Exclusive: 'No future for US Jewry'
HILARY LEILA KRIEGER and AMIR MIZROCH, THE JERUSALEM POST
Nov. 13, 2006Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
Jews have no future in America and should all move to Israel, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski said on Sunday.
"One day the penny will drop for American Jews and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage," he told The Jerusalem Post while in the United States to participate in the UJC's General Assembly, the world's largest annual gathering of Jewish leaders.
"Assimilation is unstoppable and inevitable in a country of this size and with such a mobile population," he said. "We have to get them to move to Israel, and then Ariel Sharon's vision of one million olim from America will come true."
Asked if American Jews were fighting a losing battle to stay Jewish, Bielski answered in the affirmative. But he urged the American Diaspora to continue to fund Jewish education and renewal efforts.
"I want them to spend all this money on Jewish education and outreach because they're providing me [the Jewish Agency] with quality aliya material: 'more-Jewish' olim who are more aware of Jewish history, traditions and rituals," he said in New York Friday.Blowing the shofar upon arrival in Israel.
Photo: Nefesh Benefesh
On Monday, while noting that he still stands behind his comments to the Post, Bielski nevertheless wished to further clarify his position. "Being the home to the largest number of Jews in the world, Israel will continue to strengthen its position as the center of Jewish life. Within this context I believe that we should also act to strengthen the communities in North America and throughout the world through Jewish education, Jewish identity programs, and visits to Israel," he said.
According to Bielski, "We fully appreciate the role of American Jewry in strengthening Israel and its position in the world, both through moral and financial support, since the establishment of the state."
"It should be noted that only a few months ago, I personally opposed A.B. Yehoshua's unfortunate negation of the Diaspora. Striving for a strong Israel at the center of the Jewish World does not negate strong Jewish communities. We will continue fostering our partnership and bond with Diaspora Jewry for years to come. This has been my belief for many years and any other interpretation is a misrepresentation of my position," the JA chairman stated.
The General Assembly, a 4,500-strong gathering of the United Jewish Communities of North America, opened in Los Angeles Sunday and will run through Wednesday. A record number of Israeli cabinet ministers will be attending, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Education Minister Yuli Tamir, as well as opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer.
This year's conference, titled "Together on the Front Line: One people, one destiny," is dedicated to strengthening ties between Israel and US Jewry. It comes on the heels of this summer's war in Lebanon. The UJC raised close to $350 million to help reconstruction efforts.
Eran Lerman, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee, said aliya could play a role in enhancing the connection between the Diaspora and Israel. However, he took issue with Bielski's negative assessment of the future of American Jewry.
"There's a good, strong core of American Jews for whom their Jewish identity is a cause for celebration, which is not always understood by Israelis," Lerman said.
AJC executive director David Harris put it more strongly.
"American Jews face their share of problems, no doubt," he said. "But we're not disappearing any time soon. These kind of periodic pleas from Israelis have no resonance with American Jews."
Harris said US Jewry largely believed in "American exceptionalism," where Diaspora Jews were not only safe but flourish. "It negates the Zionist narrative that there is no future in the Diaspora," he said.
Harris called Bielski's comments "fear-mongering" and "counterproductive." He said they were more likely to turn off Jews from making aliya rather than encourage them, since Americans immigrate to Israel because of the positive "pull" of the place rather than the "push" of negative circumstances.
Harris acknowledged that assimilation was a concern for American Jews, but also pointed to trends of Jewish renewal and greater involvement with the community.
The AJC's centennial celebration was the scene of controversy in Washington in May, when author A.B. Yehoshua said, "Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all."
Even many in Israel criticized him for his remarks, which espoused the classic Zionist line. At the time, Bielski told the Post the renowned writer had "made a mistake."
The error, he explained, was that "instead of bringing people close to Israel, in a positive way, so that they want to be here, you tear them to pieces, because they're not one of us."
-------------------------------------------------------FLASHBACK: Disconnected from reality By Ze'ev Bielski
"Judaism cannot exist outside Israel. Those who do not live in Israel and do not participate in the daily decisions that are made there and that are entirely Jewish, do not have a Jewish identity of any significance."
This statement was made by author A.B. Yehoshua to the Jewish leadership in America at a conference of the American Jewish Committee. As chairman of the board of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, I should support what he said. Our primary role is to encourage the immigration of all the Jewish youth in the world to the State of Israel. That is the state's duty.
Especially now, just a few days after "Herzl Day," as declared by the state, I find Yehoshua's statement disconnected from the existential reality of the Jewish people. More than half of the Jewish people live in Israel. The state is perceived by the Jewish community in the Diaspora as a strong and established state, not as a weak state just starting out, connected as it was in the past by an umbilical cord to Diaspora Jewry, and dependent upon it.
The concept of aliyah has also changed. Most of the immigrants arriving in Israel today come to guarantee their family's life as Jews, to give their children an opportunity for education and a profession, and to build their future in a Jewish society and state. Immigration from distressed communities has dwindled and the motives for immigration that we knew in the past, like escaping the immediate existential dangers that existed in exile, have nearly disappeared. Jewish communities abroad are mostly developed and strong. They are deeply rooted in their locales and involved in day-to-day life there.
That is how millions of Jews in the world want to live. This is their free choice and even if it does not match our aims, we have no alternative but to respect it.
However, let us remember that the Jewish communities of the world face the difficult and troubling problem of assimilation, which in some places is as much as 80 percent. The younger generation's distancing from Judaism and their lack of interest in a Jewish framework and community is also a difficult problem faced by many communities. These trends contribute to erosion in the number of Jews outside Israel by some 50,000 a year!
Therefore, the State of Israel must make it a top priority to help Jewish communities stop this erosion and, in various new and creative ways, enlist them in the cause of continuing the existence of the Jewish people - wherever it may be.
The main way in which we propose to do this is to position Israel as a source of interest, challenge and identity for Jewish youth from all over the world, and as the meaningful center of their personal identity. We see the enormous influence that a visit to Israel has had on tens of thousands of young people, whom we bring every year for a short visit, as in the Taglit program, or for longer periods of time. Encouraging aliyah was and will be in the future one of the main goals of the State of Israel. The Jewish Agency is the bridge to fulfillment of that objective.
We are working to strengthen the "attractive" elements of Israel, but in the absence of significant factors that help "push" them, most Jews in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, choose to remain where they are. The lives of many of them are connected to Israel. They contribute to it generously and are involved in many joint projects, like strengthening the Galilee and Negev, narrowing social gaps or advancing education. They regard the connection with Israel as the primary means for connecting their children with Jewish tradition, culture and values, with the assets of Jewish culture and community life, and particularly as a means for guaranteeing their continued lives as Jews.
In today's reality, these are the main challenges facing the existence of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. In a technological, mobile and accessible world, in the global village of our day, a Jew living in New Jersey can hold a bar mitzvah for his son at the Western Wall, send his daughter to the Hebrew University for an education, use Skype to talk with friends in Tel Aviv, host in his home young Israelis who are going to be counselors at a Jewish summer camp, contribute to the establishment of student residences in Afula, take part in a project to advance youth in Dimona, and be involved in life in Israel through repeated visits to the country.
If we do not recognize this reality and the challenges it poses to the Jewish people, we might lose the entire campaign. Or give up in advance on our continued existence as a people, for which Israel is the experiential center and the source of identity. The concept posited by A.B. Yehoshua regrettably ignores this reality and is not consistent with the experience of our lives in this era.
The writer is chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization.