These words were spoken by Theodore Herzl 125 years ago at the First Zionist Congress. Fifty-one years later, the State of Israel was established. The First Zionist Congress convened with the goal of outlining the vision of the Jewish state. This vision included four objectives essential to realizing the dream. The first was the promotion of the settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel; the second was the organization of the Jewish people into suitable local and international institutions; the third was strengthening and nurturing Jewish awareness and national consciousness; and lastly, preliminary steps to attain the various countries’ agreement, in order to establish a Jewish state in Israel.
In 1948, after the horrors of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, these objectives began to cohere and even seemed to be realized to a great extent: the State was founded, the national and international institutions were launched and functioning and the Jewish national consciousness had been molded inside and outside of Israel. Different from the other objectives, strengthening and nurturing Jewish awareness and national consciousness carries a different meaning today, given the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. The paradigm of unwavering support for the State of Israel no longer exists in the same way in all the Jewish communities. Furthermore, for many years, Zionism was focused on aliyah. Today, it is clear to us that many Jewish communities wish to live in the Diaspora and uphold their Jewish and civic identity outside of Israel. This begs the question: What is the State of Israel’s responsibility towards these communities and towards the third objective set at the First Zionist Congress 125 years ago? That is exactly what we, at the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs are tasked with - redesigning the way we strengthen and nurture Jewish awareness and national consciousness, pluralistic Jewish identity and the connection to Israel.
The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs deals with this task when half of the Jewish people live in Israel, and half live elsewhere. This is a complex challenge, and there is no single easy answer. We at the Ministry make every effort to address this challenge by partnering with the Jewish communities and stakeholders. Part of the work is strengthening pluralistic Jewish identity in formal and informal education in the Diaspora and strengthening the connection to Israel through various programs around the world. This goal cannot be achieved only by working with the Jewish communities around the world. Therefore, we bear the heavy responsibility of working on this challenge within Israeli society as well.
An inseparable part of strengthening and nurturing Jewish awareness and national consciousness is the ongoing battle against antisemitism worldwide. This, being a real threat to the Jewish people, is a battle that is shared with the global Jewish community and the State of Israel. In many ways, the antisemitism raging in Europe 125 years ago compelled Herzl to convene the First Zionist Congress. Today we are witnessing new waves of extremism and expressions of hatred against Jews, and it is the State of Israel’s duty to do everything in its power to ensure that these voices do not become mainstream.
Jewish national consciousness grows stronger in times of trouble and crisis. We have seen the State of Israel express solidarity with the Jewish people in Ukraine throughout the current war there. We have seen the efforts of the national institutions and government ministries to facilitate aliyah and to absorb the new immigrants into Israel, as well as the emergency assistance provided by many organizations. The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs was the first to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and it supported the Jewish communities that found themselves in a dire situation and were on the verge of collapse.
But this is not sufficient. Our main challenge is strengthening the Jewish nation on a daily basis. A real threat to our national resilience comes from disconnection and indifference. Hence, we have a shared responsibility to connect the Jewish people in Israel and around the world to each other and to Jewish values, culture, history, tradition and religion – this way, we are true to the aspirations of the first Zionist Congress of strengthening and nurturing Jewish awareness and national consciousness for the Jewish people.
The writer, Tziona Koenig-Yair, is the Director General of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. She was born in the United States and is the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors. Her parents, who met on their way to Israel for a year study program, named her Tziona, meaning To Zion, as they aspired to make aliyah and move to Israel, which they did in 1981.