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A new movement to be launched in Jerusalem on Monday morning hopes to forge a bond between Israel and Israelis living abroad, with the aim of keeping them Jewish and supporters of the Jewish state.
The Fourth Israeli Zionist Congress - the fourth annual meeting of the Israel Zionist Council, the Israeli branch of the World Zionist Organization - will be the venue for the establishment of the "Israeli Movement," charged with maintaining this important connection.
"I believe Israel, a Jewish state that feels responsible for the fate of every Jew around the world, can't ignore almost a million Jews with Israeli citizenship who do not live in Israel," said the architect of the new group, former ambassador to Belgium and Switzerland and former head of the Jewish Agency's Education Department Yitzchak Mayer, who will present the new group.
Currently, the new movement is in the early planning stages. The 72-year-old Mayer, who began his emissary work for the Jewish Agency 54 years ago and has yet to tire from his "connection to the Jews of the world," hopes a year of hard work will produce an organization charged with overcoming what he sees as a grave problem in the Jewish world today.
High estimates put the number of Israelis who left Israel, commonly called yordim, at some 900,000. According to Mayer, their situation in terms of assimilation and identity is more precarious than that of Diaspora Jews.
"What happens to these people?" he asked in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post ahead of Monday's Congress. "First of all, they're not able to develop the defensive mechanisms that non-Israeli Jews around the world possess," a reference to the religious and institutional affiliations that anchor and strengthen Jewish identity outside the Jewish state.
The average Israeli "doesn't go to synagogue and doesn't feel the need to pay money for a Jewish education. It's a vast investment to send children to Jewish education [in the Diaspora], and an Israeli just isn't sure it's necessary. So these children don't go to Jewish schools and don't develop the defensive mechanisms. So they are in greater danger than Diaspora Jews."
Israeli expats don't integrate into the local Jewish communities, since their identities are very different, Mayer believes. Meanwhile, he adds, "they also don't belong to Israeli society, which sees them as yordim. So they live in a different world."
"I suggested that the Israel Zionist Council - which is a small NGO responsible for Zionism in Israel - deal with this," said Mayer. "What's more Israeli Zionist than connecting to Israelis overseas? They're not criminals, not sinners. This council can be the place where examining this can begin."
The Council welcomes the project. "Inside the Zionist Council, an authority will work on this issue every day," promised Israel Zionist Congress head Moshe Ben-Atar. "We think we have to change the way we relate to these groups, and especially to their children who want a connection to Israel and are interested in their roots."
While the group's first year is expected to be devoted to developing the movement's goals and strategies, there are already clear ideas on what the "Israeli Movement" must do.
"First, we're going to establish an orderly Web site on which a person can find his rights and responsibilities as an Israeli," said Mayer. The site will also carry job notices seeking to entice expats, many of them highly-trained professionals, to return to Israel. As currently conceived, the site would work closely with government ministries.
Mayer also hopes to see a program similar to birthright israel that will bring the children of yordim - Israeli citizens by Israeli law - to the country for a visit.
"Birthright israel is not open to kids who were already in Israel, and it doesn't service Israelis," he explained. "This program would be called 'Moladeti' [My Homeland], and bring young Israelis to see Israel, show them what to expect, what the army is about, and such. This is not what birthright israel shows to non-Israelis."
The funding for such a program would come from wealthy Israelis living overseas, who, Mayer is convinced, "could be partners in developing such a movement."
Finally, the organization would establish "clubs for Hebrew language and culture" in cities with large Israeli communities. "There already are such places - for example, in Paris," he notes, "but these aren't really functioning."
Why does Mayer believe only a new organization could carry out this ambitious project?
"There's almost no chance the government or the Jewish Agency will deal with this, or any other organizations that are dependent on foreign donors. This is because these donors have other priorities; they're worried about their own kids, not Israelis overseas," he says.
For Mayer, the connection between Israel and expat Israelis is a question of Jewish survival as clear and immediate as any issue of identity or education facing Jews today.
"The State of Israel is a tiny state, and the Jewish people is a tiny people, with its sons scattered throughout the world. Preserving the Jewish people will be easier if we don't remove from our midst our Israeli brothers," he said.
In "the global climate in which we live, of mobility and choice," where living abroad is a fact of modern economics, Israelis should be "proud to travel the world as an Israeli citizen," Mayer said, "without us passing judgment on them and removing them from the camp."
Will Israelis living abroad embrace a connection to Israel and Zionism? Mayer thinks so. Israelis generally, he said, "are less cynical than we pretend."