February 27, 2020

Your Vote Counts but Don’t Go Overboard

“There’s a lot of money at stake,” was Israeli journalist Zvika Klein’s instinctive response when I asked him a few weeks ago why we should care about the World Zionist Congress elections. I could almost picture the bigots having a field day: The Jews are having an election over who gets to control a large sum of money. Parties form, activists tire, articles are penned, campaigns are waged — and all for what? For the “billions.” The billions with which — some activists believe — American Jews can truly influence Israeli politics. 

The World Zionist Congress was founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl. It meets every five years. An adult Jew in the United States can pay a $7.50 ballot fee, sign a statement (“a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel [is] the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people”), and vote. A third of all delegates are American. They have a stake in deciding how to allocate $1 billion annually on programs and organizations, and elect members of organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. 

Most Jews don’t vote in these elections, but some do. And it seems that this year, the hype is more intense than in previous years. More candidates are running and more attention is being paid to the process. “More than double the number of people have voted in half a day than voted in the whole first day in 2015,” American Zionist Movement Executive Director Herbert Block told The Forward. All of it is based on the premise (as American journalist Jonathan Tobin defined it) “that Americans voting in the Zionist Congress election have a chance to influence the decisions … that are vital to Israel and the Jewish future.” Or as Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights put it: “This is a way for progressive American Jews to help shape the Israel we want.”

Positive trend. False premise. 

Why the trend is positive is obvious: The more Jews get involved with Jewish institutions, feel that they have a stake in Israel, identify with Zionist causes, the better. Why the premise is false is also quite obvious: Israel’s budget is close to $120 billion. Israel’s GDP is more than $350 billion. You can’t influence decisions that are “vital to Israel” with a few allocations from a total of $1 billion. You can’t “shape the Israel we want” from afar by moving some funds from this to that cause.

It’s nice to see that so many people care about Israel’s policies and behavior, but slightly dangerous. 

Still, it’s nice to see so many organizations try hard to convince their constituency that it is within their power to alter Israel’s policies and behaviors. It’s nice to see that so many people care about Israel’s policies and behavior, but slightly dangerous. Because one day, not far in the future, all these activists and voters suddenly will realize that they were duped into thinking that their vote matters much more than it truly does. And this will make them angry — at Israel — when in fact Israel has no intention of letting the World Jewish Congress define its mission and policy. 

So, if you want to find another reason to get angry at Israel (and I suspect some activists have that goal), by all means, vote in the false hope that this could impact Israel’s security policy or foreign affairs. And as you do, consider the fact that 60% of Israelis surveyed say that when making important decisions, the government of Israel shouldn’t take the opinions of Diaspora Jewry into account. And just to make it clear, this position is shared by majorities among the right and left, and religious and secular Jews. 

However, if you’re looking for other reasons to vote, there is no shortage of those. Vote to show your solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people. Vote to show your solidarity with the Zionist dream. Vote to have your vision of Zionism on the shared table. Vote to demonstrate that Jewishness has many varieties. Vote to have your representatives engage with representatives who have other views. Convince them or get convinced by them. Vote not because you want Israel to change but rather because you want Israel to remain what it is: The expression of Jewish nationality, the fulfilment of many generations’ dreams, the success story of the century.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain online.