An uphill existential battle

As director of the Israel Zionist Council, Ben-Atar strives to make the 'Zionist state' more Zionist.

star of david 88 (photo credit: )
star of david 88
(photo credit: )
Moshe Ben-Atar, director of the Israel Zionist Council, is the formal leader of the Israeli wing of the international Zionist movement. With the struggles the country faces both internally and externally, it is, he believes, one of the most crucial jobs in the Zionist movement today, as important as any Diaspora Zionist institution. As the head of the local branch of the World Zionist Organization, Ben-Atar is charged with advancing and invigorating Zionist ideals. It is, he says, no small task, but rather an uphill battle for the fulfillment of Zionism. The council is a small organization, with activities and partnerships that together reach some NIS 9 million annually. Most of its workers are volunteers - counselors, coordinators, teachers working with the group's study programs and youth group. On August 14, the Zionist Council responded to recent reports of a rise in draft-dodging by a gathering of Jewish and Druse youth, brought together by its Tzameret youth movement, who vowed to fight against the phenomenon. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, they wrote, "It is a duty of responsible leadership to display public courage and firmness by ensuring that the numbers of those refusing to serve is minimized. This is crucial if the IDF is to remain an army of the entire nation." A recent conversation with Ben-Atar began with the touchy draft-dodging issue and continued to the current state and future of Israeli Zionism. What does the rise in non-draftees signify for Zionism in Israel? Is it as bad as some people are saying? It's very severe. This has a deep effect on the general desire to contribute to the public, on social cohesion. The atmosphere of not being drafted is part of a general trend in Israeli culture toward worrying first of all about yourself. In the [annual] Zionist congresses, we call for the drafting of yeshiva boys. So what can we do about it? We have to initiate much more intensive activism to get them to join the army. There are many non-haredim who want to demonstrate against it - Jewish youth groups, with Druse joining them. Remember, 83 percent of Druse serve in the army, the highest percentage of all sectors. The numbers [of draft dodgers] have to shrink. It's a threat to the cohesion of Israeli society. Maybe we're just maturing as a society, moving past the old need for activist Zionism? This is a crisis partly caused by the achievements of Zionism. When the head of the IDF Manpower Division [Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern] says [during the Second Lebanon War] there are very few funerals out of Tel Aviv, you have to remember that Tel Aviv is a massive success story of Zionism. But now, precisely those places where we see a long-term threat to Jewish Zionist identity are located between Hadera and Gedera. Tel Aviv is privatized. Municipal services are privatized. Schools have autonomy on informal education. It's harder for the Zionist Council to work there. This is part of a larger picture. The education system has stopped dealing with Zionist values. It's become a well-oiled system working toward matriculation, and values are measured by test scores. It tells us that educating for these values is not important. The Zionist project is only halfway there, and there's a lot of work left before we've finished the job. The young need to be trusted, need leaders who show them the way and give them new goals and challenges. Is this just a crisis of identity because of Zionism's success? Psychological studies after last summer's war suggest that the deep structural social imbalance and political problems also affect the sense of togetherness, of shared purpose, of faith in the leadership. Yes, the crisis also comes from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the fact that a small, successful business sector sets the social agenda. It's hard to teach values in this arena. And these processes of globalization haven't helped us to identify and connect to the Jewish people and Jewish communities around the world. Israeli society is more disconnected than ever before from the Jewish world. I just returned from the Jewish community of Greece. They're so close to us, but so far away. The community is in the process of disappearing. Intermarriage is at 90%. The rabbis say there's barely one Jewish wedding a year in each Jewish community there. What Israel could do to save this disappearing people! There are a lot of topics we have to deal with. The threats to the Zionist project are existential. The possibility that weapons of mass murder will be [deployed] near us is an existential threat. The sense of a leadership crisis and the feeling of social disintegration, the feeling of a gap between rich and poor, don't help us advance Zionist ideology. You ask what we should do. First of all, we have to invest in the next generation. Developing the young is the main pillar of this work. Every week during the summer, we induct a class of seventh- to 12th-graders into a leadership course. This summer, some 600 passed through. It's a seven- to 12-day course that focuses on making then Zionism entrepreneurs. They learn about initiating programming, Jewish leadership, enhancing quality of life. We have to encourage quality groups among the young, to help them expand their influence. The pre-army academies send over 50% of their graduates to command positions in the IDF. They're a nucleus of quality youth who go to combat positions in the IDF, serve as officers, and then contribute to the economy as hard-working citizens. There are still pioneers in our society - the educators, mostly women, who earn a modest, even tiny salary and devote enormous efforts to the children; the people who serve in combat roles in the army; the medical personnel and social workers who work for other people; also many of our public servants. They won't get rich by their work, but they do it out of sense of mission. If we don't raise a generation that knows why it wants to live here, it will be hard to get over the long-term challenges. And today we're not working to fashion that next generation. This isn't just economic work, but a preparation of their spirits, their souls, to work and live in this country, this homeland. A young person should have the awareness to want to live here, build a family here and work for Israel to reach great achievement. This is our greatest mission, and we're neglecting it. But every few years we get a slap on the face and suddenly remember we don't live in Europe, but in the Middle East. How do we do it? We do it on a small scale, with seminars, courses, encouragement. The education system could do it much better. After 1973, there was a huge cultural crisis. Zionist institutes were established to take schoolchildren to learn and study and deal with Zionist values. We're doing this because we always said it should be done, and I hope the leadership will show leadership on this. The crisis in Zionism comes from real problems. The world has changed, and the challenge of globalization is a greater threat than in the past. Alongside the economic integration, we have to develop our particularistic identity so that the next generation will want to live here. You say Zionism is halfway there. But Zionism, in the most basic definition as a survival strategy for modernity, seems to have succeeded. What's left? Today we've reached the point where the early Zionism of Herzl and his friends, who wanted to establish a shelter for Jews, has been fulfilled. But the Zionism of Ahad Ha'am, who talked about a society of equality, of quality of life, a society deeply connected to the Jewish people that joyfully absorbs aliya - this is still ahead of us. Also, we now have almost a million Israelis living overseas that Israel doesn't connect to in any way. We can't sweep that under the rug. Why doesn't Israel relate to them? Because Israel is only worried about itself. Our political system lives from one day to the next. It has no vision. If those Israelis voted in Knesset elections, politicians would relate to them. Our current leadership doesn't act if it doesn't see an immediate political advantage. I want leadership that thinks not of their children, but of their grandchildren, when crafting today's policies. The economy is important, but so are our dreams. We don't talk about our dreams. What can you expect from the education system? You seem to believe it is not a helpful part of renewing Israeli identity. I'm starting to get pessimistic. The education system has great people, but the decisions on this have to be systemwide. We have to say, "This is going to get resources." Without time and money, there won't be results. How do we measure success in teaching identity? The education system's desire to enhance equality for all Israelis, which is good and appropriate, also hurts the drive to instill Zionist values. The education system, like other systems, has a sensitivity that keeps Zionist values within the Jewish sector. And it has a harder and harder time doing this each year. We have to devote resources, and see this as a priority. I wouldn't give schools autonomy on this, since I don't think they would devote resources to Jewish Zionist education. Speaking from experience, this would get pushed to the side in place of other subjects that are also important. We have to remember that this will be a century that could decide the Jewish people's fate. There are trends showing that the Jewish people could disappear in the next century. You work closely and actively with the Druse community. How does this fit into the Zionist Council's work? Just yesterday I was in Daliat al-Carmel. First of all, this is a long-term strategic asset of the state. The Druse community of 105,000 people is where we prove that a loyal minority has equality, feels equal, is part of the national mechanisms, and is a symbol of coexistence and cooperation. Together with the Jewish Agency, we help university students with some NIS 1 million in scholarships each year, mostly students studying science and technology, since the Druse sector has a tough time sending its students to these fields. In every Druse village there are centers for young leadership that promote leadership in the IDF and meetings with Jewish youth. We work hard to develop intercultural meetings specifically between women. We think the greatest place for change is with the women. Each year, 3,000 youths from all over the country participate in a program called Brit Hayim, meetings between Jewish and Druse youngsters who talk about their heritage. Those are the main aspects of our work - scholarships, enhancing the status of women, meetings, helping the Druse to attain equality in the state. There's a Druse Zionist movement working in all the Druse villages in the North, under the auspices of the Zionist Council. What about Arab Israelis? There's no doubt Israel has discriminated against Arab Israelis over the years and hasn't integrate them properly. On the other hand, there are processes that are not dependent on us. For example, the fact that Arab women don't work influences the economic health of their communities. In today's economic climate, when both parents don't work, and Arabs work less in the market, there are more poor people. It's the same with the haredi public. This is one of the reasons Arab states have lower GDP than Europe. We have to develop a long-term policy toward Israel's Arabs. It's high time we did this. We have to work toward total equality. On the other hand, we can't sanction documents like the Adalah document, which seeks to cancel the Law of Return and the Jewish identity of the state. This document is dangerous to the state, and doesn't create a workable dynamic between Jews and Arabs. Even so, the daily, real-life connection between Arabs and Jews is stronger than the ideologies. It's not a simple issue. The Arabs see Druse as part of their sector. We can use that to our advantage, showing the Druse as an example. When Adalah came out with its document, I went to the heads of Druse towns and showed it to them. Within two hours of our meeting, they sent a letter to the prime minister and the media rejecting the document. There are cities - Ramle, Lod, Haifa, Beersheba, Jaffa, Acre - where there are very moderate Arab communities that we must invest in. And there are also extremists in the Arab sector. At the end of the day, the leadership of the Arab sector has failed it. A leadership elected to improve the community's situation dealt more with the national questions and threw to the side the daily difficulties of the sector. There are extremist trends that could become a crisis. Right now, 21% of Israeli society doesn't accept the values of society. While I'm not sure I wouldn't be willing to consider adding something to the anthem [to make Arab Israelis fell at home], my feeling is that the Arab sector has a problem with just recognizing Israel. Even the 1948 borders weren't mentioned in the Adalah document. What can be done? Education? They need to have some autonomy in some issues, but they must share the core curriculum. This is true of the haredim as well. Israel must, especially in the struggle against draft-dodging, require haredim to learn a foreign language, science, math - to allow the current haredi generation not to be a burden on society in the future, but an integrated part of it. What about the demographic danger? There is a debate over its severity and its direction. What do you see? If you look at the demographic trends over the past few years, there's a constant drop in births among the Druse. The same is true of the Beduin. The natural growth of Arab Christians is similar to Europeans', and the highest matriculation statistics come from that community. We've started - though we still have to invest hugely - with the Beduin in the Negev, where natural growth has dropped 21% in the last five years as a direct result of cutbacks to child subsidies. A family that got NIS 24,000 a month in child subsidies now gets NIS 9,000. This comes because they commercialized this benefit. If the state is wise enough to invest in Beduin women - I'd give free university tuition - then there's no question that the number of children will fall over time. But there's also an economic problem here. Right now, 73% of working age haredi women and 79% of working age Arab women don't work. They're a community with relatively few elderly, so it's possible to fund them. But if in 1960 15% of schoolchildren were in Arab or haredi schools, in 1980 this hit 27%. Last year it was 46%. We have to integrate them into the general narrative, so that in one or two generations the demographic balance doesn't hit the point of no return. Israeli society's ability to deal with this will weaken. That's why we need a leadership that can deal with these issues, even if it gets into trouble with some sectors of society. We have such a leadership? There are many good leaders who have a hard time getting into politics. I tell young people, go into politics. There's no other way to get the changes done. If you don't, it won't happen. There is a lot of corruption, and strong ties between the wealthy and the government. But young people have to always be working their way in. We're working on a document now that all the young political activists from all the Zionist parties will sign that will advocate clean government and youth involvement. There's a working group we're bringing together, Prof. Uzi Arad and myself, that will develop a policy for dealing with Arab Israelis, and we're going to present it at the next Herzliya Conference. Certainly we have to deal with the quality of Israel's leadership and its vision of itself as leadership in the Jewish world generally. Why do you do this work? The job of the Zionist Council is to be an encouraging factor, a subversive factor. Someone who deals with this today has to truly believe in it. If you don't do it because of your soul and the depth of your emotions, you're wasting your time. It's not prestigious, doesn't pay high salaries. But if you see yourself as an emissary, that's the real satisfaction.