The challenge of the Diaspora: Fighting anti-Semitism

‘Education is the most important thing,’ WIZO USA vice president tells ‘Post’ at quadrennial Tel Aviv confab

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January 24, 2016 02:53
Anti-semitism

Anti-semitism. (photo credit: REUTERS)

“The State of Israel needs the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and especially WIZO federation members, because they are its greatest possible ambassadors,” Prof. Rivka Lazovsky, chairwoman of the World WIZO Executive, told The Jerusalem Post.

“The Jewish communities of the Diaspora play a crucial role in protecting and strengthening Israel,” she said. “They advocate for Israel not politically or on a partisan basis; they show the beautiful sides of Israel and Zionism, not only within the Jewish community but to the wider public.”

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Lazovsky, together with over 700 members of the Women’s International Zionist Organization from 40 countries gathered for the 26th World WIZO EGM quadrennial conference in Tel Aviv last week.

The Post sat down with Mireille Manocherian, vice president of WIZO USA; Susanne Sznajderman Rytz, president of WIZO Sweden; and Joelle Lezmi, president of WIZO France, to discuss the challenges facing Jewish women in the Diaspora and WIZO’s role in supporting Israel.

“For you to lead a Zionist organization in the Diaspora today you really face so many challenges,” Manocherian said.

From fund-raising for Israel to fighting anti-Semitism and terrorism to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the WIZO women agreed this was nothing short of a huge task.

“I have a big challenge in France and my challenge is to help Jewish women to understand what an important place they can have for the fight against anti-Semitism in our community,” said Lezmi.

“I would like them to take their place in civil society and to explain that we can be real French citizens even if we need to say we are Zionist,” she said.

French Jews fear that if they say they are “too close” to Israel, they will be accused of a lack of loyalty to France, Lezmi said.

“I don’t understand why I can say I am involved in helping with North African children but I cannot say that I am involved with Israeli children. All I ask is to receive the same treatment as everyone else,” she said.

Sznajderman Rytz said the Jewish community in Sweden faces a similar problem.

“There is an issue of how Jewish women see themselves in society – what are we first? Are we first Swedish citizens and then we have a Jewish layer, or first Jewish women with a Swedish layer, and this is being questioned now,” she said.

“You have to prove that you are a responsible citizen, and Sweden demands from us that we should exclude Zionism from our package and that we should address Israel as an apartheid society, and we are unwilling to do this,” she said.

WIZO Sweden is often asked to participate in anti-Israel discussions, to “validate or legitimize” them, Sznajderman Rytz said.

“We take a stand back [position] and we do not participate,” she said. “We are building a fortress because this is what anti-Semitism is doing to us.

“Whenever we are out in support of Israel we are met by riots,” she added. “I see the Israel Day parade in NY and I think, ‘wow, in Sweden we would never have this.’” Manocherian agreed and said that American Jews do not face the rise in anti-Semitism that their European counterparts do.

“In the US the Left are now very anti-Israel, and this is what I come across more, not anti-Semitism but rather anti-Zionism,” she said.

Still, she said that the BDS movement is spreading across US university campuses.

“I know this is something that afflicts many universities,” she said.

“It hit me five years ago and since that time I am very involved in AIPAC that does incredible work on college campuses training students in Israel advocacy, the WJC [World Jewish Congress], and WIZO has been my life for 29 years,” she said.

According to Manocherian, anti-Semitism is often “simply [the result of] a lack of education.

“The key is to spread the image of Israel in the Diaspora, because Israel doesn’t do well with regards to public relations,” she said. “We have to bring people to Israel and say to them, ‘See for yourself.’” Sznajderman Rytz added, “Education is absolutely central, but it needs the person on the other side of the table to listen to you, and this readiness is very hard to find [in Sweden] because they are already so brainwashed.”

She recounted an exchange she had with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who has continually made anti-Israel statements. In November, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, Wallström made remarks tying terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I approached the foreign minister a few weeks ago on the issue,” Sznajderman Rytz said.

“Her answer was: ‘Well the Jews are campaigning against me.’ I was absolutely shocked, she was in office and saying this.”

According to Sznajderman Rytz, “Anti-Semitism is something that is slowly cooking in Europe.”

“The only way to legitimize anti-Semitism is to direct it to a body, and today that body is the State of Israel,” she said.

“Because when you make the issue about religion or race you cannot address it in a democratic society, so it doesn’t matter what government Israel will have, they will always be against it.”

Lezmi agreed and said, “There is no difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism – it is two parts of the same coin.”

She explained that in France, like in Sweden, the view that attacks on Jews are a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is prevalent. However, she said that following the attack on the Bataclan Hall in Paris on November 13, there was a minor shift in French attitudes.

“After Bataclan, people realized that everyone is a target, because we are confronted with terrorism, and this is something new for Jewish people [in France], because for the first time people around us realized that there is a real problem with terrorism, [and] not because there is a problem with Israel and Palestine,” she said.

Lezmi agreed that education was the key and said that in Europe today, Palestinians are viewed as the “new white knights.”

“A lot of people defend Palestinians because they feel they are good and weak – it is a Christian idea that you must protect the weak,” she said. “Israel today is viewed as strong, which is insupportable for many Christians.”

Sznajderman Rytz added: “There is a double standard – you [in Israel] are not judged by the same measure as all other nations and Jews are not judged in the same way.

“We are expected to be miserable and weak, and now that we seem to be on our own and the Jewish state is doing well, the picture of ‘the Jew’ is no longer appropriate [in Europeans’ minds],” she said. “The picture of the strong Jew in a uniform is a picture they may not want to accept because of anti-Semitism.”

The women agreed that to combat the idea of a “strong” Israel against “weak” Palestinians requires educating people about Israel and about the conflict – something their federations are consistently trying to accomplish.

“I was involved as an educator in the ’70s and ’80s, and I think we lost track of how to convey the Zionist picture,” said Sznajderman Rytz.

“Education has been focused on the Holocaust and the State of Israel, but not on how to continually support your Jewish identity and how to identify with the Jewish world,” she said.

“So a lot of children have a good Jewish education in history or the Bible, but we are lacking this third leg where you develop your Jewishness, and the ones who have discovered this are in Israel now – they made aliya,” she added.

“I am afraid that the Diaspora will have a failed future,” she said.

Lezmi interjected: “The Diaspora must survive, because we can’t all go to Israel, because if all the Jewish people are in Israel it will become like a ghetto.

“There have been many calls for the Jewish community to make aliya to Israel,” she said. “But we need Jewish people [to live] outside Israel and it is really difficult for us in Europe but this is something that is necessary,” she said.

Manocherian said that she, too, is “concerned for the future of the Jewish people just [based on] the way people are assimilating more and more.

“It is very important to start from the home – if you don’t have that [Zionism] inside of you, how can you pass it on to your children?” she asked.

“I think that as a responsible mother I know my children have a [supportive] position when it comes to Israel, but I think it is important that it comes from the home,” she said. “I want my children to become the future ambassadors.”

“Educating the next generation is the most important thing,” Manocherian said.

“As a Zionist organization WIZO has really encouraged and empowered young leadership, and we have grown big time [in the US] when it comes to creating the new leadership, and we are now involving young men as well,” she said.

When asked about their activities in supporting Israel, the federation heads proudly discussed the numerous projects their communities had a part in establishing – from daycare centers for underprivileged children to multi-purpose centers to schools.

The women agreed that the main challenge for the future will be to “find new young people to join WIZO.”

“There is no other Zionist women’s association and we have to really work to attract young women for the next generation and for our continued support of Israel’s future,” Sznajderman Rytz said.


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