One on One: The new Zionists

Danny Ayalon speaks about his role in Nefesh B'Nefesh, and the status of North American aliyah.

Danny Ayalon 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Danny Ayalon 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The panoramic view from the massive picture windows lining Danny Ayalon's luxurious Tel Aviv office is so magnificent as to be startling. That his desk chair is positioned with its back to the scenery makes sense. Otherwise, with such a dazzling distraction at his disposal, one wonders how the former ambassador to the United States could possibly get any work done at all, let alone hold two jobs. In addition to co-chairing Nefesh B'Nefesh (Jewish Souls United) - a position he has held since January - Ayalon, 52, is a political consultant and promoter of foreign investment in Israel. And though the latter would appear to be par for the course for a newly retired diplomat with a BA in economics from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from the University of Bowling Green in Ohio - whose resumé includes having served as foreign policy adviser to prime ministers Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu - the former might seem odd. Overwhelmed with offers in the business, academic and political worlds when he ended his four-and-a-half-year stint in Washington last November, Ayalon nevertheless opted out of the limelight, choosing instead to devote his energies to assisting North American Jews make aliya. Despite being a sabra, Ayalon experienced immigration to Israel "up close and personal," when his American-born wife, Anne - the founder and chairman of Friends of Israel Arts - underwent the process more than two decades ago. "Nefesh B'Nefesh is thus like completing a circle," he says, in the gentle tone he uses throughout our hour-long Hebrew interview. Indeed, neither his smile nor his soft-spokenness are the slightest bit shaken, even when challenged. Not even when asked about a certain chapter in his career that threatened to tarnish his - and his wife's - hitherto polished reputation. So shiny was it, in fact, that among his other claims to fame (having been a member of the delegations to the 1977 Sharm e-Sheikh, the 1998 Wye Plantation and 2000 Camp David summits), Ayalon was the only candidate for the post of ambassador to the US that former prime minister Ariel Sharon and former foreign minister Shimon Peres could agree upon. As a result, when an unseemly scandal erupted between Ayalon and Peres's successor Silvan Shalom - or, more accurately, between the two men and their wives - the public was shocked, and the tabloids went to town. It was a national soap opera that fizzled out after 11 months for lack of ratings or criminal charges on either side of the controversy. It all began in April 2005, when the Civil Service Commission opened an investigation, after Yediot Aharonot published a story claiming that Anne Ayalon was abusing the embassy staff in DC. Shortly thereafter, Shalom fired Ayalon's aide, Liran Peterzil. The ambassador accused the foreign minister of having done this to take revenge against Peterzil for failing to arrange for Shalom's wife - TV and radio host Judy Shalom-Nir-Mozes - to be photographed with pop idol Madonna. Allegations and counter-allegations later, the general sense of what Ayalon refers to as the "extremely unfortunate and embarrassing affair" was that its real root was resentment on the part of Shalom. Though technically Ayalon's direct boss, he was left out of the diplomacy loop, while his direct subordinate and superior handled the country's affairs of state behind his back. In any case, by the time the curtain had finally fallen on the dubious drama, Shalom had been replaced by Tzipi Livni. ALL THAT behind him, Ayalon - who lives in Hod Hasharon with his wife and two daughters, Zohar, 14, and Abby, eight - says he is as enthusiastic as he is optimistic about the new national task he has taken on. "By 2015, we could be absorbing 100,000 olim from North America. This would change the face of Israeli society; it would boost us culturally and demographically; and it would strengthen Israel itself and its relationship with the United States, without causing a brain drain from the American-Jewish community." How would you describe your period as ambassador to the United States? It was a great privilege for me to serve in Washington, as Israel's representative to a country which is Israel's best friend and most important - most natural - ally. It was also a privilege to serve during such a complex period. Not only was it marked by a post-9/11 atmosphere, but it included the intifada in Israel, Operation Defensive Shield, the lead-up to and subsequent invasion of Iraq, the road map, disengagement and the 2003 loan guarantee agreement. This was in addition to all the tension with Syria, Lebanon and Iran. It was a fascinating period. And it was great to experience first-hand the way in which Israel's and America's worldview are one and the same - as are the values on which we base our policies and our societies. It was also a great pleasure to have served with the likes of [former] prime minister Ariel Sharon and [former foreign minister] Shimon Peres - now our president - who appointed me. You say that Israel and the US have the same worldview. Does that apply to the Jews in America as well? Though pro-Israel, they are overwhelmingly against President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and tend to vote for the Democratic Party. During my many visits to Jewish communities throughout the US, I encountered a great deal of warmth and support, both toward Israel and Jewish identity. There has been somewhat of an awakening in this respect. There are more schools in which Hebrew is being taught, more Jewish day schools in operation. I only hope these schools become more affordable, so that a much greater number of Jewish children could attend them. Education is the central foundation for the preservation and cultivation of Jewish identity and connection to Israel. It is true, however, that they're very politically pluralistic - which is natural. Israel's Jewish community is also politically pluralistic, with a range of opinions from Left to Right and in the center. The main thing is that today, Jews in America are no longer afraid to express their opinions about Israel. When were they ever afraid to express their opinions about Israel? In the past, whatever position the Israeli government held was practically sacred among American Jews. This is no longer the case. The policies of the Israeli government are questioned. This is healthy, even necessary, as long as it's done in-house - between and among the Jewish communities themselves and between the communities and Israel. It's an internal dialogue that must not be taken outside. Jews outside of Israel who attack the Israeli government, whether from the Left or from the Right, harm Israel's reputation and weaken its strategic position, both in the region and vis-a-vis the international community, particularly at a time when Israel has so many detractors and critics - i.e. the entire Arab world, Europe and Russia, among others. We see what happens at the UN: There's an automatic majority against Israel. This puts Israel in an inferior position. Jews need not add to this. While we're on the subject: What effect do anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have on American Jews? Does it create more unity among them and identification with Israel, or does it cause a desire on their part to distance themselves from policies they believe to be at fault for the criticism, such as the conflict with the Palestinians? Most of the Jews I spoke to understood what President Bush meant, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when he said that terrorists don't attack us because of what we do, but rather because of who we are and what we stand for. From that perspective, it enhanced Jewish identity and identification with Israel. But it also increased their determination to try to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. There are two main factors to American Jewish identity today: One is what I'd call the positive - that which is based on Jewish history, religion and culture. The other is the negative - a reaction to anti-Semitism and radical Islam. Are the Jews who make aliya through Nefesh B'Nefesh those who always dreamed of living in Israel, or are some of them "pushed" either by the negative forces you mention or by the "awakening" of Jewish life in America? A marginal number may be influenced by a combination of these factors. But for the most part, the aliya through Nefesh B'Nefesh is Zionist. These are people who feel a pull toward Israel, not a push away from the US. They are not running away, not seeking shelter or political asylum. Indeed, this is the first organized aliya from affluent countries in Zionist history. Today, the Jewish community in the US is the most prosperous and successful in the world. From there, you see people making aliya for Zionist motives alone: because they want to return to their homeland; because they want to strengthen Israel economically, culturally and demographically; because they want to become part of the Israeli experience. Is religion at the root of this phenomenon? Are these immigrants mostly Orthodox Jews? Sixty percent. The remaining 40% are mostly non-observant singles. Why isn't getting these people here the job of the Jewish Agency? Why the need for a private initiative, when there's an existing body charged with this task? Today, there is a move toward privatization, even where national missions are concerned. It comes from the recognition that organizations "in the field," so to speak, are able to accomplish such tasks much more efficiently and cheaply than the government. For example, the needs of olim from North America or Britain are different from those of olim from France, South America or Russia. Different in what way? North Americans, even those who know no Hebrew, manage pretty well in Israel during their first year. Not only is English an international language and Israel's economy global, but American-educated people adapt well to the hi-tech environment. French olim, for example, don't manage as well on their own. More attention needs to be given to them initially, both in terms of the language and in finding them jobs. The success of Nefesh B'Nefesh lies in the fact that 99.9% of the olim who come here actually remain. The reason for this is that we understood that Americans' first priority is not merely employment, but commensurate employment. In other words, it's not enough for a doctor to become a cashier. Or even a nurse. Yet many of the Russian olim have settled for work that is not up to par with their professions or level of education. True, but there's a critical difference. An American who's, say, a specialist in diabetes research, requires that he or she continue to engage in that after coming to Israel. Now, with all due respect to the aliya from Russia - and it really is wonderful; one of the best things that could have happened to this country - it had a different set of problems and needs from those of American olim. For one thing, the Russian immigrants were not up-to-date professionally, due to the conditions of the former Soviet Union. For another, they had no options, unlike their American counterparts. If an American doctor can't work in his field in Israel, he doesn't have to stay here. He can go to Sloane Kettering or Johns Hopkins or Mount Sinai. Because the needs of the American olim are so specific, a large bureaucracy is not as equipped to handle them as a small organization like Nefesh B'Nefesh that specializes in those needs. Nefesh B'Nefesh has only 55 employees. All of them are olim from the US and Canada, so they themselves went through the process they are now helping others get through. They know just how to talk to these olim and how to help them. And they accompany them here for up to three years. Is Nefesh B'Nefesh actively enticing American Jews to make aliya? Not at the moment, though we might do so in the future. So far, there's been no need. The absorption process for these olim has been so good that not only are they staying in Israel, but spreading the word, which has others following suit. In a mere five years, we have brought 12,000 olim from North America, and we already have 20,000 people wait-listed. And this is without soliciting or propaganda. If we engaged in that, many more could end up coming. I believe that by 2015, we could be absorbing 100,000 olim from North America. This would change the face of Israeli society; it would boost us culturally and demographically; and it would strengthen Israel itself and its relationship with the United States, without causing a brain drain from the American-Jewish community, which today stands at about seven million. Does this not pose a different kind of danger - that of a return to the accusations against American Jews of harboring dual loyalty? Would it not lead to renewed references to the Pollard affair? No, I don't anticipate that kind of danger. There are, always have been and always will be fringe groups of anti-Semites who accuse Jews of dual loyalty. I've never heard anybody accuse Irish-Americans or Italian-American of dual loyalty. People who accuse Jews of that are merely detractors. Neither Ireland nor Italy tries to persuade its emigrants or descendents of emigrants to "return home." True, but they wouldn't turn them away either. Furthermore, the relationship between Israel and the US is special. One expression of this is the mutual recognition of dual citizenship. Americans who make aliya retain their American citizenship, and Israelis who become naturalized Americans retain their Israeli citizenship. This is an indication that there is no problem on either country's part with the dual loyalty. While attending the 75th annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, held Los Angeles last November, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski was chastised for telling The Jerusalem Post that "one day the penny will drop for American Jews and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage." As a result, he ended up half-apologizing and half-retracting. Why did his statements arouse such ire? Bielski is a good friend of mind and he's a dear person. I agree that the wrath was unjustified. How do you explain it, then? Perhaps it has to do with knowing how and in what context to convey messages to the American-Jewish community. But I think that what he said was completely justified. Aliya is the raison d'etre of Zionism. Which is why I genuinely hope that Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency will cooperate, and then we can achieve higher levels of aliya. Does the Jewish Agency want to cooperate with Nefesh B'Nefesh - or does it view such private enterprise as a threat to its very existence? I don't want to sweep anything under the carpet. An agreement was signed according to which the Jewish Agency was supposed to provide Nefesh B'Nefesh with funding. It unilaterally reneged on this agreement. But I'm not losing hope. I know that, ultimately, common interest will overcome. Today, Nefesh B'Nefesh's only limitation is money, one-third of which we receive from the Israeli government and two-thirds of which we raise. The more we're able to raise, the more olim we will be able to bring. We are offering to become a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency. This would mean that we wouldn't have to raise money from other places. Though private donors are also very important to the effort, because it gives Jewish philanthropists the chance to feel part of the endeavor. Israeli ones, as well. What does the money mainly pay for, aside from the salaries of the 55 employees? Mainly the charter planes that bring the olim here, and grants for those who need them. The overhead - which includes the salaries - makes up only 5.5%. Do the olim themselves not fund any part of this? No. The younger families or students who just finished their studies need moving expenses and a buffer until they find work. We give up to $25,000 per family. So, Nefesh B'Nefesh is not only performing a function of the Jewish Agency, but of the Absorption Ministry as well. How does Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri feel about this? Without the Absorption Ministry, we wouldn't be able to function, because we help the olim through the bureaucracy of their absorption - receiving their documents, etc. We see ourselves as an assisting branch of the ministry. Does the ministry see you this way as well? Absolutely. The governmental budget allocated to us was transferred to the Absorption Ministry. So, it gives us both financial support and sees us as sharing a national interest. Which brings me to a point about how civic society is built today. The government can't be expected to do everything. The new model is to work both with the government and with private bodies. This is a winning combination. This Nefesh B'Nefesh model can work anywhere in the world, as it does in France with "Ami," a comparable organization. We gave it our model of Jews who already made aliya from a certain country helping others from that country do the same. You say that aliya strengthens Israel demographically. As a supporter of disengagement from Gaza, and given the current political echelon's penchant for further withdrawals from Judea and Samaria - all of which relies heavily on the demography argument - is it not peculiar for you to be encouraging Jews to move to Israel? If ultimately Israel relinquishes territory populated by Arabs, won't the ratio everyone is so worried become irrelevant? Demography aside, as I said, aliya is the raison d'etre of Zionism. And the stronger Israel is, the stronger Jews in the Diaspora are. Strong, regardless of its borders? [He sighs.] Within secure borders - which, unfortunately, we have not yet achieved. Nor do I see where there's a partner with whom we can achieve that or with whom we can make an agreement. But disengagement was supposedly a unilateral move that required neither a partner nor an agreement. Still, even the demographics within Israel proper is very important. It's not just an issue of the Jewish-Arab ratio. Israeli Arabs are loyal citizens of the state - a majority of them anyway. It's a question of developing the country and spreading out its population. It can't be that a full 60% of the country's land is in the Negev, with a mere 9% of the population living there. It's not healthy. For this proportion to change, demography is crucial. Nefesh B'Nefesh is therefore proud to be cooperating with the Or organization, which builds communities in the Negev. Together we're building a community called Carmit in the Beersheba region for olim from Nefesh B'Nefesh. You think it's healthy to revert to the philosophy of the early days of the state, when prime minister David Ben-Gurion basically decided where olim would live, and the government built factories that were not profitable, just to provide jobs? Why should anyone want to live in the Negev in the absence of genuine economic growth, not to mention malls, movie theaters or restaurants? You're absolutely right, but what is also crucial is infrastructure. Today, with Route 6, for example, the people who move into Carmit will be right near a highway exit. This will enable them to get to the center in an hour. So residents could live in Carmit and work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. We're also looking into building golf courses - apropos of taking Americans' needs into account. The climate of the Negev is identical to that of Southern California, which means that it's perfect for golf courses. You are focusing on meeting the needs of American Jews whom you assist in making aliya. What about the needs of the evacuees from Gush Katif, many of whom hail from North America? None of their needs has been met since they were forced to leave their homes two years ago. Nobody has been accompanying them through their own process of "emigration." It's a terrible situation. Since retiring from government service, I'm not up on all the facts, but those people were the cornerstone of the Zionist enterprise, and they protected and defended the rest of us. There is no compensation for being forced to leave one's dreams, homes, jobs and community. Indeed, everything has to be done to ease their plight. It's the moral duty of each and every one of us. You're married to an American. Did this help you understand what olim from the US go through when they make aliya? Absolutely. I accompanied her through the process in 1984. For me, Nefesh B'Nefesh is thus like completing a circle. What I did personally for my wife, Nefesh B'Nefesh is doing as an organization with many olim. Can you talk about the famous controversy surrounding Silvan and Judy Shalom-Nir-Mozes and you and your wife? It made a lot of noise in Israel, and most people here were in shock - given the serious global and local issues Israel was confronting - that the country's foreign minister and ambassador to the US should be having such a fight, over alleged photo shoots with Madonna and alleged ill treatment of your staff. I can say that the shock was justified. It was an extremely unfortunate and embarrassing affair. It certainly didn't add honor to the Foreign Ministry. That's all I'll say. Were you aware at the time of the amount of the tabloid attention it received? Yes, and it was definitely not easy for me - while trying to represent Israel abroad during difficult times, and getting stabbed in the back on the home front. On the other hand, I received complete support from Arik Sharon, and backing from the Americans, including Condoleezza Rice and President Bush. Even Rice and Bush were in on the scandalous gossip? Yes, they knew exactly what was going on. They even joked with me about it. But they were entirely supportive. They told me to be strong, which enabled me to focus solely on my national mission and ignore the other stuff. Who do you estimate is going to be the next US president, and who the next Israeli prime minister? A year and half is a long time. But if I were to put on the hat of a political commentator, I'd say that at the moment, in Israel it's hard to tell; in America there's a trend towards change. Change toward the Democrats? No chance for another Republican? What I'm sensing right now is a shift from the Republicans to the Democrats. Of course, this will depend who heads each party and what other developments unfold. Are there secret talks going on between Bush and Olmert about the possibility of a joint military attack on Iran? [He laughs.] Even though I'm no longer an ambassador, I am not at liberty to talk about this.