"The Zionist Congress Elections as an Index on American Jewry"
by Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine
The results of the elections for the American delegation to the 37th World Zionist Congress are worth reflecting on. While the election plays a key role in influencing the policies of the World Zionist Movement and in mapping the Israel-Diaspora relationship, the data are also important as an insightful index into the nature of the American Jewish community. The big headline is the success of ARZA, representing the Reform movement, coming out on top with 56 of the 145 seats allocated to the American delegation to the 500-seat congress. What strikes me is that the 39% won by the Reform movement here matches with almost scientific precision the Reform movement’s share of religiously-identified American Jews in the 2013 Pew report. The Pew report found that 40% of religiously-identified American Jews (as opposed to Jews-by-ethnicity only) identify as Reform.
The Pew report made an interesting methodological distinction between “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion.” While many are concerned about growing rates of secularization, secularization is a process that has been going on for two hundred years, and the Pew report found that 4.2 of the 5.3 million Jews in America are indeed “Jews by religion.” American Jewish identity, as opposed to Israeli Jewish identity, is still defined through religion. This fact is made clear through the Zionist Congress elections, where three quarters of the delegates (or, 109 out of 145) for the American delegation represent parties affiliated with religious movements. Additionally, a vote for one of the secular parties does not necessarily mean that one does not identify with Judaism as a religion. However, the elections results show that the religious leadership has a mandate to speak for the Jewish community.
The Mercaz USA faction, representing the Conservative movement in the United States, won 25 delegates, one more that the 24-member faction of the Religious
Zionists. Even combined, the Conservative and Orthodox parties still have fewer delegates than the Reform party. This result again matches the Pew report, where 22% and 12% of Jews by religion identify as Conservative and Orthodox Jews respectively, as compared to the 40% who identify as Reform. The disparity is found in how well the Religious Zionists did in the elections as compared to Mercaz USA. According to the Pew Report, only 4 of the 12% of Jews by religion identifying as Orthodox are in fact “modern Orthodox.” And as modern Orthodoxy is the wellspring of religious Zionism, we have here also an extraordinary success story, where 4% of the total has won 17% of the Congress delegates (or 24 of 145). However, the disparity is understandable when we look at the Pew findings on emotional attachment to Israel. The report found that 77% of modern Orthodox Jews were “very attached to Israel” as opposed to 47% of Conservatives and 24% of Reform. However, if we adjust the Pew numbers on the denominational breakdown of American Jewry to consider only those “very attached to Israel,” as that is the group most likely to vote in the Zionist Congress election, the Conservative movement should have come out on top with the Reform as a close second. That is, according to Pew, 10.3% of American Jewry should be Conservatives who are very attached to Israel, 9.6% should be Reform who are very attached to Israel, and 3.1% modern Orthodox who are very attached to Israel. While one can crunch numbers here in any combination of variables, what we see is that the modern Orthodox community did very well in the election given its small percentage of the American Jewish population. The fact that its faction dropped by seven delegates since the last election can only be credited to the extent of ARZA’s victory. Because the size of the Reform faction, as we found, matches its share of the American Jewish population, the Reform movement exceeded what could have been expected if only those who were “very attached to Israel” voted.
The 25 seats won by Mercaz USA represent 17% of the total, which, again, comes close to the 22% of Jews by religion who identify as Conservative according to Pew. While the Conservatives should have done a little better given that there are more Conservative Jews who are “very attached to Israel” over Reform or Orthodox, there is no doubt that some of those “very attached to Israel” Conservative Jews voted for other parties. (I say this because, among other data, some of them are listed on the slates of other parties.) What was interesting was that the total number of votes for Mercaz USA was 9,890, comparing very closely to the 9,594 votes for the Religious Zionists. This is interesting to me because I have often been in conversations where people have tried to convince me of the futility of Conservative Judaism where the commitment to Jewish traditon is (allegedly) minimal as compared to Orthodoxy. My response has often been that if we look at absolute numbers as opposed to percentages within congregations, the numbers are probably very similar. That is, across the board, there are probably just as many very committed Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox, except that the Conservative Jewish population is dispersed across the country while the Orthodox population is more concentrated. The Zionist Congress elections, more than the Pew report, show that the numbers of strongly committed modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews are roughly equivalent. Of course, I am not counting the ultra-Orthodox population in this comparison.
Overall, the results of the Zionist Congress elections show us that a working alliance between the Reform and Conservative movements will control the majority of the American Jewish delegation, which was to be expected. At the same time, the election results contribute to our understanding of the pluralism of voices that make up American Jewry. That is a very positive contribution that we can all make to world Jewry.