JERUSALEM (Jun. 22)
Israeli President Ezer Weizman this week opened to mixed reviews a much-anticipated two-day international conference on the changing relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
While participants praised the initiative, executed in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, some privately expressed cynicism that anything meaningful could be achieved with the large crowd and the packed agenda.
“I’m not sure the format lends itself to the kind of exploration that the serious subject of the future of the Jewish family deserves,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“This will probably not lead to conclusions but will be a launching pad for this (kind of) exploration,” he said.
Some also criticized the dearth of young people and the absence of representatives of the opposition to the Israeli Labor-led government. The organizers said they had invited such representatives but were turned down.
No one could complain, however, for a lack of controversy at the conference. That was provided, perhaps characteristically, by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin.
In his remarks, Beilin called for establishing a new international Jewish body to replace the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, which are holding their annual conventions here this week and next.
The existing partnership “tools” between Israeli and Diaspora Jews are anachronistic, he charged, echoing arguments he has made repeatedly in recent months.
The difference was that at the conference he outlined his vision of an alternative partnership institution.
He called for a democratic, voluntary membership organization, called Beit Yisrael. Its mandate would be to fund in full visits by all Diaspora Jewish youth to Israel, to support Jewish education in the Diaspora and to support aliyah. He also called for a census of Jews in the Diaspora to identify and reach out to unaffiliated Jews.
Beilin’s remarks provoked a sharp response.
Jewish Agency Board of Governors Chairman Mendel Kaplan remarked later that Beilin’s proposal was “based on ignorance.
“He insulted his audience by not doing his homework and by shooting from the hip,” said Kaplan. “His ideas don’t merit discussion.”
The highest priorities of the Jewish Agency today are precisely the priorities outlined by Beilin in his proposal, said Norman Lipoff, an American member of the Jewish Agency’s Executive. Also, there is a census already underway, he said, adding that Beilin’s proposal was “simplistic and somewhat irresponsible.”
Yehiel Leket, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency and WZO, dismissed Beilin’s idea as “not serious.” He said his organization has a mandate decided by a Knesset law and a special covenant with the government of Israel.
“I respect Yossi Beilin in political matters,” said Leket. “He has a deep understanding of the Palestinians, (but) not much understanding of the Jews.”
At the conference, more than 200 intellectuals and organizational leaders sweltered in the heat under a big tent in the back yard of the president’s residence.
They listened to one speaker after another address the misperceptions each Jewry has of the other. And they heard various initiatives proposed to stave off the crisis of Jewish continuity in the Diaspora as well as of Jewish identity in Israel.
The first day’s speakers included Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Letty Cottin Pogrebin of Americans for Peace Now; Michael Walzer of Princeton University; Hebrew University Professor Steven M. Cohen; United Jewish Appeal Executive Vice President Rabbi Brian Lurie and former French Chief Rabbi Rene Samuel Sirat.
‘WE DON’T LIVE IN EXILE’
Weizman, who gave a rambling introductory address which disappointed and frustrated the invitees, made a persistent effort to enliven the proceedings by breaking in periodically to ask questions and press for an exchange with those in the audience.
Many of the participants said they welcomed the show of interest by the president, though they said it was clear he had very little understanding of the Diaspora.
“I am very happy this is taking place at the (home) of the president of Israel because it shows the Israel-Diaspora relationship doesn’t belong to the World Zionist Organization and is the concern of the entire Israeli people,” said Avram Infeld, president of the Melitz Center for Jewish Zionist Education in Jerusalem.
“At the same time, the president, by his own admission, has a total lack of knowledge and this is a wonderful opportunity to educate a very important leader,” he said.
“For the first time we’ve heard Diaspora Jewry say loudly and clearly, ‘See us the way we see ourselves and stop relating to us as something you imagine we are. We don’t live in exile and we don’t intend to come on aliyah,’ ” said Infeld.
Weizman, who has offended Diaspora leaders in the past for implying that a full Jewish life can be lived only in Israel, repeatedly and candidly confessed his ignorance and his desire and willingness to learn more about Diaspora life.
At the same time he defended his posture as head of a Zionist state whose purpose “through all the years was to in-gather all Jews back to Israel.”