THE Tenth Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress opening in Jerusalem today and attended by leaders from over 70 Jewish communities will be a watershed meeting, a signpost pointing us away from the past, toward the future.
Over the past decade or so the congress has become in practice what had always been intended from its inception in the late ’30s: the political arm of Diaspora Jewry.
In the recent post-Cold War era particularly, the congress has been directly involved in the great issues of our time, from the development of Israel’s dramatically new regional and international relations, to the aftermath of the Soviet empire’s collapse and its repercussions for millions of Jews.
Now there is a significant shift in world Jewry’s preoccupation: away from a concentration on the politics of an embattled Israel and the rescue of Jews under physical threat toward the challenges of responding to freedom and assimilation.
The questions raised by snowballing levels of intermarriage and assimilation are not new. What gives them their current urgency is that our lead-time is running out. Unless some of the alarming statistics of Jewish disappearance are soon reversed, a decade or two from now could be too late.
But how can the sense of urgency and drama be transmitted to Jewish leaders and their communities? The quartet of Jewish commitment – remembering the Holocaust, defending the Jewish state, fighting antisemitism and pursuing the human rights of oppressed Jews – is almost played out. Whatever the ongoing validity and appeal of these causes, it is clear they can no longer provide the cement for a Jewish collective identity.
This has major implications for Israel-Diaspora relations, which are also weakening. President Weizman tried last year to spark a debate with Diaspora Jews on Zionism, particularly on aliya. The debate quickly fizzled.
THESE trends also have an impact in the religious arena.
The polarization between secular and religious Jews in Israel is echoed in the Diaspora, where Orthodox Judaism moves further to the right in observance and outlook, as well as isolating itself from the mainstream. Religious Zionism, despite the terrible tragedy of the Rabin assassination, still remains influenced by messianically inspired zealots who, unlike their predecessors, fail to build bridges between Orthodox and secular.
The Reform and Conservative movements tend to make concessions on such issues as intermarriage, which lead to greater isolation from the Orthodox.
We are thus faced with the probable emergence of two separate peoples, each regarding themselves as Jews, but – and what a tragic irony may await us – unable to intermarry.
Even in Israel the frequently asked question is whether the Jewish state at peace with its neighbors will become a Hebrew-speaking clone of Singapore rather than a state based on Jewish and Zionist values.
The WJC Assembly’s agenda reflects these trends and concerns. Instead of “foreign affairs” as the dominant theme, the emphasis is on Jewish education; Judaism and religion in the modern world; and Israel-Diaspora relations. Our struggles are now far more inside the fold, less against our external enemies. The principal challenge is Jewish “rejuvenation.”
In this area, WJC president Edgar Bronfman has already outlined his own agenda. For him, Jewish education is now the fund-raising priority. As one of the largest donors to Jewish causes, Bronfman has also emphasized the need to ensure maximum results by ending the duplication and massive wastage arising from competing international and local Jewish agencies, all committed to identical objectives.
A formidable challenge. But the WJC Assembly should at least identify the principal strategies Jewish leaders will need to adopt if they are to sustain Diaspora Jewry into the 21st century.
The writer is co-chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.