Everyone Counts: Why the WZO Elections Matter So Much
It is a well-known dictum that it is forbidden to count Jews. We find this halachah in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 22b, based on the words of the prophet Hosea 1:10: "And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted."
The medieval commentator Rashi challenges this negative view of counting in his commentary on the first verse of the Book of Numbers, portraying it instead as a gesture of love on the part of God:
“Because they (the children of Israel) are dear to God, God counts them often. God counted them when they were about to leave Egypt; counted them after the Golden Calf to establish how many were left. And now that God was about to cause God’s presence to rest on them (with the inauguration of the sanctuary), God counted them again. (Rashi to Numbers 1:1)”
It is clear, then, that in Judaism, there is a tension: On one hand, there is a strong notion that every person counts – while also recognizing that counting can devalue individuals by submerging them into an indiscriminate crowd.
Growing up in the only-just-re-emerging Progressive Jewish community in Germany, my parents taught my sisters and I that each of us counted. It didn’t matter that our way of being Jewish was not recognized by the mainstream Jewish community or the state. What mattered was that we showed up, engaged, and helped to create the kind of Jewish life that was meaningful to us.
My father, Jan Muehlstein, in his role as the lay chair of the Progressive Jewish movement in Germany, fought tirelessly for state recognition and access to public funding for our communities. While I witnessed many setbacks during the years of struggle, the memories of the step-by-step successes shine ever more brightly. I was privileged to see how critical the support from Reform Jews in the United States and around the world was in bringing about these victories.
Yet the fact that Progressive Judaism was not recognized in Israel always loomed in the background. How can we demand equal treatment from non-Jewish governments when the government of the Jewish State continues to institutionally discriminate against Progressive Judaism?
In many ways, it was my way of following in my father’s footsteps when I became involved with Arzenu, the political party that represents the interests of Progressive Jews in the Zionist Institutions, namely the World Zionist Organization (WZO), the Jewish Agency, and Keren Kayemeth Leyisrael – Jewish National Fund. As the international chair of Arzenu, it is my role to remind Jews all around the world that if we want to achieve full recognition for our way of being Jewish, everyone counts
As such, every vote for the Reform Movement in World Zionist Congress elections will directly strengthen our ability to fight for an Israel that reflects our Jewish values and fully recognizes our way of being Jewish. Every vote for the Reform Movement will ensure that our voice in Israel will be heard that much louder and clearer.
In the essay Beyond Egalitarianism (found in the book In Our Own Voices), Professor Judith Plaskow suggests that two of the stages to achieve genuine equality are creating structures that allow the silenced to speak and taking authority to fill in the silence. In Israel, the voice of Reform and Progressive Judaism has been too often silenced by the State – but by establishing Arzenu, a political party within the Zionist Institutions, the Reform movement has achieved access to structures that allow us to speak up and take our seat at the table as equals to the other streams of Judaism.
And we have claimed authority to fill the silence, to proudly advocate for our way of being Jewish. When you vote Reform in the Zionist Congress elections, you will boost our authority to speak and empower our representatives to bring about equal recognition of Reform and Progressive Judaism in Israel.
I passionately believe in the importance of this mission. Our way of being Jewish has so much to offer to Israelis, and the wonderful work of our Movement in Israel should be strengthened and not hindered by the State.
But I think there is even more at stake: As long as Israel is a country where the State can discriminate against fellow Jews, we cannot be surprised that other minority groups are discriminated against, as well.
So vote Reform – because achieving full equality for the Reform Movement will be an important milestone in fulfilling the vision of Israel’s founders to develop the land for the benefit of all its inhabitants, and to implement the prophetic ideals of liberty and justice.
It will not be possible to solve all of Israel’s challenges through the Zionist Institutions, but this is the only political table in Israel where we, as Reform and Progressive Jews, sit as equals. Having a strong representation and being able to build coalitions with other partners allows us to advocate for an Israel, which reflects our Jewish values.
Every one of you counts – so make sure you vote Reform in the World Zionist Congress elections. Voting is open now.