Why I'm a Delegate in the World Zionist Congress

October 16, 2015Rabbi Danny Burkeman

I should really be sleeping instead of writing this. I’m sitting on an El Al airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, and if I’m going to have any chance of controlling the inevitable jet lag that comes with a 10-hour flight and a seven-hour time difference, then I should be asleep.

But I can’t sleep. I’m exhausted, and I want to sleep, but I’m too excited. I have that feeling of anticipation that a person gets when they’re en route to a place they love, to see people they love – when a person is going home.

Israel has always felt like home. That’s hardly surprising, with an Israeli mother, having grown up through a Zionist youth movement, and having spent two years living there. I feel that connection the moment I step onto the plane and find myself surrounded by the language of our people. I don’t know how to explain it, but Israeli apple juice just tastes different to the varieties I’m used to in England and America. And there’s something about the excitement that I can feel from my fellow passengers; the couple next to me are traveling to Israel for the very first time, and their excitement is palpable.

But this trip is different. This is not a family vacation, it’s not an Israel tour to explore the length and breadth of the country; this time I am returning to Israel as a delegate for the World Zionist Congress.

I remember the programs from my Zionist youth movement days, when we learned about Theodor Herzl and the Congress he convened in Basel, Switzerland, back in 1897. Looking at the pictures, it seemed so far removed from my experiences growing up with the State of Israel as a reality that I, at the time, essentially took for granted. I fantasized about what it must have been like to be a part of that historic occasion as the Jewish community took decisive steps toward a return to our homeland. At that time, I did not realize that the Congress was still meeting every four or five years.

That changed in 2006, when, as a result of the insightful decision to require one in every four delegates to be under the age of 35, I had the opportunity to represent ProZion, the British Arzenu affiliate. I was honored to assume my place as a member of this historic Congress. I was anticipating lofty speeches about Zionist ideals; instead I saw firsthand how divided a Jewish community really is and how bitter our political fights can be. It was disappointing to see just how much division there was in the room, but, undeterred, I returned again in 2010. This time, I was a little older and a little more prepared for what lay ahead.

And now I’m flying to Israel to take my place as a delegate at the World Zionist Congress for a third time. And this time it feels different, too. With the existential threats and the internal divisions that Israel faces, I feel that there is real work for us to do.

Herzl stood before the Jewish people and declared “Im tirzu eyn zo agadah,” if you will it, it is no dream. But what was he dreaming about?

Following his modern ideals, I am sure he envisioned a vibrant, democratic, egalitarian, and prosperous state. I doubt he anticipated an ultra-Orthodox minority condemning and attacking other Jews, fostering a society in which women are often treated as second-class citizens. I’m pretty certain he didn’t dream about an Israel still fighting for her survival as hostile enemies continue to arm themselves and grow in confidence around her. And I am sure that he didn’t imagine a place where violent terrorists would be stabbing Jews and mowing them down with their cars.

Herzl’s vision liyot am chofshi b’artzenu – to be a free people in our land – may have been realized, but there is still so much work to do to help Israel to be the type of country Herzl dreamt about, the place that we spent all those centuries yearning for, and the type of place that is both safe and secure for her citizens as well as a shining beacon for all the nations of the world.

At this time, I am committed to go to Israel to demonstrate that we will not let the terrorists win, and that while the world may be silent while innocent Jewish blood is shed, we Jews of the Diaspora stand with Israel and will support her. I am proud to be an ARZA/Arzenu delegate representing the highest ideals of Reform Judaism and the aspiration for a vibrant, democratic, and egalitarian Israel. And I am honored to be following in the footsteps of Herzl and so many other Zionists, to once again take my place as a representative of the global Jewish community at the World Zionist Congress.

I’m sure that at times, I will be frustrated by the political process, and I am certain that I will be upset by seeing how divided a Jewish community we are. But I know that I will be invigorated to be in Jerusalem, to be a part of the Congress, and to play my very small part in helping to continue Herzl’s dream.

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