From the future of Zionism to a near-violent brawl

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

This past World Zionist Congress, the 36th, honoring Theodor Herzl’s 150th birthday, was the first we have ever attended. We both grew up in Zionist youth movements in Australia and developed strong Jewish and Zionist identities and passions for activism.

We went to Jewish day schools and learned about the Jewish people, its spirit and its mission, and understood our responsibilities as a people, and as individuals.

We spent time in Israel, far away from our families, and in a two-way process we both gained knowledge and experience from living here.

There are so many things that bring us together, no matter your flavor of Zionism; and the proof of this is the World Zionist Congress.

For the leadership of the Jewish world to come together to celebrate our efforts and reset our dreams for the next four years is a great display of our achievements.

For the young and old, religious and secular, Left and Right, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, to all sit in a giant hall and discuss the future of the Zionist movement should be a beautiful moment of Jewish harmony.

It is true that we discuss controversial matters – perhaps those that cause the greatest divides between factions – but on Thursday that discussion unnecessarily descended into anarchy.

Both sides of the aisle engaged in a style of debate that would have disappointed Herzl and the other great leaders of our movement.

After hours of debating and voting on Zionist education, aliya and youth leadership, the question of the US-Israel relationship was raised, and the possibility of the World Zionist Organization calling for a total freeze on construction in the territories. This controversial vote – an issue we passionately disagree with each other on – prompted the right-wing bloc to storm the stage and denounce the body as undemocratic.

It was unfortunate to see that the Left responded in kind, with dozens of people on stage yelling, screaming and name-calling. Microphones were snatched, the stage was exploited for partisan bickering, and it seemed as though the next step would involve punches being thrown. The entire plenary had descended into chaos; it was hardly what either of us had expected from our first congress.

IN AUSTRALIA we teach youth group members the value of vigorous debate and healthy disagreement.

Seminars bring all the youth movements together to exchange ideas on various matters and nothing could be more beneficial. It gets heated, sure, but never is a slur made or a member moved by anger to leave his chair.

The session before us was disastrous. We grew up discussing these issues, of settlements and conversions, and know that all the delegates would have too, but is this what the World Zionist Congress had come to? We decided we had to act. If the steering committees and presidents could not call for calm, perhaps the reasonable voices of two young Australians could take the stage and restore order. We came up, pleaded with our elders to let us speak for a minute, and finally took the stage.

We pleaded for calm and highlighted the similarities between us, that what unites us is greater than what divides us and that we require a balance between civility in discussions and fervid ideological debate. It is integral for our Zionist movement to come together and realize this behavior is not the way to continue our important work. Thankfully, we were met with voracious applause and then, mostly, calm.

The truth is the strength we gain from our unity is immeasurable. It was that impetus that led the two of us to make a stand and call for a pause in the proceedings to assess our behavior.

We both grew up on opposite sides of the coin – one a secular lefty from Habonim Dror, the other from Bnei Akiva and on the center- right – and it was exactly these differences that brought us together .

For us to be able to hold vastly different views on the settlements, on the role of religion in the Jewish state and on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian question, but to still understand that we both seek the best for our people and for our state is a powerful statement on the strength of our movements.

Indeed, the impassioned debate within our communities and within the congress is one of the greatest assets we have. Certainly, those who seek to destroy us have nothing of the sort, but no debate should near violence.

We call on an increasingly divided Jewish world to continue debating and exchanging ideas, for that is essential. It is what makes our people, and our state, so resilient and so strong.

Most importantly perhaps, we implore leaders from around the world to reach out and expose more people of our generation to the possibilities of involvement and activism that so many of us are crying out for.

More than a hundred of the youth delegates met throughout the congress to discuss how we can take more responsibility for Zionism in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. It is essential that those calls are heeded and translated into seats at the table and a real voice in the Zionist movement.

Without understanding, and without the inclusion of the strong youth leadership already at its disposal, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel, will lose the next generation. We are ready to take the baton and start sprinting. In the world we live in, we don’t believe we can afford not to.

Jacob Wytwornik is a new immigrant, originally from Melbourne, and represented Mizrahi at the World Zionist Congress. Liam Getreu, also from Melbourne, is chairman of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, which he represented at the congress.