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Special Interview Jewish Youth and Zionism

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The head of the World Zionist Organization’s youth and hechalutz department contends that Jewish youth must look beyond their movement affiliations and focus on the one basic commitment which unites them Zionism.

Avraham Katz, department head and Likud (Liberal) Knesseter, observes that “It is imperative that the 12 percent of world Jewish youth who belong to Zionist youth movements unite above and beyond their specific loyalties to their movements. The department will assist in this approach by having movement emissaries simultaneously serve more than one youth movement during their two-year stints abroad.”

The move, Katz acknowledges, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, has in part been necessitated by the severe budget cuts recently imposed on the department, resulting in a 20 percent reduction in the number of emissaries who can be sent abroad by the department each year. (These emissaries include both those sent to represent the II different youth movements as well as those who serve Jewish federations and community centers.)

Moreover, at present, Katz says, the limited emissary personnel is not being fully utilized. He cites the recent transfer of a Habonim (Labor youth movement) emissary from Santiago, Chile, where he served along with three other representatives from his movement, to Buenos Aires, where Habonim was not represented at all.

“The department must see to it that there is a logical distribution of emissaries,” he notes. “And we must be realistic and send the emissaries to the places in which they will be most successful.” He adds that the department must work according to a general overview of all the youth movements, and realistically keep in mind the extent to which it can realize the different movements’ needs.

PLANS FOR EXPANDING LEADERSHIP INSTITUTES

Katz has plans for the expansion of the department’s Jerusalem leadership institute for youth (which brings select youth from abroad for leadership training in Israel), the building of a third leadership school in Paris (in addition to those already established in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires), and the institution of a centralized unit for screening emissary applicants which will supervise from Jerusalem the individuals selected for emissary work abroad. The leadership institute, meanwhile, is the only section of the department whose budget has not been cut.

Another major activity of the youth and hechalutz department is what it calls “mifalei Hakaitz,” or short-term summer programs for high school youth. These constitute an important way of introducing teenagers to Israel, most of whom have never been here before.

Katz stresses the program’s “educational dimension,” which acquaints the participants with historical aspects of the country and introduces them to Israeli youth, with whom they work side by side for a two-week period. This year, some 8000 teenagers visited Israel through the summer programs.

ONE OF THE SENSITIVE ISSUES

One of the most sensitive issues among department staff members since Katz assumed his position last year (meanwhile stepping out of the running for the chairmanship of his party’s Knesset caucus), has been whether or not he would exercise his power to influence the department along Likud’s ideological line.

Katz is vehement in his denial of any such contention. “Nonsense,” he observes, noting that any alleged reconstitution of the movement emissaries, in favor of the Likud-aligned youth movements is out of the question. “The proportionate constitution of the movement emissaries is determined according to an established key, fixed according to each movement’s size and potential influence.” Indeed, a recently-drafted emissary index which conveys the extent to which the number of movement emissaries will be reduced, shows that these proposed reductions are proportionate to ratios followed in the past.

Katz runs the department together with his director general, Shimshon Zeevi. Zeevi, who lived for many years in Texas, where he worked informally in the field of Jewish education, was brought back to Israel specifically for his new job.

“I know Israel best,” says Katz. “And I needed someone with skills which could complement mine Zeevi is well acquainted with the problematic and character of the largest Jewish community in the world, and that is very important. After all, the role of the youth and hechalutz department is to serve everyone who works with Jewish youth throughout the world.”

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