Birthright Israel participants

Zionism at the crossroads

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After 2000 years of dispersion, persecution and powerlessness and in the wake of the greatest disaster ever to have encompassed the Jewish people, Zionism rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Shoah and achieved the impossible. In what must be the most remarkable achievement of any people and unique in the annals of mankind, it resurrected a homeland and empowered the Jews.

After fulfilling its principal objective of creating a Jewish state, it is not surprising that the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization are now mere shadows of their former glory. Even after being substantially downsized because of a drastic decline in donor income, the Jewish Agency remains a bloated bureaucracy. Aside from a few prominent personalities, the World Zionist Organization is widely perceived as a retreat for failed or retired Israeli politicians or apparatchiks who compete fiercely for paid executive positions with the perks of overseas travel. With a few notable exceptions, most Diaspora Zionist organizational affiliates have eroded and become marginalized.

For most Israelis, especially younger people, the term Zionism has become an anachronism and an expression of derision or contempt.

Yet despite this, the Zionist movement has a vital role to fulfill for the Jewish people – especially today, when post-Zionists or Hebrew-speaking Canaanites seek to transform Israel into “a state of all its citizens,” a euphemism for the dejudaization of the Jewish state.

FOR MANY Jews and Israelis, the Holocaust and the struggle to create a Jewish homeland are dim historical memories relegated to history books. In the Diaspora, many have become disillusioned and traumatized by the burgeoning anti-Semitic climate and intensive media campaigns demonizing the Jewish state. Some have distanced themselves from Israel and even endorsed the anti-Zionist chic.

This was highlighted in Stephen Cohen’s survey of non-Orthodox American Jews in 2007. The findings displayed apathy and an alarming decline in attachment to Israel among the younger generation. This has particular relevance because aside from religious observance, Israel is now the key factor sustaining Jewish identity.

In such an environment, only a vigorous Zionist movement in conjunction with the government could reverse the tide, strengthening the Israel-Diaspora relationship and endeavoring to maintain the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.

Yet alas, aside from the unquestionably important 10-day Birthright visits – which since its inception in 2000 has brought 215,000 Jewish youngsters to Israel – and other programs for young people, there is no concerted strategy to deal with these issues.

Indeed, in recent times, successive Israeli leaders have themselves contributed to the erosion of Israel-Diaspora relations. They focus almost exclusively on wooing wealthy donors to fund their interests in lieu of nurturing Zionist leaders. Former interior minister Meir Sheetrit even went so far as to suggest the curtailment of aliya and abrogation of the Law of Return.

Jewish Agency policy, which in the past was always determined by Zionists, has now been hijacked by wealthy – primarily American – donors who have sought to transform it into a replica of the non-Zionist American Federation system. The newly elected chairman, Natan Sharansky, whose Zionist credentials are impeccable, was forced by his board to desist from assuming the traditionally parallel role of chairman of the World Zionist Organization. This reflected the efforts of the agency board to marginalize the Zionist ideological component and transform it into an efficient charity – no more.

THE DOMINANT influence of the American funders was further evidenced by the abrupt termination of a major promotional campaign against intermarriage initiated by MASA, a Jewish Agency subsidiary. Whereas the campaign presentation may have been tasteless and warranted revision, the cancellation was unjustified and was allegedly imposed by board members who feared confrontation with donors, many of whom had intermarried couples within their own families. The prevailing mood of “sensitivity” in relation to confronting assimilation and intermarriage was also exemplified in the recent article “What Israelis need to know about intermarriage in North America,” published in The Jerusalem Post by Edmund Case, CEO of Interfaith Family.

Aside from denying that the vast majority of children born to interfaith unions are lost to the Jewish people, Case broke new ground by making the preposterous assertion that intermarriage was “not a threat but an opportunity” and represented a great benefit because “intermarriage actively enlarges Jewish communities.”

Needless to say, every Jew has the option of marrying whom he or she chooses. But it is hardly surprising that growing assimilation in an open society leads to increased intermarriage. Still, one would at least assume encouragement of conversion so that children of such unions would have some hope of remaining Jewish. To describe the tragic erosion of the Jewish community via intermarriage as grounds for celebration is surely obscene.

While the strongest resistance to intermarriage understandably emanates from religious Jews, opposition to intermarriage has always been a central tenet of Zionist ideology. The failure of today’s “Zionist” leaders to adopt a strong stand concerning this issue reflects the growing influence of wealthy assimilated Jews.

Another disturbing manifestation of the dilution of Zionist values is the inclination to avoid all discussion related to aliya. The Jewish Agency has already subcontracted aliya to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an independent body that has handled this issue with far greater efficiency and humanity than the agency bureaucrats.

The negative attitude toward this central Zionist ideal was exemplified by the recent capitulation to demands of American donors that those directing Birthright categorically desist from any encouragement of aliya. “Momo” Lifshitz, a former IDF officer who heads Oranim (by far the largest trip provider for the project), – a secular program strongly supported by non-Orthodox groups, and by far the largest trip provider for the project – recently broke away from Birthright. Lifshitz passionately proclaimed that Oranim would henceforth operate as a separate program because he refused to accept prohibitions by Birthright organizers from urging participants to “raise your children Jewish,” encouraging aliya or providing free honeymoons to Israel for couples who met during their visits.

THE BULK of Jews in Western countries are unlikely to pack their bags tomorrow and come to Israel. But it is imperative that committed Jews continue making aliya because this represents the most important bridge linking Israel and the Diaspora.

Continued dilution of fundamental Zionist objectives will have disastrous repercussions for the Jewish people. In addition to weakening Jewish identity and intensifying assimilation, it will lead to further alienation of Jews from Israel and weaken Diaspora Jewry’s efforts on behalf of Israel, with particularly damaging consequences to Israel-US relations.

One would hope that the current government will be more positively inclined toward supporting Zionism than their less-ideologically-motivated predecessors.

Together with Sharansky, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should concentrate on encouraging the emergence of a vigorous new Zionist leadership to focus on reinforcing the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and strengthening the morale of Diaspora Jews suffering in the wake of the intensified efforts to criminalize and delegitimize the Jewish state.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post



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