The Collapse of Zionist Leadership
The Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization will be meeting in Jerusalem next week. Of late, the media have been conveying the message that many Diaspora Jews, especially youngsters, are becoming alienated from the Jewish state. It is sometimes even implied that more Jews are engaged in castigating than defending Israel.
This is certainly a wild exaggeration. Despite the combined impact of postmodernism and the hostile anti-Israeli environment, the majority of activists, including young people, remain faithful to the Jewish state, which represents the core of their Jewish identity.
However, it’s true that established Jewish leaders in many communities display a penchant to downplay pro-Israel advocacy and assume a low profile. This trend was boosted as the liberal media began highlighting and lauding as heroes Jews who demonize the Jewish state. This in turn emboldened them to demand recognition as legitimate members of the mainstream Jewish community.
Regrettably the response of many confused communal leaders was to prattle on about the virtues of enlarging the “Jewish tent” to include organizations like J Street, which inaccurately portray themselves as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” while shamelessly lobbying foreign governments to exert pressure on Israel. They failed to appreciate the incongruity of integrating into their ranks groups whose prime objective is to undermine Israel.
THIS CHAOTIC arena led to what can only be described as bizarre behavior unprecedented in Jewish communal life: “rabbis” claiming to promote “tikkun olam” by actively supporting and engaging with avowed enemies of the Jewish people; debates conducted within federations as to whether Jewish philanthropic funding should be directed to organizations promoting anti-Israel plays and films; the New York Jewish Federation bestowing $1 million of charitable funds on the fervently anti-Israel George Soros-sponsored group Jewish Funds for Justice; individual Hillel directors treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between two morally equivalent parties, on occasion even favoring the Palestinians; and student activists in the UK, Canada and the United States being urged by Jewish establishment bodies to assume low profiles and avoid confronting anti- Israel demonstrations.
What typifies this insanity was a recent “very difficult decision” undertaken following a fervent debate at Brandeis University’s Hillel as to whether to exclude from the “big tent” Jewish Voices for Peace – an organization shamelessly calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The problem was resolved by endorsing a recommendation by Martin Raffel (senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), who ruled that supporting boycotts of goods produced in the West Bank should be considered a legitimate (!) Jewish activity. However, as Jewish Voices for Peace also opposed an independent Jewish state, he felt that this “crossed a red line,” and the decision was made to exclude them! It is incomprehensible why preponderantly Zionist contributors to these philanthropic organizations tolerate such abuse of funds.
THE PRINCIPAL reason for the emergence of such troubling developments seems to emanate from inadequate leadership. During the early years of the state, Labor Zionist governments invested major resources toward nurturing links with Diaspora Jewish leaders.
No aspiring Jewish communal leader would conceivably contemplate criticizing policies which could have life-or-death implications for Israelis.
However, recent government leaders, including prime ministers, have neglected Diaspora Jewish leadership, and instead fawned over wealthy Jews, from whom they solicit support for their political and personal enterprises.
Historically, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the World Zionist Organization (WZO) were the principal parties responsible for promoting the Zionist cause within Diaspora Jewish communities. In fact, their program of Kibbush Hakehilot – the Zionist “conquest of Jewish communities” – succeeded to such an extent that support for the Jewish state from “Zionist” and Jewish communal leaders became virtually indistinguishable.
Alas, that activity eroded in the 1980s, as JAFI was largely reduced to a bloated bureaucracratic instrumentality occupied with activities that could equally be conducted by other state instrumentalities.
Nobody disputes that JAFI still operates important Zionist educational projects like Birthright and Masa.
The seminars on delegitimization which they will be conducting at their forthcoming board meeting are a commendable academic exercise, but are duplicated by virtually every major Jewish organization engaged in public affairs, and the participants are not necessarily likely to be indulging in Israel advocacy. However, beyond such projects, JAFI has abysmally failed to fulfill its principal obligation – promoting the centrality of Israel in Jewish communal life throughout the world.
Despite great expectations, the chairman of JAFI, Natan Sharansky, a hero of the Jewish people and the symbol for renascent Zionism, has until now proven a major disappointment. He is perceived as having capitulated to the demands of wealthy (primarily American) board members determined to dilute core Zionist projects and transform JAFI into a replica of the American Jewish fundraising federation system.
Many Zionists were deeply frustrated with Sharansky’s decision to substitute JAFI’s traditional primary goal of aliya (which was already operated by Nefesh B’Nefesh) and concentrate almost exclusively on the vague objective of “promoting Jewish identity,” which surely does not conflict with aliya, and which everyone supports. Ironically the aliya department was disbanded precisely when Western countries began to emerge as a major new potential source of immigrants.
The WZO, whose funding has been drastically curtailed and which is now totally separated from JAFI, is justly regarded as an utterly impotent body with marginal impact on the Jewish world. It continues convening global meetings and congresses in which nobody takes the slightest interest. Other than the Australian, British and South African Zionist federations, which carry on with minimal support from the parent body, its Diaspora offshoots have disintegrated.
TODAY, WE desperately need a global Jewish pro-Israel caucus which could emerge from a reformed JAFI. But it should not depend on existing personnel tainted with failure, or primarily on wealthy donors. It must incorporate a wide cross-section of Diaspora and Israeli Jewish activists engaged in public communal life and encompassing all sides of the political spectrum and religious streams within Judaism. The sole proviso for entry should be a genuine commitment to promoting Israel as the center of the Jewish people.
The principal objective of a reformed JAFI must be the reconstruction of an unashamedly pro-Israel Jewish leadership in Diaspora communities, including within the American federations, Hillel and rabbinical bodies. It should endeavor to ensure that only those willing to publicly support the right of Israel to defend itself will be elected to communal leadership roles.
Such an action group should speak out when establishment communal leaders remain silent in the face of anti-Israel activity. Importantly, it should promote Zionist education and ensure that every Jewish high school allocates at least a few hours a week to teaching about modern Israel, so that when students arrive on campus they are sufficiently informed to respond to the anti-Israel onslaughts.
In the profoundly challenging times now confronting the Jewish people, action to bring about such changes should be considered an absolute priority.
Representing the vast majority of committed Jews, a group dedicated to these objectives would have a dramatic impact on the quality of Jewish communal life, and help restore bonds between the Diaspora and Israel.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post