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Reflections from the World Zionist Congress

Reflections from the World Zionist Congress

RAC Director Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner with IMPJ Executive Director Gilad Kariv at the WZC

Shalom from Jerusalem, where I am one of the 56 delegates representing ARZA at this week’s World Zionist Congress, which just concluded on Thursday. I am here with leaders of our Movement, representatives of NFTY, college students, RAC staff and alumni who have joined with Progressive Zionists from around the world who are members of ARZENU, the international Reform Zionist Movement. It is a blessing to be here showing solidarity with Israel during these violent times. Our Israeli sisters and brothers keep expressing gratitude that we are here with them, despite the wave of terror. I am honored to be among our leaders advocating for the Jewish state we know Israel can and should be.

Holding so many seats in the Congress (more than any other North American delegation) is a great achievement for our community and will help us make our voices heard on issues we care so deeply about. At this year’s Congress, ARZA called for meaningful action on a variety of issues related to religious freedom and social justice, such as better treatment of African refugees and asylum seekers, enhanced gender equality and transparency in Zionist institutions and greater oversight of the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division. Backed by Israel’s government and administered by the WZO, the Settlement Division funds the development of rural areas throughout Israel, but has become increasingly associated with the growth of settlements in the West Bank.

My visit so far has been a whirlwind of meetings, panels and important conversations, both in preparation for and during the Congress itself. We have engaged with Members of Knesset spanning the political spectrum, including representatives of the Likud, Arab List, Meretz and Labor parties. We have also met with leaders working on the ground in pursuit of social and economic justice. Among the inspiring people I have met are students and teachers at an Arab girls’ school in East Jerusalem and Rami Hod, director of the Social Economic Academy. Rami’s organization trains organizers who work with low wage workers and helped launch Koach L’Ovdim (Strength to the Workers), one of Israel’s newest labor unions. URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs also led us in an egalitarian worship service on the plaza of the Kotel, drawing some jeers and police presence, but mostly filling the area with ruach (spirit) and sh'leimut (wholeness).

The Congress began with an address from Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who recognized the importance of gathering and standing with Israel at this challenging time. Unfortunately, The Prime Minister undermined his important message when he made a widely-covered claim that Hitler did not pursue genocidal policies against the Jews until the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem convinced him to do so. The comments have brought widespread objection from historians and politicians, including Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, who addressed the Congress on the following day. Over the rest of the three long days, the delegation dialogued with experts and officials, debated in committees and voted on resolutions that will chart the Zionist future. I am particularly excited to report that the Congress passed resolutions on an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, separation of church and state and LGBTQ inclusion.

This is an important time for us to be in Jerusalem. It is important for the people of Israel to know that Progressive Zionists stand with them during this dark moment. It is also important for Progressive Zionists to raise their voices in favor of the just, secure, democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian dream upon which Israel was founded.

Read more about the World Zionist Congress on the ARZA Blog and about our work on Israel on the RAC’s issue page.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

Published: 10/23/2015