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Behind the Headlines: a Century After the First Congress, Zionist Movement Still Has ‘a Calling’

There are those who think the Zionist movement should have come to an end with the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

But Simcha Dinitz is not one of them.

He believes the Zionist movement “has a calling today,” nearly a century after Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.

Dinitz, who chairs the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency for Israel, discussed the movement’s goals in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in his office prior to the scheduled opening of the 32nd Zionist Congress here on Sunday.

“Historically, there have been those who believed that the aim of the movement was to establish the Jewish state, period,” Dinitz said. “But those who understood Zionism realized that its role was the redemption of the people of Israel and the Land of Israel.

“So as long as the majority of the Jewish people live outside Israel, and the majority of the Land of Israel is untilled, the Zionist movement remains relevant,” he said.

“The question is how to make it relevant to the tasks of today.”

While doing so has not been easy, “I feel that we are on the right track,” he said. “It has been our aim, particularly during the past four years, to turn the movement into a relevant instrument to solve the existing Zionist problems.”

ALIYAH IS TOP CHALLENGE

The most pressing, problem, he said, is aliyah.

“The question of aliyah is two-fold: There is aliyah from dangerous or distressed countries, and aliyah from affluent nations,” he said.

“We are very proud of the fact that it was the Zionist movement that organized and transported the mass aliyah of 400,000 Jews during the past three years,” Dinitz said.

The bulk of those immigrants, about 330,000, are from the former Soviet Union, about 40,000 are from Ethiopia and the remainder are from the rest of the world, he said.

That remainder includes those who came in various small but dramatic operations, including the airlifting of the entire Albanian Jewish population to Israel in 1991 and the rescue of Jews this year from ethnic battles in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Moldova.

But an even bigger challenge, Dinitz said, is attracting Jews from non-distressed countries to Israel.

“Zionism never conceived of Israel as being a haven only for the refugee or the persecuted, but a beacon and a magnet for the Jew who lives in a free society,” he observed.

To encourage Diaspora Jews to make aliyah, he said, “we must first create in Israel a society that will attract people to come here by choice, not by necessity.

“Israel must be a place where they can fully realize their potential as Jews and as human beings,” he said.

“Israel is and must be perceived as a valued society, something that as Jews they do not find in their respective countries.”

To attract such people, Dinitz asserted, “we have to enhance Jewish-Zionist education abroad.

“Diaspora Jews must know their history, their heritage, their religion, their culture and their literature, so they will be proud of being Jewish and be able to combat the various forces that operate in a free and affluent society that take them away from their origin and uniqueness.”

‘A PERIOD FOR STOCKTAKING’

In an affluent society, he explained, “the tendency is to be like everybody else. So if you ask somebody to be different, you have to teach them why it is worthwhile to be different, why he should endure being different. That is what Jewish education is all about.”

The large wave of aliyah during recent years, he said, “has brought a tremendous amount of talent and brainpower to Israel.

“When these people are absorbed — and it will be a matter of a few years — Israel will become such an attractive center for Jews from all over the world that they will have to ask themselves, ‘What is the sense of us remaining in the Diaspora when the action is in Israel?’

“These are the reasons that the Zionist movement has a calling today,” he said.

The importance of the World Zionist Congress, Dinitz said, “lies in its being a period for stocktaking of the past, and for charting a course for the future.”

Looking forward to Sunday’s gathering, he said, “This congress will be particularly exciting because not since the establishment of the State of Israel has the Zionist movement stood in the forefront of fulfilling the task of ‘shivat Zion,’ the return to Zion.”

But Zionist leaders have an uphill battle before them, Dinitz warned. Noting that “immigration from the former Soviet Union has fallen down two-thirds from the same period last year, he said there is “an urgent need to revive the wave of immigration.”

He called for “a new set of priorities in Israel, which, of course, has to be decided by the government.”

NEW GOVERNMENT, NEW HOPE

“With the new government there is new hope,” Dinitz said. “This means that more money and resources will be invested in Israel’s economy to create better conditions, and especially improved conditions of employment, for all Israelis, including new immigrants, because you can’t separate the two.

“This change of priorities, away from settlements in the territories and toward the economy, will help Israel receive credit from international sources,” he said, alluding to Israel’s bid for $10 billion in loans guaranteed by the U.S. government.

Until, now, Dinitz asserted, “foreign sources have been reluctant to assist Israel when there was no assurance that this money would really be spent solely on the creation of jobs and an economic infrastructure for new immigrants.

“I believe that these two things — the change in the order of priorities within Israel and the change of attitude, hopefully, among foreign sources in helping Israel — will create conditions that will be conducive to the renewal of large-scale immigration,” he said.

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