The 38th World Zionist Congress is set to begin next week and with it will commence three days of deliberation, debate and decision-making about the direction of the Zionist enterprise and the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and the challenges that face them.
In these troubled times, those challenges are manifold and their resolution is difficult, complex and requires investment of much time and resources.
One man who has invested much of his life and energy in trying to advance the Jewish people, build bridges between Jews in the Diaspora and the Jewish state and resolve some of those concerns is David Breakstone.
Breakstone has a lifetime of experience and endeavor within the venerable National Institutions of the Zionist movement, and, as an immigrant from the US 46 years ago, is an Anglo-Israeli serving in one of the top two positions of both the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.
He currently serves as the deputy chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency and is the only Anglo-Israeli among all the members of the WZO Executive currently serving in an elected position in the National Institutions.
Today, for Breakstone, there are several pressing concerns for the Jewish people in the Diaspora which the National Institutions can and do address.
The alienation from Israel of Jewish youth in North America and the apathy of many to the Jewish state are critical issues.
“There is estrangement and resentment by secular Jews, and the connection of many to Judaism isn’t as strong as it should be,” noted Breakstone.
“Many Jews in the Diaspora are alienated from Israel and from the Zionist ideal altogether, whether regarding Israeli policy, or the perception of Israeli policy, on different issues.”
The seminal Pew Report on American Jews found that attachment to Israel was significantly lower among younger Jews than among their elder coreligionists, with fully 38% of those aged 18 to 29 saying they had little or no attachment to the Jewish state.
“Surveys show that many young Jews perceive Israel as unimportant to their lives as Jews, and even question the necessity of a Jewish state at all,” said Breakstone.
He also spoke of the “abandonment” by the younger generation of Jews in North America of organized Jewish institutions, such as synagogues and other communal structures as another critical issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also wreaked further havoc on Jewish communal life, with many synagogues across North America and around the world shuttered or half empty.
Congregants are often logging in online to services and events instead of turning up physically, and synagogues are feeling this phenomenon financially in a serious manner.
How this phenomenon plays out after the pandemic subsides is unclear, but it could certainly be another blow to the commitment to Jewish communal life and institutions.
Internal acrimony within the Jewish people, both in the Diaspora and Israel, is another crucial challenge facing the broader Jewish family, said Breakstone.
Mutual recriminations over COVID, political arguments and religious divisions are challenging the unity of the Jewish people, he argued.
“The distancing of Jews from each other is a huge challenge facing Jewish world,” said Breakstone.
SO HOW can these deep and complex problems be addressed?
For Breakstone, one of the most critical paths to tackling these challenges is to “reframe and reclaim” the Zionist idea.
He argued that the notion that the State of Israel was conceived primarily as a shelter and refuge for persecuted Jews to escape their torments in the Diaspora is fundamentally damaging to “our ability to attract a new generation to participate in the Zionist venture.”
Breakstone acknowledged that the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, expressed the primary function of the Jewish state he envisioned in his pamphlet Der Judenstaat as a place for Jews to escape the cycle of persecution, immigration and renewed persecution.
But he also argued that Herzl had a dual vision of a Jewish state that is not simply a shelter of last resort for desperate and destitute Jews but a country that could serve as an “exemplary society,” as expressed in his novel, Altneuland, which describes a flourishing, vibrant, tolerant and advanced Jewish state.
“This is the Zionism that the WZO and the Jewish Agency need to present to a generation that is alienated,” said Breakstone.
“They need to understand Israel as work in progress with all its faults, but with aspirations to become a light unto the nations. That is something that has been there from the beginning but something that has been lost for many people,” he said.
“We need to excite them about this idea. Tikkun olam is for many the religion of Judaism today, and so we need to present Israel as society that engages in tikkun olam. Israel itself has to strive to become that kind of just, moral society that Herzl envisioned.”
It is this enthusiasm for Herzl’s utopian vision that inspired Breakstone when he led the committee to create the Herzl Center and Museum on Mount Herzl. He formulated and conceived the project’s educational message, which seeks to imbue the many young Israelis who visit every year with a sense of Zionistic pride and a commitment to advancing that exemplary society.
And in 2004, Breakstone was also instrumental in updating the “Jerusalem Program,” the ideological platform of the WZO and the Zionist movement more broadly, with elements of this vision.
The updated version of the original 1953 program gave specific emphasis to this goal, by insisting that the foundations of Zionism lie in shaping Israel as “an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multifaceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.”
DESPITE MUCH talk in recent years of the lack of relevance of the National Institutions, as well as allegations of corruption among some, Breakstone insists that they remain important components for advancing the Zionist vision he says is needed to inspire young Jews today.
“The National Institutions have sensitivities to the needs of the Diaspora, and one cannot expect that the government of Israel will invest the energy and resources which are vital for the continuation of Jewish life outside of Israel as these institutions do,” he asserted. “If we didn’t have them, we would need to create them.”
He points specifically to the World Zionist Organization as a crucial and unique body which, unlike any other organization or forum, brings together Jews of every stripe and across the religious and political spectrum, from all over the world.
“The WZO is the only organization in the Jewish world where there is such ideological diversity, where Shas, Meretz and Likud, Reform, Conservative and ultra-Orthodox can come together,” he said.
And he said that, unlike in other forums, in the WZO no one needs to take off their ideological or religious hats in order to convene together, and that keeping those particular hats on is the entire point.
“At WZO we proudly wear those hats, we work towards common goals and a common agenda, pursue our commonalities, and try and to figure out how to work out the differences that separate us,” said Breakstone.
“And through The Jewish Agency the entirety of organized world Jewry is represented in what is the parliament of the Jewish people,” he continued, pointing out that no one in the Israeli government represents world Jewry.
“It is exciting and impactful, it brings together philanthropists, and ideologues to work out priorities where to invest, and there’s a dynamic give-and-take which serves the Jewish people, and the Israeli government wouldn’t take up this role.”
The agency, too, says Breakstone, is still a crucial body. He noted that its primary function is to encourage and facilitate aliyah from foreign countries, and said that it would be inappropriate for the government of Israel to participate in such activities.
He also pointed to the work of the agency and WZO emissaries in the Diaspora who often teach at Jewish schools and engage in informal education in Jewish studies, Hebrew and Bible studies to bolster the connection of young Diaspora Jews both to their Judaism and the Jewish state.
Israel and the Jewish people around the world face unique challenges and trying times. Concerns over Jewish identity, affiliation to the Jewish collective, and commitment to the ideals of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood have been mounting for some time.
Now with the COVID-19 pandemic creating severe difficulties for Jewish life in a multitude of ways, in terms of communal life, religious practices, philanthropic trends, societal cohesion and beyond, those concerns are exacerbated.
If the National Institutions, to which Breakstone has devoted his life, are indeed to remain relevant, then it is these challenges they will have to address and help resolve, if they are to continue to play an important role in the life of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.