Leave your cynicism at the door

The World Zionist Congress, now meeting in Jerusalem, provides a necessary forum for Diaspora engagement with Israel.

zionist congress 1903 (photo credit: )
zionist congress 1903
(photo credit: )
Much cynicism surrounds the Jewish Agency's World Zionist Congress. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon and has a field day criticizing it as an antiquated gathering, which, with the establishment of a Jewish state, should have been relegated to the trash bin of history. Many of the meetings are exemplified by bureaucratic machinations and political maneuvering, whereby the means overwhelm whatever ends are placed on the table for discussion and decision-making. Party functionaries on the Israeli side will be seeking their place in the sun, having not been rewarded sufficiently - at least in their own eyes - with worthy appointments in the halls of government. The manner of discourse often reaches such a low level that one wonders if one is attending some soccer team rally; some past sessions actually ended in fist-fights. It is amazing that anything gets accomplished as meetings are frequently interrupted by private caucuses. Why the need for private consultation? Because each movement has its own parochial agenda to pursue, often with little consideration for the wider concerns and needs of the general Jewish community. Yes, there is much to be cynical about when watching the web of intrigue that occupies the World Zionist Congress. THOSE ON the outside looking in upon the intersecting world of Diaspora-Israel relations tend to be harshly judgmental. The Jewish Agency and its World Zionist Congress provide an easy target for disparagement. But any examination of the range of activities that the Jewish Agency is involved in would indicate that important, in many cases crucial work is being conducted. Much of the Jewish Agency's agenda for the coming years will be determined by the deliberations of the present congress. No matter how tiresome the procedures by which decisions will be reached, in the end, a program of action will be articulated and instituted that should make participants feel proud. For good and for bad, the image of Judaism and the perception of the Jew are often determined by what happens in the Jewish state. Israel has become to the world what Switzerland is to winter holidays - a moral resort area. Diaspora Jews cannot take a moral vacation from what is happening in the Jewish state. The World Zionist Congress provides the necessary forum for Diaspora engagement with Israel. THE MATTERS discussed cut to the very core, not only of the reasons for the existence of the Jewish state, but also of its character. Some of the issues that will receive attention are immigration, anti-Semitism, education, settlements, religious pluralism and the face of democracy in a Jewish state. Each area represents a world unto itself, and all are interrelated. Israelis would like to see immigration from the West, particularly North America, become a staple of Diaspora policy, if only to serve as a definitive answer to intermarriage and assimilation. But we know that the moneys donated by the Jewish Agency are more needed to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union and now from countries such as France that are experiencing increased anti-Semitism. It will be this congress that determines the allotments of moneys, the manner in which they are distributed, and the type of programs that will be established for these immigrants once they arrive at Israel's shores. Immigration was and remains the central reason for the creation of the Jewish state. The process of aliya is a historical progression, not a one-time event, to which much of Diaspora Jewry was committed in the incipient stages of Israel's development. Education for aliya is vital. That this commitment to immigration should be reaffirmed at this congress is a testimony to the perpetuation of the ideology of aliya as central to the Jewish people. WHETHER FUNDS raised abroad should be used for settlements is a hotly contested topic. This goes to the heart of another issue to be discussed: how to maintain a Jewish and democratic state. If the settlements are truly perceived as an obstacle to peace, as contrary to international law, as a sticking point between Israel and the United States, and as a cover for perpetuating the occupation, then Diaspora Jews need to decide if using moneys to bolster the settler population is legitimate or not. The consequences are paramount to the very nature of a Jewish state, for it should be clear to all that ruling over another people to satisfy a messianic notion of the "sacredness" of the land will find the Jewish state sacrificing the basic elements of democracy: that all people should live freely. The last and perhaps most significant aspect of this congress is the presence of over 2,500 participants around the world. In a time of continuing uncertainty and insecurity, it is a tribute to all those participants - and to us emotionally and economically vital - that so many are here. I wish that the work of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Congress was more efficient, and that their public debates were more civilized. But I am grateful that the major issues in the life of the Jewish people and Israel are being dealt with seriously and generously. Now is not the time for cynicism, but rather for optimism.