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Special Interview Rivlin: a New Challenge

It was strange to hear Moshe Rivlin talking Zionism. At the helm of the Zionist movement for nearly a dozen years as director general of the Jewish Agency, Rivlin has had little time for talking. He made his mark as a doer, an achiever–a bitsuist. He left the talking to the politicians.

But as the words tumbled out–“vision,” “challenge,” “commitment,” “Jewish destiny,” the cliches of Zionist rhetoric–they seemed to take on a new dimension of immediacy, of sincerity. “I passionately believe in all this, otherwise I couldn’t stay on this job for a single day. You can not be a real bitsuist if you don’t believe, just as a pure ideologue who achieves nothing on the ground is also pretty useless.”

Rivlin is about to leave the Jewish Agency now moving down the corridor to the office of chairman of the Jewish National Fund. He leaves on a low note, at a time of waning aliya, of neshira (drop-outs) as a seemingly permanent and irreversible trend. He does not try to minimize these huge disappointments and the fundamental question-marks they pose to the Zionist idea.

On the contrary, he stresses the atmosphere of crisis, and throws down a demanding challenge to the Zionist movement and to broader echelons of Jewish leadership: “The entire relationship between Israel and the Jewish people urgently needs a thorough reassessment.”

MATTER OF VITAL PRIORITY

After the elections in Israel, he proposes, the new government must, as a matter of vital priority, summon a council of all ranking Jewish leaders to conduct this reassessment. To allow the situation to remain static, or deteriorate still further, would be catastrophic for Israel, he warns.

The severity of the crisis, he says, is most forcefully illustrated by the fact that Jews in several countries, who are on the verge of packing up and emigrating, are not thinking of Israel as their natural destination. This applies to South African Jews. Rhodesian Jews, Latin American Jews, and, of course, to so many of those Jews who succeed in escaping from the Soviet Union.

At the same time, says Rivlin, and perhaps as part of the same problem, Israel is visibly losing its prestige and authority among the established Western Jewish communities. Plainly, much of the fault lies with Israel itself, with facets of Israeli society which are familiar to Jews abroad and which frankly deter or repel them. But to recognize this, even to work to put right Israel’s wrongs, is not a sufficient solution to the fundamental Israel-diaspora crisis, says Rivlin.

“Israel needs a new message, a new challenge, a task to inspire young Jews abroad,” he stresses. The Jewish State’s dual tasks in the past have always been aliya and defense: they may no longer be sufficient to motivate the diaspora to action beyond fund-raising. Nor can Israel, Rivlin is convinced, afford to resign itself to the present, static situation, if only for purely demographic reasons. And beyond demography, there is the need for diaspora-Israel interaction, based on ongoing aliya, which is at the root of the Zionist vision–a vision which Rivlin insists is as valid today as ever it was.

SPECIFIC ELEMENTS OUTLINED

He dismisses with scorn the argument that a small sovereign state and a large, sympathetic diaspora was the natural situation of the Jewish people throughout the Second Commonwealth and may be an integral and inevitable part of the dialectic of Jewish history. “The Zionist movement never resigned itself, never accepted the contention that that’s inevitable and you can’t change the inevitable. Zionism did change that which seemed immutable, inevitable.”

The challenge, then, he says, must be to levy a volunteer army of 50,000 young people, Israeli and diaspora Jews, who would undertake to settle in the Galilee, to populate the Negev, to populate Jerusalem and its environs, and to live and work in development towns. The Zionist movement would spearhead this new national drive forward. It would no longer be a movement seeking as broad a base as possible among as many Jews as possible, but rather a “fighting, pioneering” movement dedicated to action, inspiring others to act, Rivlin declares.

This kind of radical overhaul in Israel-diaspora relations, and in the role of Zionism in the 1980s would “cleanse the atmosphere,” he says, both within the country and vis-a-vis the diaspora. Obviously the inspiration and leadership must come from the government of Israel itself: the Zionist movement would be the instrumentality, not the instigator. Here Rivlin treads carefully, anxious to steer clear of intra-or inter-party politics. “It is up to the next government to make the move,” he says.

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