Zionism 2010, no longer weeping by the river

If the World Zionist Organization is to remain relevant, it must recognize that the Jewish question has changed – and figure out how to answer it.

A few days ago, I ran a workshop for North American Jewish educators studying here on a two-year graduate program. We got to the matter of Israel-Diaspora relations and I asked them how they relate to the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” if they have no intention of moving here.
The first to respond was offended by my question. “That’s not about this Jerusalem,” he said categorically, “but an end-of-days Jerusalem, when the messiah comes.”
Silly me. Here I was thinking I had turned dream into reality, and now I’m informed my reality is but a dream. But who was I to argue with him? No one else did either. More than a century of Zionism dismissed without a flinch.
At best, I would count this young teacher among those who are still weeping by the rivers of Babylon, seemingly unmindful of the fact that today, El Al could gather them in from the farthest reaches of the earth in less than 24 hours if they would but dry their eyes and pack their bags. At worst, he belongs to a segment of our people who remain passionate about their Judaism but who are living rich and meaningful Jewish lives without obsessing over Israel. This “worst” may not be so bad. But it is a departure from our tradition.
Zionism, it would seem, has become essentially irrelevant to the American Jewish community, and to others as well. If, as the official platform of the World Zionist Organization proclaims, “the centrality of Israel in the life of the nation” is a basic tenet of Zionism, and study after study reveals that Diaspora Jews are becoming increasingly disinterested in the Jewish state, then it would appear that Zionism is no longer a basic tenet of Jewish life outside of Israel. How things have changed in the 43 years since the Six Day War.
STILL, THE WZO trudges along, doing its best to engage Jews around the world in the sacred task of Jewish state-building, and this week 1,500 of its members will converge on Jerusalem to participate in a Zionist congress, the 36th since the first was convened in 1897. Does the Zionist movement still matter, 62 years after its goal of statehood has been achieved? Bill Hess, president of the American Zionist Movement, believes it does. “It gives body to the spiritual yearning of the Jew for our place in the world,” he says, adding that it also provides that “ideological nudge to strive for the ideals enunciated by Herzl.”
Carlos Frauman, president of OSA, the Zionist Organization of Argentina, agrees.
“It is central to uniting the Jewish communities of the world,” he maintains, and Benny Shneid, OSA director general, says that “the daily tasks it is involved in – of education, of engagement, of action – are essential to our continuity.”
That is also important to Nelson Kuperman, a congress delegate from Brazil. “Zionism remains an important engine of Jewish life in the Diaspora,” he explains, “inspiring the functioning of community organizations, impacting on the lives of families and individuals. It is a powerful factor in the establishment of Jewish identity.”
And the congress? “It is the sole point of direct interaction between Israelis and leaders of world Jewry where a serious encounter can take place without the perceived sword of the donor’s gift over head,” says Hess. Antal Biro from the Zionist Federation of Hungary concurs.
“It provides the possibility for those living in galut to establish personal contacts with Israelis and Jews around the world.”
Beyond that, Mayer Tropper of Costa Rica views the congress as an important “expression of the will of the Jews in the world to show their concern for, and demonstrate their interest in the State of Israel.” And Dan Cohen, of the Zionist Federation in Holland, sees it as the “one forum to discuss all topics related to Zionism.”
It is also the one forum in which representatives of the entire religious and political spectrum grapple cooperatively with issues confronting the Jewish people, a hallmark of the organization that will be tested this year with the inclusion of Shas.
But none of these delegates to the congress are starry-eyed about its efficacy, each in his own way echoing Hess’ prognosis. “The future of the Zionist movement,” he says, “is mostly dependent on the ability of the Israeli political parties to see beyond their limited interests and involve world Jewry in their activities in a meaningful way.”
Too much of the time “is spent on fruitless and/or futile discussions,” continues Cohen, who gives expression to widespread resentment about the dramatic shift in recent years from investment in the Diaspora to investment in Israel and the lack of involvement of those overseas in determining WZO priorities when he complains that “there is very little influence of volunteers from abroad.”
Kuperman adds that while the gathering continues “to provide pleasant encounters between friends, it will lose its significance if it is not able to do more than facilitate political arrangements.” Shneid agrees: “It must reorganize and generate new paradigms if it is going to respond to the challenges of today.”
The greatest of these challenges is figuring out how to alter the present situation.
Right now, Israel has very little to do with the majority of young Jews abroad. So they, in turn, have very little to do with Israel. It is not a significant element in their self-identity; it is not an “insurance policy” in case the unthinkable should happen once again; it is not a fount of inspiration and culture; it is not a source of pride enabling them to hold their heads high as Jews. And precisely because of all these things that Israel is not, a vibrant Zionist movement is as important as ever.
If, in the past, Zionism was about establishing a Jewish homeland, today we must transform it into a tool for unifying the Jewish people and safeguarding its future – not only against the threat of anti-Semitism, but also against the threats of Jewish illiteracy, assimilation, apathy and the growing uncertainty about the very legitimacy of something called a Jewish state.
The Zionist movement was established by Theodor Herzl to offer an answer to the Jewish question. That need remain our objective today. But if the WZO is to remain significant and relevant, we must come to recognize that the Jewish question has changed – and so, too, must the way we answer it. Both in content and form.
With all our efforts to respond effectively to the flotilla disaster earlier this month, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were there first, communicating with hundreds of thousands of young Jews in a language many of us have yet to learn.
Those attending the Zionist congress this year in Jerusalem (the real one) face the daunting task of making “next year in Jerusalem” a meaningful and resonant idiom for those who would otherwise never get here – whatever meaning they might give it once they have.
The writer is a Jerusalem educator and member of the Zionist Executive.