their activities within the national Institutions.
The right wing parties in our committee were strongly against this resolution and began immediately to challenge key elements of it. Some began a campaign of yelling and screaming to prevent us from having a reasoned debate ending in a vote. Orthodox delegates introduced several amendments, only one of which was accepted by ARZENU.
The most important amendment, however, we refused to accept because it gave license to Orthodox schools to choose to accept or to pass on tolerance education.
All the while, the disruption did not stop for a moment, and Rabbi Muehlstein finally ruled that anyone screaming would not have his/her votes be counted.
At last, a vote was taken and the resolution passed with about 35 votes, and 35 abstentions. Those in Mizrahi and Likud factions who negotiated with ARZENU on an amendment on which we found compromise language, in the end refused to vote “nay.” Indeed, they never intended to vote for a resolution no matter what it said. They only wanted to delay and water down the original resolution.
At one point, five of the most badly behaving delegates actually charged our table. I happened to be sitting two people away from Rabbi Muehlstein. I am not a violent person, but I was prepared to jump between them and Lea to protect her from their physical assault. It should be noted that she was a paragon of patience and brought dignity to the proceedings and to the ARZENU delegation.
I left the meeting feeling as though I needed a shower. Though justice was done in the resolution, we also witnessed the dark side of Zionist politics.
I heard that other committee meetings went far more smoothly and with good behavior by all. For me who attended the WZC for the first time, the bullying behavior of the right-wing did not have the intended effect of intimidating us. It had the opposite effect of my bearing down and committing to fight the good fight respectfully on behalf of compassion, justice and human rights within the World Zionist Congress.
See my earlier post titled “Non-Stop Zionism.”