Why the World Zionist Congress still matters
Since Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on March 29, 1897, this gathering of world Jewry has been a forum for the discussions and debates necessary to move forward the Zionist enterprise, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. What was true in the past is no less true today. In the hallways, the committee meetings and in the plenum of the recently concluded 37th Zionist Congress, the work of nation building continues. Only the focus has shifted from building Israel the state, to shaping Israel the society.
The Congress, made up of delegates from Israel, North America and from all around the Jewish world, 500 in total, met in Jerusalem in the midst of the current wave of violence and incitement. Yes, we heard from the prime minister and the minister of defense, who addressed the Congress in terms strong, confident and, in some instances, perhaps intemperate. Yes, we heard from the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, who offered a more conciliatory, but no less confident message. Nonetheless, these were not the most important messages delivered. The most important messages coming out of the 37th Zionist Congress were those delivered by the delegates themselves. Their votes on key and controversial issues clearly declared that Zionism is entering the 21st century with increasing focus on the character of Israeli society.
And what is the prevailing definition of that character? It is a formula well known to those familiar with Zionism’s highest aspirations and enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” (Paragraph 13) Even as daily reports of violence and incitement reached the Congress and the delegates, there was no turning away from this vision of Israeli society as democratic, egalitarian, pluralistic and just.
By passing resolutions that called for combating racism and hate crimes, fostering democracy and equality, promoting religious pluralism and supporting protections for the LGBT community, the delegates gave a clear message that the work of Zionism has entered a new phase. All present recognized the serious external challenges that face Israel and expressed confidence that these challenges can and will be met — though clearly there was difference of opinion as to both short term tactics and long-term strategies. At the same time, by their votes, the delegates emphasized that internal challenges to the Zionist vision of Israeli society were also significant and required an equally strong and confident response.
For many actively engaged in Zionist activity, helping to build an Israeli society that reflects the ideals of the Declaration of Independence is the “new halutziut” — the new pioneering enterprise. Hopefully, this spirit will engage and energize a new generation of Zionist pioneers. At the same time, the values reflected in the resolutions of the 37th World Zionist Congress are a strong response and refutation to those who suggest that either Zionism is a dead, outdated ideology, or worse, that it is inimical to human rights and equality. Clearly, resolutions do not immediately establish realities on the ground, but they do indicate to the direction in which Israeli society, and Zionist thought, is trending.
The Congress adjourned, delegates returned to homes in Israel, in North America and around the world. They brought with them a renewed and reaffirmed understanding of the Zionist ideals upon which the State of Israel was founded and which the state must continuously strive to realize. Now is the time, in all our communities, for a reinvigorated Zionist ideal, grounded in the realities of the day yet still inspired by the words with which our people declared their independence, to move us to do the pioneering work necessary to turn those ideals into an Israeli society that is truly a light to the nations. If we will it — and do the work — it will not remain a dream.
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, national senior vice chairman of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists in America), was a delegate to the 37th World Zionist Congress.