Bringing Zionism to the Diaspora

As head of WZO’s Department for Diaspora Activities, Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman’s job is a daunting one: Making Zionism appealing to a young generation that has become disillusioned by Israel.

(photo credit: IZIONIST.ORG)
Critics haven’t been too kind to the millennial generation – that much maligned group of young adults born between 1980-2000. They are entitled, lazy and quick to criticize what’s wrong with the world without actually bothering to change anything, critics have said.
While that point of view may be overly harsh, Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman does recognize one common factor among the young Jewish adults she speaks to during her many travels abroad: this generation of millennial Jews are desensitized by the State of Israel, and if something isn’t done – and soon – we are at risk of losing them.
“My mission is to tell them – whether they decided to come to Israel or not – I want Israel to be part of your identity,” the World Zionist Organization’s head of the Department of Diaspora Activities explains as she sits in a bustling Aroma café in her hometown of the Jerusalem suburb Mevaseret Zion. “And it’s getting increasingly harder to get that message across to young, liberal Jews in the Diaspora.”
At the end of the day, her purpose as the head of the Department of Diaspora Activities is actually a simple one: “To continue to bring [Zionist visionary Theodor] Herzl’s vision to life. It’s a vision of giving the Jewish people a land of their own – a country. A country that is traditional and can embrace the entire Jewish world.”
But what may seem like a simple vision in theory is inordinately more complex when executed, for one simple reason: liberal Jews are finding it increasingly difficult to divorce Israel’s politics – that they largely disagree with – with its traditions, culture and values.
During her talks to young people she asks them probing questions about Israel and Zionism, because she believes the last thing this generation wants is to be told what to think. “What does Zionism mean to you?” she would often ask.
There is no right answer to that question, she says.
“I need to support them and ask them questions about what Zionism means to them and how it shapes their identity,” she explains. “We know in the Jewish liberal world, very often, we see the deep divide between claiming a Jewish identity and claiming a Zionist one. It’s very easy to identify as a cultural Jew, and not have any connection to Israel.”
Her biggest challenge is convincing young Jews that you can be a staunch supporter of Israel, but not its government.
“One of the questions I ask is, ‘What common values do you share with Israelis regardless of whatever government is in charge?’ And it’s very difficult for them to make that differentiation – to separate Israel from the politics,” she says.
The problem is compounded by the fact that most young adults don’t really understand the complexities behind Israel’s controversial issues, but are quick to make snap judgments against Israel based on the vivid images they see on TV.
“From their perspective, if Israel has a right-wing government, ‘price-tag’ attacks, discrimination against Ethiopians and Beduin, they don’t want any part of it, even if they don’t understand the complexities of each of these problems,” she laments. “I tell them, ‘You don’t like what’s going on? Then go there and change it.”’ To that end, the WZO works closely with Zionist Federations across to the globe to create seminars where these confusing and complicated issues can be discussed at length.
One such program is called Beit Ha’am, which specifically targets this elusive millennial generation of 18-35 year olds. “With Beit Ha’am – the house of the people – I want them to treat Israel like their spiritual home,” she says.
As such, Beit Ha’am aims to encourage discussion on the subject of Zionist identity and attitudes to the State of Israel.
The two-year-old program covers a variety of topics, ranging from traditional texts and Jewish holidays, to modern ones that grapple with current issues and questions of identity, as well as Diaspora- Israel relations.
While Yehoshua-Braverman oversees the entire program, its day-to-day activities are run by Ori Leizer, who says topics range from Zionist leaders, to the social justice protest that swept Israeli streets in 2011, to recent IDF operations in Gaza.
While the program is very successful in North America, it is also offered in countries around the world with texts available in Hebrew, English and Spanish.
These kits are sold to numerous youth movements, of different denominations.
“If you want information about the Arab-Israeli conflict or Israeli history you go online or go to university. The difference is, Beit Ha’am doesn’t give information, but discussion and debate,” says Leizer. “Participants are exposed to different opinions.”
If someone is not familiar with Israeli life and society, it’s a good opportunity to learn and hear different opinions, and then to form an opinion and decide which to take, Leizer adds, remarking that in his view, this is one of the most important aspects of the program.
Donny Inbar, director of Arts and Culture at the Israel Center, agrees.
“The way they bring Zionism – without apologizing for it – to the [San Francisco] Bay Area where Zionism is considered a shameful word sometimes, a word of concern – they come and say no, Zionism is something worth discussing, worth being proud of, worth delving into.”
The program has come up with innovative and fun ways to bring the intricacies of Israel to life. For example, in the 2013 elections, a WZO shaliach (emissary) created a game called “Monopolity,” based on Monopoly but with Israeli politics. The board is divided up into different parties, and contains tasks and questions that explore the complexities of Israel and the Knesset.
“It gives kids the chance to learn about different parties, and questions the structure of the Knesset, delves into its founding and history,” Leizer explains.
As a shaliach in South Africa for three years, Leizer introduced the game to Jewish youth there, and it was played at school youth movements and summer camps around the world, one way in which Beit Ha’am furthered its mission of encouraging lively discussion of Zionist identity among Diaspora Jews, particularly the younger generation.
They have also launched singing contests in Hebrew worldwide to help connect Jews to Israel’s dynamic cultural scene.
“Israel has so much to offer, and many don’t realize it,” Yehoshua-Braverman adds.
The WZO, which also works closely with the United Israel Appeal, are all very much invested in these programs because they recognize the sobering reality as to what will happen if Israel loses this generation.
“We are all struggling with the same thing: if these young Jews don’t recognize the importance of Israel, we simply won’t have donations,” she warns, adding that the idea among liberals that Israel should be automatically supported is a fading one.
Israel, she adds needs to do its part as well and embrace – not ignore – Jews that are not Jewish according to Halacha.
In her capacity as the representative of the Reform Movement for the WZO she adds, “in order to be a strong Israel, we need all Jews worldwide to support the country. And the Israelis who think we can give up on the Reform Jews, the Conservative Jews, the liberal Jews and the unaffiliated – they are gravely mistaken,” adding that many of these young adults will likely hold influential jobs within the US and alienating them will only harm Israel in the long-run.
Back in the Diaspora, the accumulating pressure of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a phenomenon that also troubles Yehoshua-Braverman.
“An Australian student told me once, ‘I don’t tell people initially that I’m Jewish. Because the second I do, they put me in a box and label me. And now you want me to say I’m pro-Israel on top of this?’ she recalls. “Whether we like it or not, this is the reality.”
“Therefore, “our next goal is to devise a program that will help combat BDS. This is our biggest challenge today. There are people that say the threat is overinflated, but I want to help prevent it before it becomes a full-fledged problem,” she says determinately, “I want to be proactive, and not reactive.”
As Yehoshua-Braverman wraps up her five-year term at WZO, it is certainly an ambitious goal to have if she is reelected at the 37th Congress.
This article will appear as part of a special magazine created by The Jerusalem Post and the World Zionist Organization to commemorate the organization’s 37th Congress, which will take place in Jerusalem October 20-22.