As Uzi Narkiss winds up 27 years with the World Zionist Organization, and a two-year stint heading its American office here, the retired general thinks it is time for the organization to change.
Narkiss believes that as the WZO moves toward its 1997 centenary, the organization founded to implement Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state must shed some of its political structure and gear itself to ensuring a connection between Israel and the Diaspora.
“The State of Israel without the Diaspora,” Narkiss said in a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as he prepared for his new post as chairman of Israel’s Coins and Medals Authority.
But the two communities could well drift apart, said Narkiss, and not only because of declining Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
Narkiss fears that in another decade, as Israel finds itself the largest single Jewish community in the world, it could grow less interested in Jews outside its borders.
Adding to his fear is the possibility that Israel’s reaching peace with its neighbors could lead Israel to “become more interested with its Arab neighbors than with the Jews.”
“I am very concerned that Israel will not turn, God forbid, Canaanite,” said Narkiss, referring to an anti-Diaspora ideology that sought to crate an Israeli identity rooted in the Middle East and separate from the Jewish religion.
In the years just before and after the founding of the State of Israel, a group of intellectuals sought common cause with Arabs in forming a new culture. They were often disparaged as “Canaanites,” pagans who lived in the land before being conquered by the biblical Israelites.
“The WZO has to take on itself, as its main goal, that Israel not turn into Canaan, and that the peace process not come between Israel and the Diaspora,” he said.
Helping the Diaspora remain connected to Israel may be the easiest challenge.
“It’s very possible that Israel will get much more involved in the Jewish community, sending more teachers to the Diaspora, ensuring that every Bar Mitzvah child will visit Israel,” said Narkiss.
“All of these can be the mission of the WZO,” he said.
But how to help the Israelis is a more complicated question.
“The Jewishness (of Israelis) is that we live in Israel, go to the army, make a circumcision and say Kaddish,” said Narkiss.
“If all the borders are open, the Jewish nature of the state will be diluted,” he said. “It’s something we have to think about. These’s no solution yet.”
He cites his own grandchildren as an example of the Israel-Diaspora gap.
“It’s hard to get them to listen to what I say – if it’s not about computer games – when I say there are young Jews in America.
“They want to go to America, but for Disneyland. They want to go to Paris, for EuroDisney. But it doesn’t interest them that there are young Jews around the world,” he said.
If the WZO is going to take on the bold task of reversing this apathy, said Narkiss, it cannot continue business as usual.
Its organizational structure, based on nearly a century of Zionist history, has to change, he believes.
One example: Currently, the WZO operates along divisions based on the type of program being operated, not the region being served.
As a result, representatives promoting aliyah report to a different boss in Jerusalem than do their colleagues, at the next desk in New York, who are promoting student programs.
The frequent result is confusion.
Narkiss wants divisions to serve the different regions in the Diaspora: Europe, North America, South America.
(The WZO’s sister organization, the Jewish Agency, has already begun moving toward a geographic orientation. A unit for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe operates directly under the agency’s chief executive, overseeing the work of the different functional divisions.)
Narkiss has added his voice to those calling for a new means of deciding on representation in the WZO.
The WZO calls itself the only democratic institution in Jewish life because its representatives are elected, on party lines, by all members of Zionist organizations.
In the United States, these organizations include Hadassah, the Zionist organization of America and Americans for Progressive Israel as well as Zionist groups linked with the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.
But the elections, last held in 1987 and circumvented before the WZO’s 1992 Zionist Congress, are expensive.
And whether because of expense or, perhaps, because of fear of losing clout, some of the largest and most established Zionist organizations are opposing elections for the next Zionist Congress, expected in 1997.
Advocating elections are the younger Zionist groups linked to the American religious movements, such as the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
Underlying the old system is the WZO’s history as the Jewish people’s parliament-in-exile.
With the creation of the State of Israel, the political tasks went to the state, and then most of the work of bringing immigrants went to the WZO’s twin, the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Today, the Jewish Agency has a $500 million annual budget, and the WZO around $30 million. Another $33 million is budgeted for Jewish education in the Diaspora, under the joint authority of the WZO and the Jewish Agency.
“I don’t think that today elections (for WZO) are the most efficient and rational method to establish representation, because the political bodies of old, that built the state of Israel, don’t exist anymore in the Diaspora,” said Narkiss.
He called on the WZO to create a committee to study new forms of representation (“not according to dollars, like the federations”) so that the organized Jewish community will be represented.
“It might be according to profession. Intellectuals, writers, poets, lay people. Also important forces, like the women’s organizations,” said Narkiss.