The mayoral and municipal elections are kicking into high gear in New York, but there is another election about to take place that is not getting much attention.
Since July 1st, American Jews above the age of 18 have been eligible to register to vote for the World Zionist Congress. These elections, which are on a rolling system, take place from November through February and will decide who gets to represent American Jewry (the largest delegation outside of Israel, with 145 delegates) at the 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in June 2006.
This is the same Congress that Theodor Herzl founded in Basel Switzerland, in 1897, which led to the creation of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel. Held every four years in Jerusalem, the World Zionist Congress determines the leadership of major Israeli institutions and the funding priorities for projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, this democratic process has produced such notable Israeli leaders of the WZO as: David Ben-Gurion, Zalman Shazar and Moshe Sharett.
And yet, in the past two months only a few thousand American Jews have even bothered to register. It gets more troubling when one looks at the declining trend in past election participation. In 1997, 149,371 American Jews registered to vote for the World Zionist Congress, with 107,832 actually voting, versus 2002, when only 112,292 registered to vote and 88,753 voted.
So, why is it that no one is talking about this election?
There are several factors that contribute to the apparent apathy felt in the American Jewish community towards the Zionist elections. First, the distance between Israeli and American Jews has widened, where American Jews are less likely to care about Israel or engage in pro-Israel activities.
Secondly, even among those who care intently about Israel, the increased attention on the disengagement from Gaza has dominated much of the recent Jewish media coverage. But a more direct factor is the diminished role and budget of the WZO and its resultant lower profile in the United States.
Today, most New York Jews have heard of Michael Bloomberg, but how many have heard of Zeev Bielski, the recently elected chairman of the WZO and the Jewish Agency for Israel, arguably one of the most prominent roles in the Jewish world?
To truly achieve its potential of being the “Congress of the Jewish people worldwide” and to stem declining election participation, the WZO must engage a whole new generation of young activists. In the early 20th century, Zionism captured the imagination of young people throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. It was this passion that enabled the establishment of the state against overwhelming odds. Today, as we look at declining participation in Jewish life altogether, one must re-examine our current leadership. Invariably, Jewish leadership is often synonymous with our community's biggest donors. The message to younger participants is: Either raise the kind of financial capital to be taken seriously or work outside of the establishment.
In contrast to this paradigm, the World Zionist Congress enables average Jews to express themselves and vote for candidates with whom they identify and who can represent their interests. Indeed, the World Zionist Congress is the only body in which world Jewry is represented democratically and where all Jews, regardless of their wealth, have equal opportunity to impact our community. The winner of these elections is not determined by the strength of his/her pocket but by the strength of his/her ideas.
If Jewish people want to make a difference vis-à-vis Israel and wonder what we can do in America, this is one of the best opportunities to express ourselves and gain a voice for our opinions. The principles of Zionism have never died. The Jewish yearning to have a strong and independent State of Israel in the Land of Israel is more alive than ever. It is our energy and our participation in America that needs a re-awakening.
Take part in this important election today: Vote and speak your mind. To register to vote, please visit www.dorzion.org.
David Borowich is the Chairman and Founder of Dor Chadash and the founder of the Dor Zion party running in the Zionist elections to represent American Jewry at the 35th World Zionist Congress.
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