Are we connecting?

As membership in Zionist organizations in the Diaspora diminishes, we in Israel must make world Jewry feel like the vital partner it is.

Supporter waves flag at pro-Israel rally in Honduras (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporter waves flag at pro-Israel rally in Honduras
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As an ex Brit who made aliya some 13 years ago, I visit the United Kingdom from time to time. What has struck me, especially during these past two years, is the hesitation on the part of my UK friends to mention Israel. Whenever I return home, the first question I am confronted with is: “Well, what did they ask about Israel?” The truth is they did not! This in itself speaks volumes. The clear hesitation in asking the question indicates they would rather not speak about Israel, because what they might say is likely to be negative; much safer to keep quiet.
This reality, however unpleasant, is not surprising when Jewish communities – in keeping with everyone else – are subjected to a constant barrage of anti-Israeli media.
This, coupled with the fact that our hasbara has been virtually non-existent for years, has resulted in a pulling away from Israel. I well remember the first social evening spent with Israelis shortly after our aliya, when I spoke of my concern about our lack of hasbara. The response? “What we say isn’t important; it is what we do that counts.” How shortsighted this has proven to be! The whole BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign has shown that we are now paying the heavy price for neglecting advocacy on behalf of the one Jewish state.
For while we have won military battles, we have lost the battle of the word.
Numerous Jewish international organizations , including my own WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), are feeling the pinch in both a lessening of contributions from our Diaspora federations – so vital to the sustaining of our projects – as well as a diminishing of membership worldwide. But this is not just about money; more importantly it is about identification.
There is a mistaken belief that there is no longer a need for Diaspora Jewry to support the now affluent, economically strong Israel. The truth is somewhat different, as seen in the current “Israeli Spring” – the public outcry against the price of cottage cheese, the lack of affordable housing and the overworked, poorly paid doctors. Without doubt, however, the most worrying statistic is that 1.7 million Israelis live below the poverty line. Nearly a million children form part of this frightening figure (36.3% of all children).
There are those who identify with Yossi Beilin who - in his book His brother’s keeper - said “Funds raised by those outside of Israel would be better used for the welfare of the Jewish world and for Jewish continuity worldwide.”
What Yossi Beilin forgot is that for many Jews, their only connection with their Jewish identity is through the donations they give to Israel.
What can be done to lessen this growing divide? First, there has to be an acknowledgment that Jewish support for Israel is on the wane.
One of the major ways of conveying the real Israel is to encourage study tours. We have witnessed the great success of schemes, such as Birthright offering the 18-to 25- year-old a free 10-day visit to see the reality for themselves.
Much could still be done with “follow through” – do many of the birthright ‘graduates’ become actively involved in their own communities, or do they fall by the wayside? Nevertheless, there is no questioning the fact that the majority return home with a stronger Jewish and Zionist identity.
To what extent are organizations ensuring that their younger members come to Israel? WIZO organizes an annual International Aviv Seminar bringing together young women from all over the world. Some WIZO federations have a special fund to support the subsidizing of participants recognizing it as an important vehicle in connecting with Israel. The program has resulted in many of the seminar graduates becoming leaders in their respective WIZO federations. On average, e some 40 participants from abroad come each year. WIZO wishes it could find a Michael Steinhart or a Charles Bronfman (major funders and founders of birthright) to enable many more young women to experience Israel.
Israel itself should be contributing towards lessening the divide. Seeing is believing. Why is it more expensive to visit here than many other places? Why are the hotel prices so high? Just as there is currently a campaign demanding affordable housing for both students and young families, perhaps we should have a campaign that provides cheaper hotel accommodation resulting in more tourists and study groups.
Last, but by no means least, we in Israel must find a way of making our Diaspora brothers and sisters feel they are a vital partner in the enterprise. To this end I am reminded of Shlomo Argov, the victim of an attempt on his life by Arab terrorists in 1982 while serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. He survived, but his severe injuries required permanent hospitalization until his death in 2003. His friends put together a book comprised of his speeches. On one occasion he had this to say:
“We need to know that this enterprise [Israel] for which we have assumed the responsibility is a joint enterprise. An all-Jewish enterprise……Everything that provides Jews in the Diaspora (institutes and institutions) with opportunities to associate themselves with this enterprise is significant… Israel belongs to all of us. We are in this boat together. It is a sturdy boat, a fine boat and a swift boat that will with God’s help – and everyone’s help – reach a safe haven in our times.
The writer is Public Relations Chair of World WIZO and Co- Chair of Europeans for Israel. Prior to her aliya she served as the chairperson of WIZO UK; chairperson of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland and chairperson of the Bnai Brith Hillel Foundation.