Did you know there was a Zionist Supreme Court in Jerusalem?
Neither did I. And neither did all but a handful of even the most active Zionist organizational leaders in America and Israel.
But there is such a judicial institution and it is expected to rule in the coming days on an appeal from a group of prominent American Jewish pro-Israel activists who allege that their proposed slate for the upcoming World Zionist Congress (WZC) elections, to be held in Jerusalem in October, was disqualified illegally.
What’s more, with the online voting set to begin Jan. 21 for the election of delegates from around the world for the Congress — an event that takes place every five years — the activists allege that the American Zionist electoral system is deeply flawed and that an older generation of veteran leaders utilizes opaque methods to help them hold on to the reins. The critics assert that the process is rife with conflicts of interest, like allowing a committee made up of candidates representing various Zionist slates to disqualify would-be competitors.
In response, those in power insist that they desperately want to welcome and engage fresh young activist participation, but that in this particular case rules and bylaws were violated in the name of the proposed slate, Kol Yisrael, if not by its leaders.
Why does any of this matter?
Most American Jews know little and care less about the WZC, but it happens to be the only democratically elected body serving world Jewry. It offers millions of Jews a vote and a platform on issues that determine policy and funding — more than a billion dollars in all — for Jewish institutions in Israel and around the world.
The WZC is a direct successor to the original World Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, led by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.
Voting is open to any American Jew (self-defined) over the age of 18 who affirms a basic commitment to Zionist principles and pays $7.50 to register. Between Jan. 21 and March 11, voters can go online and choose from a list of 13 slates representing a variety of religious, political and cultural views. Those elected delegates from the U.S. will make up 39 percent of the 500 from around the world at the WZC in October. The Congress will make decisions on the work and funding of institutions like the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish National Fund and the World Zionist Organization, all of which support projects on an international scale.
But the number of American Jews voting in these elections is embarrassingly small, and in steep decline. In 2015, there were 56,000 votes cast, or one percent of American Jews; the election before had 80,000. To that end, leaders of the Zionist movement here insist that they are eager to engage young people. The American Zionist Movement (AZM), which oversees the election process, has a policy where at least one-third of the slates must be made up of women, and one-quarter made up of delegates under 35.
But critics of the Zionist organizational structure say the system is vulnerable to exploitation from within.
“Since so few people know or care about these Zionist elections and Congress, it’s easier for the old guard to keep control,” complained one member of the Kol Yisrael group that was turned down. She, like most others interviewed, would only agree to speak frankly if they were not named.
More Than Just Signatures
After interviewing about a dozen key figures in the U.S. and Israel over the last several weeks on this controversy, I realize there are two layers to this complex, bitterly contested drama.
On the surface, it’s about whether Kol Yisrael violated rules and bylaws in gathering signatures to qualify as a slate. But the larger issue is over transparency and alleged conflicts of interest within the election, and the future prospects for talented, younger Zionists who hope to reinvigorate the struggling movement.
Kol Yisrael was initially approved as a slate, and later disqualified by an AZM committee. AZM officials say that as many as 80 of the 500 required signatures were obtained in an illegal matter; leaders of Kol Yisrael insist that it is not true and that their slate was rejected because it was seen as a potential threat to those in power.
Kol Yisrael’s candidates appear to be the kind of model leaders needed to rejuvenate the American Zionist movement. They include the heads of well-respected groups like Esther Renzer and Roz Rothstein, co-founders of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group with more than a million followers on its website; Sarri Singer, founder and director of Strength To Strength, which works to help heal survivors of terrorism and their families; and Zoya Raynes, the youngest president in the history of the Jewish Communal Fund.
In a statement to an AZM tribunal examining the case, the slate leaders said they had been excited about “empowering and engaging the next generation,” based on their “track records of partnering with fellow Zionist organizations.”
They claim that they were “completely and utterly sidetracked from the mission at hand,” falsely accused of violations and threatened with the disqualification, which was announced in November.
The main culprit, according to slate members, was James Schiller, who they say bullied them to partner with his slate, Americans4Israel. While they were deliberating over the offer, they say he threatened to have them disqualified and taken to a tribunal unless they joined with him.
Schiller, who has been a leader on the American Zionist scene for more than four decades, adamantly denied the charge. “It’s false, as are most of the issues they brought up,” he said of the Kol Yisrael slate leaders. “And the vote” among the committee members to disqualify, he said, “was overwhelming.”
Schiller declined to speak about the specifics of the case, citing the fact that the ultimate determination on the Kol Yisrael appeal was being made at the Zionist Supreme Court this week.
Schiller and others maintain that two Israeli leaders of the World Confederation of United Zionists, David Yaari and Jesse Sultanik, aided Kol Yisrael in an illegal fashion, garnering signatures for the slate in the U.S. under false pretenses. That was the conclusion of an AZM subcommittee that looked into the matter as well as an AZM tribunal that reviewed an appeal.
Yaari and Sultanik strongly deny the charge, insisting they were simply encouraging American friends to sign up for Kol Yisrael. They blame Schiller for orchestrating an elaborate scheme to discredit and disqualify Kol Yisrael, fearful that his Americans4Israel slate, which has had between two and six delegates in past WZC meetings, would lose out to Kol Yisrael in the upcoming voting. (About 80 percent of the American delegates come from the three religious streams.)
What complicates the issue even more is that Schiller is a fellow executive of the World Confederation, along with Yaari and Sultanik.
Sources close to the parties involved say there is a power struggle within the leadership, and that Schiller is seeking to oust Yaari and discredit Sultanik, who in turn accuse him of an attempted coup.
In an interview, Herbert Block, executive director of the AZM, sought to emphasize the importance of the upcoming election and urge American Jews to vote. He acknowledged that “there’s a lot of politics here” in the Kol Yisrael issue but chose not to take sides.
As for the seeming conflict of interest in allowing Schiller and other slate leaders to make up the committee that determines which slates qualify, Block said “it’s an argument that some can make” but pointed out that the system has long been in place and that committee members are tasked to be fair and objective.
The Kol Yisrael slate appeal was turned down by the AZM elections committee and, subsequently, by an American Zionist tribunal. A ruling is expected very soon on the would-be slate’s final appeal to the Zionist Supreme Court, because voting for the U.S. slates begins Jan. 21. Kol Yisrael is hoping to still be included as the 14th slate. If it is approved, its charges against Schiller and others will appear validated, underscoring its leaders’ call for transparency and new rules.
If it is rejected, the system as is will have held — a victory for the incumbents and the existing rules.