Sephardi Party Gets Ready to Rock Zionist Congress

Ohavei Zion - the World Sephardic Zionist Organization - will compete for the first time in World Zionist Congress elections this month.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef
Israel News photo: Flash 90

This month is a 30-day-long election critical for the Jewish world. For the first time in 10 years, the World Zionist Congress (WZC) will be holding elections. It is a number of firsts for the group. This is the first time in decades that the WZC will confront a massive backlash against Zionism itself, a crisis in the Israeli-American alliance, and the threat of sanctions. On the 'local' level, this will also be the first time the World Sephardic Zionist Organization (also known as Ohavei Zion) will be competing for votes.

The organization was the initiative of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in 2010. Elections were skipped that year, but the entry of the group provoked the ire of both liberal Zionists and Ashkenazi Haredi Jews for the group's ascension to a Zionist organization. According to Yigal Bibi, former MK for the National Religious Party who became the initial Shas representative to the World Zionist Organization, the main priority is to counterbalance the influence of the liberal Zionists in the Congress – particularly members of the Reform Movement.

“The Reform Movement is the strongest Congressional representative from the US and we think that they are doing damage to Zionism and the Jewish world,” says Bibi. Their Rabbis are authorizing same-sex marriage and (a version of) the Law of Return that brings a lot of non-Jews into the country,” referring to Jews not of maternal decent or Orthodox conversions.

“Intermarriage and ceremonies with priests standing next to Rabbis are not Zionism. They are not Judaism.”

This was apparently the major motivation to get involved in the WZO, for whom the WZC determines a major part of the organizational budget.

“We want to prevent assimilation but considering the reform movement's position are against this policy. In my opinion, the most difficult struggle for American Jews will be Reform’s impact in that the WZO’s efforts will be in danger; especially for religious interests.”

At the time of Shas’ ascension to the WZO, the head of Reform Judaism in Israel – Rabbi Uri Regev – accused Shas of duplicity and even called them a “Trojan Horse.” 

Others might point out that the Shas attitude to Zionism has been very different to political parties like the mainly Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (UTJ). UTJ, for example, will join Israeli governments but symbolically refuse to accept ministers’ positions (MK Litzman accepted the post of Deputy Health Minister in 2009, but effectively ran the ministry). Shas has not been so technical, holding the Interior Ministry under the same government in the guise of Eli Yishai (who is also a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces). While Yishai has since moved on, Rabbi Ovadiah’s influence is clearly everywhere on his initiatives even after his death. That includes Ohavei Zion.

According to Bibi, also the former Mayor of Tiberias, the main focus of Ohavei Zion will be Jewish education.

“Over the next five years, we can bring together the budget and prioritize education for the children that actually need it. We can protect Torah and mitzvoth in spite of other religious groups like Reform.”

Bibi leveled direct criticism at American Jewish education of all denominations, calling it “too expensive.”

“Our agenda is too mainly influence education and to affect the problem that many Jews are in public schools rather than Jewish schools. Why is that? The education is much too expensive in America. We will make sure to fund afterschool programs and better Hebrew instruction among other things.”

“Without Jewish education, we will lose the Jewish world. Our mission is saving that Jewish world. We can save so many souls.”

Another element of the list’s platform is the prioritization of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. As Rabbi David Bibi (no relation), the list’s #2 wrote a few short months ago, “For the first time, the delegates will also be representing the issue of the rights of the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries, which was recognized by the Israeli government and the International community through legislation initiated by a Member of Knesset.

When asked by Arutz Sheva about Haredi criticism from groups like UTJ, Yigal Bibi rhetorically fired back.

"They can sit in the Knesset with the likes of Meretz or the Joint Arab List, but we can't run in an all-Jewish organization?"

To register to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections and to vote for Ohavei Zion, click here.