As election begins, WZO defends its relevance

new york (jta) | Earlier this year, Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel’s Meretz-Yahad Party, called for the establishment of an assembly of Jewish lawmakers from around the world to address issues of consequence to global Jewry.

His call echoed an idea presented two years earlier from Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who recommended creating a “second chamber” of the Knesset to provide a forum for diaspora Jews to advise the state of Israel on matters of import to world Jewry.

Such calls leave proponents of the World Zionist Organization scratching their heads. After all, they say, their organization has been doing all those things for more than 100 years.

“This is the congress of the Jewish people,” says Karen Rubinstein, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, the WZO’s U.S. wing.

Elections got under way last week for U.S. representatives to the WZO’s 35th Congress of the Jewish People, to be held in Israel in June. Balloting will run through Feb. 28. Twelve different slates are running for 145 available slots.

“The people who go and vote in this congress represent world Jewry,” says David Borowich, founder of the Dor Zion slate, which is running for spots in the WZO congress. “They have a chance to put forth new ideas. They influence the leadership of the Jewish Agency. You may say, ‘Why is this important?’ The Jewish Agency has a budget. That money can be going to broad programs and big ideas.”

But with a functioning Jewish state governed by a democratically elected parliament, some wonder whether the WZO has outlived its usefulness.

WZO officials, along with members of the dozen American slates running for seats in the upcoming congress, acknowledge that the organization has flaws, but bristle at the notion that it ought to be replaced.

Of the estimated 5 million to 6 million American Jews, just 107,832 voted in the elections for U.S. representatives to the Zionist congress in 1997. The number fell to 88,753 in 2002.

One need not be a member of a Jewish organization to vote; individuals older than 18 who accept the fundamental beliefs of Zionism can register and vote through the AZM at (Registration costs $7 for adults and $5 for students.)