The real drama these days: The Zionist movement almost split

Dr. Yizhar Hess, Vice Chairman of the World Zionist Organization (previously served as the CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel)

This article originally appeared in Haaretz on October 29, 2020

October 22 marked the conclusion of the 38th Zionist Congress. Before you yawn, listen to what happened behind the scenes and why this Congress of representatives from all streams and parties was actually the most important since Israel’s establishment.

A crisis evolved that left us non-Orthodox streams and the center and left parties poised to leave the World Zionist Organization and establish a new entity. The split was prevented thanks to vigorous 48-hour lobbying by worldwide Zionist groups.

The World Zionist Organization has evolved over the decades. Imagine intense, sometimes even vicious, arguments among Jewish lawyers from throughout the world, who despite differences agreed on a basic principle that no one group could control the game. They insisted on a tent wide enough to include the variety of denominations and views within the Zionist movement.

An ethics code evolved under which the Congress would establish an executive cabinet (“government of the Jewish people”) only after forming a wall-to-wall coalition respectful of minority and majority voices.

To understand the drama, here’s some background. The Congress has 525 delegates: one-third from Israel (proportional to the Zionist parties in the Knesset), one-third from the United States (based on elections of different slates), and one-third from Zionist federations in the rest of the world.

However, 232 other delegates represent international Jewish organizations (Hadassah, WIZO, B’nai B’rith, Maccabi and others). The longtime practice has been that they do not participate in the vote approving the coalition agreement that determines the distribution of power in the WZO.

A few months ago worldwide elections to the Congress were held; the right came out slightly on top. The distribution of delegates could enable a coalition with a slight tendency to the right or left. Both were reasonable. Quickly, quiet coalition negotiations began, and thanks to the tradition of a final wall-to-wall coalition, we trusted that we wouldn’t be left out in the cold however things went.

Three days before the opening of the Congress, just before Shabbat, we were informed that an agreement had been signed. We were surprised, and when we saw the details we were dumbfounded. The agreement signed by the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc was nothing short of a hostile takeover of the WZO national institutions.

Immediately after Shabbat we spoke with the international leadership of the Conservative and Reform movements. It became clear just how serious things were. If we didn’t have a seat at the table, we wouldn’t even enter the room. We would be forced to withdraw from this Zionist movement and its institutions. We would create a new Zionist framework.

Close to midnight on Saturday we held an emergency meeting with our center and left partners. Our fury turned into determination. We would overturn this unjust agreement. We would not give up, we would fight for a new agreement even at the cost of secession.

The next two days were volatile. The Congress was to ratify the agreement within two days. The narrow majority, the signatories to the agreement thought, would pass it. It turned out they hadn’t read the map accurately.

A bold campaign we initiated with the international Jewish organizations led to an action they had avoided for decades. Their leadership, backed by thousands of grassroots members, understood that their traditional voting policy couldn’t be maintained this time. They understood, and I applaud them, that the shattered norms obligated them to raise their voice to save the Zionist movement.

An unprecedented joint letter was sent by the heads of the organizations. The personal letter from Hadassah’s president was even more forceful. The Haredi-right-wing bloc still misread the map. On the Congress’ opening day, the agreement was up for vote. At the presidium, just before the opening, we proposed postponing the vote by two days to allow the parties to negotiate.

“No way, we’re the majority,” proclaimed representatives of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Mizrachi. The Confederation adamantly objected, promising that despite our anger, the Congress would approve the agreement that evening. The presidium vote commenced, on Zoom, a roll-call vote by name. Each vote was recorded and tallied, piercingly reminiscent of the famous UN vote on November 29, 1947. We voted to delay the vote. The other side voted against.

Then, the Zionist organizations, one by one, joined the voice to delay the vote. The delay was accepted, 16 to 9.

In the negotiating room the next day it was clear the tables had turned. Everyone realized that there was no chance of passing the old agreement in the plenum.

This has been the hardest week of my professional life. But something good has come out of it. The final agreement isn’t ideal, but it’s decent and respectable.

No less important: I sincerely feel that we have awakened the liberal side of the Zionist movement. In many places over the years, the word “Zionism” has become toxic, best avoided.

Some of you may ask, “Why bother, who cares about the Zionist movement?” My answer: Zionism has always been a political movement whose borders aren’t the geographic borders of the State of Israel. Zionism was born in the Diaspora. It was, and must continue to be, a thought-provoking movement leading a discourse about the future of the Jewish people.

We need to bring it back to the audiences that over the years have chosen to stay away. This roundtable of the Jewish people is too important. The Zionist movement was born in the Diaspora, and the future of Zionism must also be decided not only in Israel but outside its borders.

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Success at the World Zionist Congress, Your Votes Mattered!

Rabbi Dr. Alan Silverstein, MERCAZ Olami, President

At the once-every-five years World Zionist Congress, our movement is represented by MERCAZ Olami, with 15 chapters around the world. Thanks to the campaigning during the Congress Election Campaign, we achieved 37 mandates, 18 from the USA and 19 from the rest of the world, meaning we were the fourth largest faction at the Congress.

The results of the Congress affect the next 5 years in ‘The National Institutions’, these being the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, Jewish Agency for Israel, and Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal), all crucial to the well-being of Conservative/Masorti institutions in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

Negotiations at the Congress seek to form a governing coalition that affects the next 5 years of policy, budgeting, salaried positions and unpaid decision making positions at the National Institutions. The negotiating goal is to yield a fair coalition around Jewish unity in which all parties receive a respectful and fair amount of positions, influence, and allocation of vital resources.

This year’s Congress faced a divisive challenge. Ultra-Orthodox parties ran for office, gained influential swing votes and attempted to deprive center-left parties and non-Orthodox religious streams of influence, positions and budget.

Fortunately, because of our numerical strength, we were able to join with the Reform representatives, Artzenu, and rallied the center-left parties such as Blue and White, Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz. Together, our delegates successfully lobbied neutral organizations such as Hadassah and B’nai Brith amongst others. Their willingness to join us in opposing the Haredi-inspired narrow coalition agreement proved decisive. The effort to renegotiate a coalition agreement continued down to the final hours of the Congress. A reasonable and respectful wall-to-wall coalition agreement eventually was signed.

Thanks to your votes, global Jewish unity was preserved and important benefits were gained for our movement:

  • Budgets for the all streams of Judaism were increased
  • MERCAZ received an important Paid Professional position: Yizhar Hess becomes Deputy Vice Chair in the World Zionist Organization. Yizhar will have a budget and department responsible for Israel-Diaspora relations. Yizhar will have various other responsibilities at WZO, to be determined next week.
  • Masorti gained a Vice Chair unpaid position at Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL) MERCAZ retained a place on the Jewish Agency nomination committee
  • In a rotation, MERCAZ will receive the unpaid Chair Position of the KKL Environment committee
  • Additional unpaid lay leadership positions will be allocated soon, based upon our number of seats at the Congress

Our political partnership with the Reform Movement enabled our success at the Congress. Our 105 delegates, alternates and observers worked brilliantly in lobbying organizations and leaders to support a respectful outcome for everybody.

However, rather than rest on our laurels, now we must commence to plan for the Congress of 2025. We need to strengthen our 15 chapters as well as grow new ones. We must engage our talented young adults age 35 and under as our future leaders and we need to better ‘brand’ MERCAZ and educate as to its importance for all organizations within our world-wide Movement.

Our collective goal is to serve Am Yisrael: Combatting Assimilation, Anti-Semitism, Apathy, Jewish Illiteracy, and Indifference – Promoting Zionism, Aliya, Jewish Identity, and Jewish Continuity.

To all of these ends, MERCAZ Olami has established a crucial Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Rabbi Steve Wernick and Co-Chaired by Emily Levy-Shochat, along with a professional firm. We must remain determined to enter the 2025 Congress with a much stronger number of delegates and a greater capacity to shape the future of the Jewish People world-wide.

Our negotiating Team proved to be cohesive and outstanding:

Yizhar Hess, Rabbi Mauricio Balter and Emily Levy-Shochat, assisted ably by Nilli Glick Asaf and Tehila Reuben, and at times by me as President of MERCAZ, by Rabbi Phil Scheim as President of Masorti Olami, by Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal as CEO of the RA and the USCJ.

Download a PDF version of this article.

This #GivingTuesday, Join MERCAZ USA’s cause supporting Masorti Judaism and Pluralism in Israel!

Tuesday, December 1, is #GivingTuesday, and we are asking that you consider MERCAZ USA to be among those organizations you choose to support this year!

MERCAZ USA has been fulfilling its mission during a unique and unpredictable 2020.

Despite the challenges, we have committed ourselves to an ambitious plan to increase our reach and provide engagement opportunities with Israel and her people, including:

  • Continued support of our delegates and agenda at the 38th World Zionist Congress over the next four years
  • Growing our ‘MERCAZ READS ISRAEL’ book club, featuring 3-4 book club meetings a year with the authors
  • Building out our social media footprint on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and USCJ’s The Commons to provide information and resources to the broadest possible audience on Masorti concerns in Israel and worldwide
  • Developing and disseminating materials that synagogues, camps, and other organizations can leverage to educate and excite the next generation of Jewish leaders on the importance of supporting Masorti Judaism in Israel …
  • … and in supporting our movement’s North American engagement programs – such as USY Pilgrimage, Nativ, Camp Ramah, the Conservative Yeshiva, and Schechter Institutes – that connect our communities in the U.S. to our communities in Israel.

These combined efforts are critical to raising awareness about the role MERCAZ plays in the World Zionist Congress – and electing a strong MERCAZ slate in the 2025 Congress election – to the current and next generation of Jewish leaders (remember, individuals who are 13 today will be able to vote in the next World Zionist Congress election)!

Many of you have been long-time supporters of Mercaz by becoming members, donating, or working on the VOTE MERCAZ campaign. For all of your support, we thank you!

As we approach our celebration of freedom – Hanukkah – we ask that you continue to be our partner in fulfilling the mission of Mercaz.

And, if you have never supported us before, this is a great year to become a part of our Mercaz community! There are two ways you can become a supporter of Mercaz:

Despite the many challenges ahead, we are optimistic and excited by our vision for how Mercaz can impact the lives of Masorti Jews in Israel, here in the U.S., and across the globe. We hope you will join us!

With best wishes for a joyous Hanukkah,

Marilyn L. Wind

Sarrae G. Crane
Executive Director

If you prefer to contribute membership dues by check, you can download and print the PDF membership form, and mail it to our office.

Ensuring the Pluralistic and Unified Nature of Our National Zionist Institutions


An Update From MERCAZ USA on the proceedings of the 38th World Zionist Congress

After a long and hard-fought struggle and many months leading up to this week, we just completed three days of the virtual 38th World Zionist Congress. We worked especially hard to preserve the voice of all Zionist viewpoints. MERCAZ, the Masorti/Conservative Movement, along with a coalition of Zionist parties in Israel and the Reform Movement, and the support of the Zionist organizations (HadassahB’nai Brith InternationalMaccabi World UnionWIZO and NAAMAT/USA), succeeded in blocking a divisive agreement and reached an agreement incorporating significant changes, which ensures checks and balances and inclusion of all the Jewish People in the leadership of our Zionist Institutions.

While the new agreement gives power to one side of the political spectrum, we remain confident that the changes preserve the national and pluralistic character of our Zionist Institutions. We will continue to fight for the character of Zionism and its values, and work to inculcate the principles of transparency, quality, and accountability.

For the first time in its history the Zionist Movement will appoint a President from the Center-Left Liberal Zionist block. The President will be nominated by the Yesh Atid party and designated for a female candidate, who will represent the Zionist Movement in Israel and abroad as an ambassador for all Zionist streams and viewpoints. Also for the first time, the Deputy WZO Chair and Deputy Head of the Jewish Agency (JAFI) will be representatives from the Reform and Conservative Movements. Yizhar Hess, previously head of Masorti Israel will hold the WZO position. Kachol Lavan will appoint the Keren HaYesod Chair. Movement parity is ensured in the KKL and WZO Executive Boards. New departments for Social Engagement (Tikkun Olam) – headed by Meretz, working with Israelis in the Diaspora – headed by the Reform Movement, and a unit for Humanistic Judaism – under the Labour Party will be established.

Together we prevented unilateral control by the Haredim of the KKL Education Committee. It will instead have two co-chairs, Kachol Lavan and Eretz HaKodesh, with each appointing a rotating Chair for the committee, and control of the KKL Finance Committee will move from Likud to Yesh Atid. Also prevented was the formation of a sectarian department for Orthodox Spiritual Services. All WZO departments will serve all sectors of Israeli society and the Jewish People. Allocations of departments and spheres of activity will be divided balanced, between the right and left.

We have plenty to be proud of. Great thanks to our negotiators, our delegates and our staff, as well as MERCAZ members who reached out to Zionist organizations throughout the negotiations. There is still much to do over the next four years to ensure that this situation does not happen again.


Marilyn L. Wind, President, MERCAZ USA

Sarrae Crane, Executive Director, MERCAZ USA

The 38th World Zionist Congress: Day 2 (10/21/20) Replay

The second day of the 38th World Zionist Congress was broadcast live from 9:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, October 21. You can watch the recordings of the second day of sessions below.

Plenary Sessions 6a, 6b, and 7 (broadcast live from 10:55 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 21):


Opening remarks from Day 2 at the World Zionist Congress (broadcast live from 9:00 a.m. – 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, October 21).

Power Grab at the World Zionist Organization (WZO): Vote Tuesday, 10/20, on Measure at WZC Could Undermine Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel

This urgent message is from the Executive Director, Gideon Aronoff, of our partner organization, The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Dear Friends,

Unless we act, and act quickly, Conservative and Reform Jews will be stripped of virtually all power at the WZO in what is described by some as a “hostile takeover by the ultra-Orthodox and right wing parties” of the WZO.

Leadership of key Zionist institutions and massive program budgets will be in the near-exclusive control of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in Israel. The potential consequences for an inclusive, pluralistic Judaism in Israel are dire.

The way to block this proposed agreement is by convincing the international organizations – HadassahB’nai Brith InternationalMaccabi World UnionWIZO and NAAMAT USA – to vote against it.

Contact any leaders you know in these important groups.

Normally, these organizations do not vote. But these are not normal times.

These organizations cannot sit on the fence this time!

As one leader notes, “Jews from around the world have always known that the WZO and its affiliate organizations welcomed a diversity of voices … If this agreement is passed, the message would be that Israel is only the homeland for Jews who think a certain way, and that is nothing less than a catastrophe.”

Details can be found in this Ha’aretz articleNow is the time to act.

Learn more about the 38th World Zionist Congress and how you can watch the proceedings live (October 20-22).

Join Mercaz Olami at the Kotel to bring in Tisha B’Av

UPDATE | Wednesday, July 29, 5:00 p.m. EDT: If you missed the live presentation > This beautiful chanting of Megillat Eicha at the Egalitarian Kotel can be viewed on Masorti Olami’s Facebook page. You do not need a Facebook account, or be logged on to Facebook, in order to view the recording.

Feeling confused about how to have a meaningful Tisha B’Av this year?

Please join MERCAZ Olami, Masorti Olami and The Masorti Movement In Israel for a live-streaming event of the reading of Megillat Eicha, directly from the Egalitarian Kotel.

The broadcast will take place on Wednesday, July 29 at 8:00 p.m. Israel time / 1:00 p.m. EDT as we join together virtually for the reading of Megillat Eicha.

We will be live-streaming via the Mercaz Olami Facebook page and Zoom (details to follow on the Mercaz Olami Facebook page).