Delegates to Zionist Congress Get Zionist ‘shot in the Arm’

The 2,000 participants in the 32nd World Zionist Congress are returning home this week, many of them happily invigorated with a renewed Zionist motivation.

But the Zionism they are returning with may have a different tone than that which built the Jewish state and rallied political support behind it.

For nearly a century, the followers of Theodor Herzl have debated the disciples of Ahad Ha’am. Is the goal of Zionism to establish a Jewish state and gather all the Jews there, as Herzl preached? Or should the Jewish state serve as a spiritual center to renew the Jewish people who remain in the Diaspora, as Ahad Ha’am advocated?

Conversations in the hallways and conference rooms of the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center here indicate that delegates are generally looking for Zionism to educate, not evacuate, the Diaspora.

Reflecting on what she called an “exhausting but exciting” series of meetings, Deborah Kaplan, national president of Hadassah, noted a presentation she attended concerning the difficulties of Jewish education in the Diaspora.

“Having spent the past few days with the other delegates, I believe more than ever in the need to get our children more involved in Zionist activities.

’100,000 JEWISH YOUTHS SHOULD VISIT ISRAEL’

“I agree with (Jewish Agency-World Zionist Organization Chairman) Simcha Dinitz, who says that 100,000 Jewish youths should be visiting Israel each year. As it stands now, only 10,000 young people visit,” said Kaplan, who was elected a member of the Zionist Executive. Many of these, she noted, are involved in Young Judaea, which is under the auspices of Hadassah.

Seymour Reich also expressed what he called the challenge of making “the Zionist movement meaningful in today’s Jewish world” in terms of enlivening, rather than liquidating, the Diaspora.

A top priority, he said, “is slowing down the rate of assimilation and intermarriage. The problem is that many Diaspora Jews do not think the Zionist Movement is relevant. Sadly, many Jews find the threat of anti-Semitism more dramatic than the issues of Jewish youth, education and culture.

“Let’s face it: It’s easier to fight anti-Semitism than to fight the problems of the Jewish family,” Reich said.

This point was highlighted by a session given by one of Israel’s top demographers, Professor Sergio Della Pergola of Hebrew University.

The world Jewish population is in decline, partly due to the effects of the Holocaust and partly due to intermarriage, he told the Congress.

He projected a worldwide Jewish population of 12 million by the end of the century, dropping to 11 million by 2020.

Della Pergola also said some 50 percent of Jewry is becoming assimilated through mixed marriages.

But he stressed that these downward trends do not affect the Jewish population of Israel, where there is now a modest increase in the average birthrate. He said Israel’s Jewish population was growing naturally, even apart from the effects of large-scale immigration.

Reich’s own presence at the congress may reflect the broadening of the Zionist movement beyond political issues. Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, attended on behalf of B’nai B’rith International, which for the first time was participating in a Zionist Congress.

At least one Israeli delegate, however, wondered whether the Zionist organizations, originally formed along political lines before the formation of the state, were the most suitable representatives when it came to discussing issues of Jewish concern.

Ron Werber, a former emissary for the Zionist movement, criticized the fact that “many important Jewish organizations and bodies were not represented at the congress. As it stands now, Israelis are asked to come and sit with members of mostly minor Jewish organizations while the American Jewish federations, for example, have been excluded.

“The only good thing I can say for the gathering is that the logistics and organization have been top-notch. But, as in other congresses, there’s very little substance,” he said.

But Adi, a student from Boston, said that despite his confusion over the intricate voting rules and some of the obscure organizational matters up for discussion, he felt “exhilarated by the week.”

“The congress has been informative and lively,” he said. “It was a real Zionist shot in the arm.”

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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