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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The obvious, somewhat belated, question hanging over this week's 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem is: What is the purpose of the Zionist movement now that the Jewish state exists? Every four years, delegates from all over the world meet and struggle with their organization's continued relevance, as the watchwords of the meeting - "innovation and revitalization" - imply.
In truth, there is no shortage of items on the Zionist agenda, and perhaps even a surplus. The over 2,000 delegates from 33 countries will be considering how to encourage aliya, strengthen the connection with the Diaspora, combat anti-Semitism, develop the Negev and Galilee and bridge the social gaps in Israel.
Many Israelis do not understand the passion of many Diaspora Jews for Israel. If Israelis are aware of this Zionist fervor, then they are puzzled by why it is not translated into higher rates of aliya. A Zionist movement permanently based in the Diaspora seems to be a contradiction in terms.
Yet those of us living in the Jewish state should not take the fervent support of our visitors for granted. We cannot, at the same time, wish that Diaspora Jews knew more about and were more closely connected to Israel, while being somewhat dismissive of the role those who are so motivated seek to play in the Zionist project.
That said, it would perhaps be best if Diaspora-based Zionists were to concentrate on a project that is less grandiose than solving Israel's social problems, developing the Negev and Galilee, or even encouraging mass aliya. It is a project that the WZO's delegates are exemplifying at this moment: encouraging visits to Israel.
The Jewish state should never stop encouraging Jews to move here permanently and fully participate in what remains a captivating work in progress: the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after 2,000 years. But at a time when the Diaspora is shrinking and Israel is growing - even if there were no aliya - bolstering the Diaspora should be almost as high a priority.
The best Zionist way to achieve this is by tackling an astounding and troubling statistic: Only 35 percent of American Jews have ever visited Israel. Figures vary where other countries are concerned, but everywhere there is room for improvement.
It is hard to expect Diaspora Jews to have any meaningful connection to Israel, let alone make aliya, before they have visited here. Moreover, a visit to Israel has been conclusively proven to be the best means of deepening Jewish identity even among those who have no inclination to relocate here permanently. And a strong sense of, and commitment to Jewish identity is, in turn, the path to a vital, active Diaspora. It should thus be the goal of every Jewish school, community center, synagogue, youth movement, or other Jewish institution to ensure that every Diaspora Jew visits Israel, preferably at a young age and on an educational trip.
This, of course, is the concept of birthright israel, the extremely successful program that celebrated the arrival of its 100,000th participant this month. Thousands of young Jews are on waiting lists to join birthright's trips.
A prime goal of the Zionist movement should be to fully fund birthright, so that every young Jew who wants to visit Israel on these emotional and educationally-packed trips can do so. This should take priority even over the funding of Masa, a follow-on framework created by the Jewish Agency that is, unfortunately, now competing with birthright for the same pool of matching funding from philanthropists and the organized Jewish community.
The dearth of American Jewish visits should not be regarded as written in stone, given the wide variation on this score among Diaspora communities. About 78 percent of British Jews have visited Israel, as have over 70 percent of the communities in France, Mexico and South Africa, and over 50 percent of Jews from Argentina, Brazil and Germany.
As this week's conference delegates return home, doubtless energized by their visit and confirmed in their mission, we hope they will organize trips to Israel of all kinds from their communities. Their forebears needed considerable ideological fortitude to drain the swamps, battle invaders, and build the state. The Diaspora Jews of this generation have the luxury of considering Israel for their next family vacation.