When I grew up in the Soviet Union, I knew that I was Jewish because it was written in the ID of my parents. But there was nothing positive in this word – no tradition, no religion, no language, no history. The only Jewish thing in my youth was antisemitism – both in the street and in the official policy of restrictions. Only after the Six Day War in 1967 did I become a proud Zionist. And through Zionism, I discovered the power of Jewish history, culture and tradition, and later in prison, religion.
People are coming to their Jewish identity from different directions. Some through religion, some through tradition, some through national pride, and some through different streams of Zionism. Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, etc. All these sides of Judaism become components of one’s Jewish identity.
There is no doubt that today Israel is taking more and more center stage in this confluence of Jewish identities. This is in line with the vision of Theodor Herzl. He was able to see the future, predict the future and build the future. He believed that the Jewish state would be established within 50 years, and indeed that is exactly the time it took from the First Zionist Congress in 1897 to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
But at the same time, he was wrong in his prediction that after the creation of the Jewish state there would remain no Jews in the Diaspora; they would either make aliyah or would voluntarily assimilate. This didn’t happen. Today, after almost 75 years since the creation of the State of Israel, half of the Jews still live in the Diaspora. But in some indirect way, his prediction is still true. Zionism, connection to Israel, has become a central part of Jewish identity for Jews from different diasporas. And those who don’t have it are more vulnerable to assimilation.
As a Jewish activist, member of the Israeli government and, later, head of the Jewish Agency, I visited almost every Jewish community in the world. They all in one way or another face the danger of assimilation. And I discovered that there are only two factors that can slow down the assimilation: tradition and Zionism. If you have one, you can work on connecting yourself to the second. Either way, your Jewishness is not under immediate danger.
But if you don’t have any connection, neither to tradition nor to Israel, your grandchildren probably will not be Jewish. This experimental rule is true for North America, South America, France, Russia, Australia or any other place in the world.
Transforming the Jewish Agency
With that in mind, I was part of a transformation of the Jewish Agency. Until that time, many viewed the Jewish Agency as simply the tool for aliyah. And so, the representative of the Jewish Agency had to knock on the doors of every Jew and ask him or her, “Why are you here? How dare you not make aliyah?” I didn’t want to be such a commissar of Zionism.
Of course, when it comes to saving Jews from Ethiopia, Russia, or today from Ukraine, the Jewish Agency always has to be – and is – ready for such operations. But most of the Jews today live in the free world. And their aliyah is not aliyah of escape, it is aliyah of free choice. And to make this choice, they have to feel a strong connection with their identity and the State of Israel. And if you want to mobilize Jews to fight antisemitism, or to strengthen their communities, or to slow down assimilation, we need the same – to strengthen their Jewish identity.
I put this principle at the center of our activity. Our way to do it is to organize different encounters between Jews and Israel. Our programs became connected into a spiral of Israel experiences, from meeting Jewish Agency emissaries in summer camps, schools, universities and communities to traveling to Israel for short programs like Birthright; longer programs like Onward; and numerous Masa projects up to one year. As a result, you increase the number of people who make aliyah of choice, as well as those who become more involved in the communities, take part in the fight against antisemitism, defending Israel, and so on.
I was accused by some that I changed the nature of the Jewish Agency, turning it from the single aim of making aliyah to a kind of tourism ministry. But soon it became obvious to everybody that strengthening the Zionist component of our identity is the most effective way to encourage aliyah of choice.
Judaism without Zionism – not sustainable
There is a movement today by some liberal Jews to try to build Jewish identity that is totally disconnected from Israel.
Embarrassed by continual criticism of Israel as the “colonialist,” “white supremacy project,” they prefer to distance themselves from it. We have reached American Jewish tradition, they would say, we don’t need nationalist Israel to define our identity. After all, they say, in thousands of years of Jewish history, Israel as a state was not a part of Jewish identity most of the time. Of course, it’s ridiculous to try to ignore the differences in Jewish identity before and after the creation of the State of Israel.
Their efforts remind me of the activity of the so-called Yevsektsiya – Jewish department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They wanted Jews to join the “progressive” cause of communism, and remain Jewish. That’s why they were against religion and led the process of closing synagogues.
They were against Hebrew and prohibited Zionist literature. At the same time, they encouraged Yiddish and were responsible for opening chairs for the study of Yiddish in universities and the creation of various cultural institutions in Yiddish. But soon it became clear that assimilation was accelerating, and there were fewer and fewer people interested in these institutions.
When the central components of Jewish identity were taken away, few were really interested in remaining Jewish. ■
The writer is a human rights activist and author who spent nine years in Soviet prisons as a refusenik during the 1970s and 1980s. He served in various Israeli government cabinet positions, including deputy prime minister (between 2001 and 2003), and served as the chairman of the Jewish Agency from June 2009 to August 2018.