THERE SEEMS to have been considerable confusion and contradiction in much of the press coverage of the Prime Minister’s Conference on Jewish Solidarity with Israel in Jerusalem last month, in terms of both Israel’s position and the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
As one who participated in the inner councils of the conference and mixed with a wide variety of Israeli political leaders and Diaspora representatives, I came to a quite different and far more positive conclusion. Indeed, this is a classic example of where most of the news media got it wrong.
In one sense, I am not surprised at the media’s negative assessment of the conference. Earlier this year, when Prime Minister Shamir’s representative first proposed the idea of the conference, I, too, had grave reservations about it and, like many others, I feared it might turn out to be counterproductive.
I had visions of Israeli political leaders thrashing out their differences in our presence, Diaspora leaders making irresponsible statements, conference organizers muzzling the dissenting visitors, and many prominent international leaders boycotting the conference.
Although the Israeli news media in general gave a picture of the conference that suggested that some of these fears were justified, I was delighted to be proven wrong on every count. It was a great success from almost every standpoint. At the very least, it has begun a healing process in Israel-Diaspora relations. In the long term, it may even prove to have been an important turning point in the troubled relationship.
The conference originally expected to have 400 visitors from abroad and a steering committee of some 20 delegates. It ended up with 1,700 participants and a steering committee of 350, on which I and my brother, Mark Leibler, represented Australia. In addition, I participated in a unique executive committee of 12 international Jewish leaders and personalities that was set up to monitor and plan proceedings and to work on a draft consensus resolution. While that resolution was in the end, as anticipated, a general one, it was enthusiastically accepted by many of the most outspoken critics of the Israel government as well as by some of those who had opposed convening such a conference.
BUT THE single most lasting contribution the conference made was to Israel-Diaspora relations.
I have been convinced for some time that the principal weakness in Israel-Diaspora relations in recent years, despite efforts by Jewish Agency Executive chairman Simcha Dinitz and his colleagues to stop the rot, has been that the Agency and the World Zionist Organization are no longer able to carry out the task for which they were established.
If the WZO had been effective, this conference would have taken place under its auspices. But after the last World Zionist Congress, which ended in utter chaos, the WZO has forfeited its role as the link between Israel and the Diaspora.
The same applies, to a lesser extent, to Jewish leadership as a whole. There are a few exceptionally talented Jewish leaders in the U.S. and Europe. By and large, however, international Jewish leaders are average balebatim, not dynamic personalities. As we know in Australia, most of the best talent in the Jewish people is not attracted to communal organizational activity.
Thus, the decision by the conference organizers, the Likud’s Ehud Olmert and Labour’s Mordechai Gur, to widen the invitation list beyond the traditional Jewish politicians and fundraisers and to include a diverse range of artists, scientists, writers, entrepreneurs and others outside the political establishment proved an excellent idea. Instead of simply repeating all the old political cliches, we had some refreshing new viewpoints by refreshing new faces.
The other unexpected byproduct of the conference was the impact on the Israelis themselves. Both Shamir and Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres were directly involved in the proceedings. Far from trying to score points off one another, and to the amazement of some of their own supporters, they bent over backwards to show that the concern for Israel was paramount, and that despite their major differences, they were united on the key issues of defence and other matters such as a common response to PLO statements.
In a private meeting with Prime Minister Shamir, I found him a relaxed and confident man. He was obviously delighted that, instead of the traditional intrigues and backstabbing that have taken place in recent years before Israeli leaders visited Washington, all sections of the national-unity government were behaving with the utmost propriety. Perhaps the presence of Diaspora leaders encouraged the Israelis to behave more responsibly. In a sense they were locked in. They had to demonstrate a common front or take responsibility for wrecking the conference.
THE PRINCIPAL success of the conference was its arriving at a consensus that rhetoric expressing love of Israel was simply not enough and that committed Jews in the Diaspora were morally obliged, if not to support, at least to desist from criticizing, policies affecting security and involving the life and death of Israelis.
I was one of the first to articulate this viewpoint in my response to Mr. Shamir’s opening address at the steering committee. I was delighted at the enthusiastic response I received from the overwhelming majority of participants, including those holding genuine reservations concerning the Israel government’s response to the PLO rhetoric and the way the intifada is being handled. Such decisions, it was agreed, must remain the exclusive prerogative of the democratically elected Israel government.
Equally important: the conference showed that given the decline and low standing of the Jewish Agency and the WZO, the Israel government itself will be obliged to continue the role of providing Diaspora leaders with the opportunity of discussing matters directly with Israeli leaders.
The solidarity conference also demonstrated that, although there has been considerable erosion in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, the cement has certainly not yet been irrevocably cracked.
Some of those who came to Jerusalem under duress, critical and even bitter about Israel’s policies, discovered that much of their passion evaporated when they actually heard and spoke directly with Israeli leaders. Even some of the toughest critics conceded by the end of the conference that it was neither morally nor politically acceptable for Diaspora leaders to express critical views about Israel’s defence policies.
THE ONE disturbing feature of the conference was the coverage by the news media. The Israeli press remained hostile and, in my opinion, biased throughout. They implied that the conference was simply a Likud-inspired stunt to embarrass the Labour Party and to bring the Diaspora back into line. They also reported, falsely, that many prominent Jews had boycotted the meeting.
Certainly, there were some absentees from America. Some French leaders, not renowned for their religious observance, claimed they were unable to come to Israel because of Purim! Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg did not come and went instead to Jordan. But by and large, world Jewish leaders did come in force.
I was particularly irked when, in the course of an interview with Israel Television, I was accused of muzzling debate when I presided over the meeting addressed by Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which was one of the most sensitive presentations at the plenum. I denied the allegation and observed that some Diaspora critics of Israel’s defence policies were bravely outspoken in their condemnations of Israel in their own countries, but became silent and ashamed after being confronted with the realities in Israel. My remarks were highlighted at the opening of the TV news broadcast that evening.
THERE IS a fundamental weakness in Diaspora-Israel relations that no conference can remedy. It lies at the heart of the Jewish challenge for the 1990s.
The majority of the 1,700 participants in the conference are committed Jews. But they represent only a small minority of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The harsh reality, which many of us refuse to face, is that the vast majority of Jews in the Diaspora are not really committed to Judaism.
This problem is accentuated in many countries by the absence of a Jewish leadership capable of influencing or motivating the uncommitted. The principal adversaries of Israel in the Diaspora are not the Arthur Hertzbergs or the left-liberals. The real challenge is to find charismatic Jewish leaders capable of persuading uncommitted, even marginal, Jews with no real appreciation of their Jewish heritage of a Jewish obligation to support an unpopular Jewish cause that is sometimes even in conflict with their own government’s policies.
But having expressed these concerns, I am satisfied that the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world remain unshakable in their commitment to Israel.
The conference also demonstrated that when Jews in the Diaspora begin having doubts about Israel, the best response is to provide an opportunity for them to discuss matters with a responsible and intelligent Israeli leadership.
Most of the 1,700 participants have returned to their communities strengthened in their commitment to Israel and more understanding of the painful alternatives facing Israeli decision makers. One hopes that those participants outside the Jewish political framework will also be encouraged to become more involved in Jewish affairs. They will be a valuable addition to the ranks of those presenting the case for Israel.
When the dust settles, let us hope there will be a growing realization in Jerusalem that unless the Jewish Agency miraculously gets its act together again, Israel must follow up this initiative and not allow Israel-Diaspora relations to slide back into dependence on a moribund World Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency structure. The Israel government, which has more leverage than any Jewish organization, must try to bring into active Jewish public life the talented new faces and personalities outside the Jewish political establishment, many of whom participated in such a gathering for the first time.
The writer is president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the Asia Pacific Jewish Association.