College and university campuses are a major ideological battleground
College and university campuses are a major ideological battleground Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90

The World Zionist Congress (WZC) will meet for the first time in five years this October. In the meantime, activists are trying to generate a buzz for its elections, a rolling ballot that is happening for the first time in nine years. For Chavi Eisenberg of the Mizrahi Religious Zionist slate, this will not be her first trip.

"This is my 4th Congress as a youth delegate... and the last one as it turns out before passing the age limit. I will certainly be one of the more experienced delegates on the slate."

Mrs. Eisenberg is also a member of the Zionist General Council, charged with implementing the Congress’ decisions in the intermediate years between meetings. Do not be fooled though, the council is enormous with hundreds of members.

The reason for the wide gaps though between Congressional sessions is expense and logistics. The Congress involves hundreds of representatives going in the name of several slates. The slate for Mizrahi alone "easily has dozens of delegates" which allows for a lot of diversity across the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist worlds. Other candidates for this year’s slate include Chicago’s Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi Joshua Lookstein.

The Mizrahi slate is a representation of Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist institutions throughout the United States. Supporting organizations include Yeshiva University, Bnei Akiva, AMIT, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, among others. Those groups have a strong interest in promoting Orthodox programs in connection with Israel, but the agenda is much broader than that according to Mrs. Eisenberg. Education is what resonates with her the most.

"The Religious Zionist slate stands for Zionist education, meaning that all Jews no matter where they are in the world should have access to Jewish education with a sense of history, culture and traditions."

"This is a non-coercive education which serves as a bridge among all members of the Jewish community."

The slate is focused on promoting Aliyah, Religious Zionist outreach and "ensuring the security of a united Jerusalem."

That religious twist informed on the slate’s decision to utilize the website name, where people may register with the World Zionist Organization and vote for the Mizrahi slate.

Where these slates make the difference is mainly in setting the agenda for the World Zionist Organization, which has a massive budget at its disposal that needs a list of priorities to be set for it for the coming four years. The Congress is only the beginning of that allocation process, but resolutions being reviewed and sent through committees and then voted in general sessions make the difference between seeing something as a priority for global Jewish activism or pushing it closer to the backburner.

One of the issues that is not explicitly on the organization's platform but goes without saying for all the delegations heading to the Congress in October is the brand of Zionism itself.

"Branding of Zionism is going to get discussed a lot, especially in connection with anti-Semitism. One of the issues we see right now is because of the negative connotation the word has now, it's making it very hard to get people engaged about the Congress."

While Religious Zionists might tend see the issue from a religious perspective, Mrs. Eisenberg says it certainly crosses platforms.

"We are definitely talking about it along party lines but it's a challenge for every platform."

"This is especially an issue with college students and others in the 18-35 category. Because of the influences of secular media and other sources, this is the buzzword of the day we have to contend with."

Mrs. Eisenberg suggests that we need to bring the issue back around to discussion about Jews' right to self-determination, which she says is definitely more recognizable and positive for people not emotionally invested in the Zionist ideology. It's a matter of reclaiming the definition for the Zionist movement.

While asking if people support "Zionism" today, Eisenberg suggests that is more of a turn-off, but "if I ask 'do you support the Jewish people's right to self-determination?' people certainly agree."

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