UK Zionist groups agree on congress delegation after heavy wrangling

Arguments over who was eligible for World Zionist Congress had to be resolved at special tribunal


Britain’s Zionist groups have finally agreed the make-up of their delegation to October's World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem after months of wrangling. 

Whether the event, held every five years, actually goes ahead remains open to question given the coronavirus crisis, though an online alternative may happen.  

But that has not stopped arguments over who was eligible to go, which became so fraught at one stage that a special tribunal presided over by a QC had to be convened to resolve them. 

The UK has little influence at the congress, which decides policy for the World Zionist Organisation, with an allocation of only 19 seats out of 525. 

While the WZO spends around £38 million a year on such things as aliyah promotion, more significantly it controls half the Jewish Agency with a vastly bigger budget of more than £300 million and heavy investment in diaspora youth and education. 

Plans to hold an online public election to choose the UK representation this year had to be abandoned because of the pandemic. 

Instead, the Zionist groups agreed to allocate seats among themselves, based on assessments of their support within the community. 

The controversy began when Likud-Herut UK – now calling itself Likud UK – which had not been involved in the previous Congress, wanted to run this time. 

To complicate matters, there is an alternative group called Herut UK. 

As a new slate, Likud UK had to muster 500 signatures from the community to indicate it had sufficient support. 

But although the chairman of the UK’s area election committee Rabbi Lea Muhlstein initially accepted the Likud list, others committee members challenged its validity. 

The dispute then went to a tribunal set up by the Zionist Federation adjudicated by Jonathan Goldberg QC and barrister Gary Grant. 

In June, they ruled in favour of Likud UK’s eligibility. 

In their decision, they stated, "At an earlier stage it appeared to us that allegations of bad faith were possibly being bandied about somewhat carelessly on both sides.

"Happily on closer examination we ourselves detected no such element in the case whatever. We emphasise that we have seen no evidence whatever that either side, or the personalities involved, behaved with anything other than complete propriety and good faith in endeavouring to do their best in difficult conditions, not least brought about by the current pandemic."

Rabbi Muhlstein had conducted herself in “exemplary fashion”, they said. 

According to the minutes of an area election committee in March, Likud UK had been willing to accept one of the 19 seats. 

But it subsequently increased its demand at one point to three seats. 

Rabbi Muhlstein resigned as chair of the committee, saying she no longer had time given her responsibilities as a congregational rabbi and as chairman of Artenu, the international Progressive Zionist movement. 

Finally, last month the Zionist parties reached a deal that gave Likud UK two seats. 

Zalmi Unsdorfer, Likud UK chairman, said, “The one seat proposal was mooted by World Likud's chairman at an earlier stage but without our prior knowledge or agreement here in the UK.  

“They later suggested two seats which, at the eleventh hour, we accepted to break the deadlock which would have rendered the whole ZFUK slate out of time.” 

He said the group would revert to the Likud Herut UK brand “immediately after the congress. It has been, and always will be ours.” 

As it stands, Mizrachi and Pro-Zion will each have four seats: Mercaz, Likud UK, FZY (representing the Confederation of Zionists) two each: and the Jewish Labour Movement, Herut UK, Over the Rainbow, Meretz and Hanoar Hatzioni one apiece.

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