“If someone had told me ten years ago that the WZO would be where it is today, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Avraham Duvdevani, Chairman of the World Zionist Organization. Duvdevani was appointed as head of the organization in 2010 after the organization had separated from the Jewish Agency. Recalling its early days as an independent organization, he says, “There was no budget, no plan of operation – there was nothing.” Today, says Duvdevani, the WZO is thriving, with a myriad of activities and plans, working together with Jewish communities worldwide, and fulfilling the mission that was started at the first World Zionist Congress 1897 – to bring the Jews to Israel.
“People have asked me,” he says, “How can you explain your success?” Duvdevani smiles and says, “It is because of one thing. God is a Zionist.”
Duvdevani outlines the organization’s four goals: encouraging and promoting aliyah, developing new rural communities throughout Israel, educating the next generation about the importance of Zionism and the centrality of Israel to Judaism, and ensuring that the Hebrew language is understood and spoken by Jews around the world.
Warming to his subject, Duvdevani says that it may be difficult convincing Jews to leave their comfortable lives in the Diaspora, uproot themselves, and move to Israel. Nevertheless, he adds, “Zionism means doing the impossible, and we are working with all of our power and ability.”
Regarding rural communities, Duvdevani states that the World Zionist Organization has set a goal of opening a minimum of two new communities each year. He points with pride to the new settlement of Meital, which recently opened on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa. Meital is a mixed settlement of both religious and secular families, provides a unique opportunity for young, idealistic Zionist families to build a community together.
Educating the next generation about the importance of Israel is vital, notes Duvdevani. To that end, the WZO has sent more than 200 shlichim (emissaries) to Jewish schools around the world to instill the importance of Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and the importance of the State of Israel to Jewish life. “We started eight years ago with 60 teachers,” says Duvdevani. “Today, we have more than 200 teachers. It has been a tremendous success, and we can’t keep up with the demand.” Duvdevani says that the World Zionist Organization will add hundreds of teachers each year, once the corona pandemic ends.
The newest destination for WZO emissaries is the United Arab Emirates. In the next few months, says Duvdevani, as soon as security arrangements are finalized, the organization will be sending Yaacov and Zolty Eisenstein to Dubai, who will teach Hebrew and Jewish subjects, and will organize Jewish communal events.
Duvdevani laments the state of Hebrew proficiency in the Jewish world today and explains that it is vital that Hebrew remains the central language of the Jewish people. “It connects between Jews, between Jews and the State of Israel, and it is the language by which we speak to God.” To that end, WZO educators throughout the world have established a network of intensive Hebrew courses teaching the language. “We are the only ones doing it, and if we don’t do it, no one will,” he says.
He adds that the corona pandemic has not affected the Hebrew language courses. “Our activities in the Diaspora have changed, but have not stopped,” says Duvdevani. “The 250 Ulpan courses are all active via Zoom, and we have opened new ones.”
Despite the increased interest in Hebrew language courses, Duvdevani says that relations between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are at a difficult juncture. Jews outside Israel, he says, judge Israel by its political behavior. “What is missing,” he says, “is explaining the significance of Jewish country for the Jewish people.” When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, and even after the Six-Day-War, people appreciated the miracle of Israel and its importance. But after 72 years, he says, a new generation has grown up that never experienced life without an Israel, and that has taken it for granted. “We have to reach these young people to explain our roots and our essence. They can disagree and even criticize Israel. That's fine, but it shouldn't influence their connection to the State of Israel.”
Duvdevani speaks highly of Birthright, which, he says, has effected a positive change in the way that young Jews think of Israel. Nevertheless, he says, almost half of the Jewish population living outside Israel has never visited the country.
When asked about the need for a World Zionist Organization today, 72 years after the State of Israel came into being, Duvdevani says, “I understand the question. Zionism was established to create a country. Once the country has been founded, one might say that its job is finished.” He then proceeds to answer the question and explains that the Zionist movement’s primary goal, which was established at the very first conference – bringing the entire Jewish people to Israel on aliyah – has still not been achieved. “The subject of aliyah is the most important and the most critical,” he explains. In addition, he notes, the establishment of the State of Israel was not the final goal. “We still have much to do – establishing a model society with equality, ideology, culture, and helping others. We still need the values of Zionism.”
The upcoming 38th World Zionist Congress will be the first Congress to be held online. Seven hundred twenty delegates and observers from over 30 countries will participate in the three-day meeting, on October 20-22. The sessions will take place in the afternoons, synchronized with time zones in Israel, North America, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
All the participants will be connected online through their own digital devices directly to the deliberations, lectures, panels, and voting at the Congress that will be broadcast live worldwide through an innovative online platform of the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha’uma). Delegates and observers will be able to communicate directly with each other using this platform.
Duvdevani says that the World Zionist Organization is planning to hold an actual conference next year, once the coronavirus has disappeared, with hundreds of delegates in attendance, face-to-face meetings, and full deliberations.
There is much more to be done, says Duvdevani. In his view, today, the State of Israel is the primary ‘connector’ that unites Jews around the world. The task of the World Zionist Organization is to spread the importance of its mission and values to Jews around the world.
Avraham Duvdevani grew up with Zionism. His father was the head of the Aliyah department for the Jewish Agency and brought hundreds of thousands of olim to Israel. “I am continuing in his footsteps,” says Duvdevani. I have done it all my life. Everything I have is from him.”This article was written in cooperation with WZO.