Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielsky told a press conference at the GA Monday night (Israel time) that he had no intention of minimizing the importance of the Jewish federations. Asked about the timing of his comments to The Jerusalem Post, in which he said Jews have no future in America and should all move to Israel, Bielski said, "We came here to say thanks to the Diaspora but that does not change the priority of the JA, which is aliyah."
Reporters on the Job: Do Jews have a future in America?
"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," he told the Post Sunday while in the United States to participate in the UJC's General Assembly, the world's largest annual gathering of Jewish leaders.
"Assimilation is unstoppable and inevitable in a country of this size and with such a mobile population," he said. "We have to get them to move to Israel, and then Ariel Sharon's vision of one million olim from America will come true."
Bielski went on to explain his comments saying, "American Jews do have a future, a present and a past. We are going to work very closely with them. They have raised a lot of money for Israel in times of crisis.
"My position is that of the Israeli government; that we encourage aliya, but that we also encourage continued growth and development here (in America)."
Asked Monday how his comments would affect his relationship with American Jews, Bielski said, "I get along with them, they get along with me, everything is fine."
On Sunday Bielski said American Jews were fighting a losing battle to stay Jewish. But he urged the American Diaspora to continue to fund Jewish education and renewal efforts.
"I want them to spend all this money on Jewish education and outreach because they're providing me [the Jewish Agency] with quality aliya material: 'more-Jewish' olim who are more aware of Jewish history, traditions and rituals," he said in New York Friday.
On Monday, while noting that he still stands behind his comments to the Post, Bielski nevertheless wished to further clarify his position. "Being the home to the largest number of Jews in the world, Israel will continue to strengthen its position as the center of Jewish life. Within this context I believe that we should also act to strengthen the communities in North America and throughout the world through Jewish education, Jewish identity programs, and visits to Israel," he said.
According to Bielski, "We fully appreciate the role of American Jewry in strengthening Israel and its position in the world, both through moral and financial support, since the establishment of the state."
"It should be noted that only a few months ago, I personally opposed A.B. Yehoshua's unfortunate negation of the Diaspora. Striving for a strong Israel at the center of the Jewish World does not negate strong Jewish communities. We will continue fostering our partnership and bond with Diaspora Jewry for years to come. This has been my belief for many years and any other interpretation is a misrepresentation of my position," the JA chairman stated.
The General Assembly, a 4,500-strong gathering of the United Jewish Communities of North America, opened in Los Angeles Sunday and will run through Wednesday. A record number of Israeli cabinet ministers will be attending, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Education Minister Yuli Tamir, as well as opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer.
This year's conference, titled "Together on the Front Line: One people, one destiny," is dedicated to strengthening ties between Israel and US Jewry. It comes on the heels of this summer's war in Lebanon. The UJC raised close to $350 million to help reconstruction efforts.
Eran Lerman, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee, said aliya could play a role in enhancing the connection between the Diaspora and Israel. However, he took issue with Bielski's negative assessment of the future of American Jewry.
"There's a good, strong core of American Jews for whom their Jewish identity is a cause for celebration, which is not always understood by Israelis," Lerman said.
AJC executive director David Harris put it more strongly.
"American Jews face their share of problems, no doubt," he said. "But we're not disappearing any time soon. These kind of periodic pleas from Israelis have no resonance with American Jews."
Harris said US Jewry largely believed in "American exceptionalism," where Diaspora Jews were not only safe but flourish. "It negates the Zionist narrative that there is no future in the Diaspora," he said.
Harris called Bielski's comments "fear-mongering" and "counterproductive." He said they were more likely to turn off Jews from making aliya rather than encourage them, since Americans immigrate to Israel because of the positive "pull" of the place rather than the "push" of negative circumstances.
Harris acknowledged that assimilation was a concern for American Jews, but also pointed to trends of Jewish renewal and greater involvement with the community.
The AJC's centennial celebration was the scene of controversy in Washington in May, when author A.B. Yehoshua said, "Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all."
Even many in Israel criticized him for his remarks, which espoused the classic Zionist line. At the time, Bielski told the Post the renowned writer had "made a mistake."
The error, he explained, was that "instead of bringing people close to Israel, in a positive way, so that they want to be here, you tear them to pieces, because they're not one of us."