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Leaders Hope Weizman’s Conference Will Elevate Israel-diaspora Relations

Israeli President Ezer Weizman’s much-touted, two-day dialogue on changing relations between Israeli and Diaspora Jews was alternately deemed a major historic event or a disappointment.

But those who attended the prestigious gathering of more than 200 intellectual and organizational leaders last week agreed that it was significant for at least elevating the issue on the Israeli agenda.

They also believed it presented an important opportunity for Diaspora Jews and Israelis to call for mutual recognition based on a complex reality instead of myths and outmoded classical Zionist ideology.

Such honesty, they claimed, is a vital part of the new Israel-Diaspora relationship demanded by Israel’s growing strength and by a Jewish Diaspora increasingly preoccupied with its own continuity.

Zionist ideology posits Diaspora Jewry as destined for assimilation, anti-Semitism or aliyah, and makes no allowances for a full and secure Jewish life outside of Israel, as speakers noted.

Diaspora delegates made no effort to minimize the crisis of Jewish continuity in their communities and they called for more visits to Israel, especially for youth. But they cautioned that such trips are only a partial antidote and will not result in massive aliyah.

“Israel is not a vaccine (which offers) immunity against assimilation,” said Leonard Fein, the Boston-based writer and editor.

Rather, the Americans, in particular, said the primary future of Diaspora Jewry lies in a renewal of Jewish learning and spirituality and an honest relationship with Israelis.

They also repeatedly said that creating new institutions is not the answer to the crisis. They said it is more important to redefine the needs and goals of Israeli and Diaspora Jews and then existing bodies will adapt accordingly.

BEILIN’S SUGGESTIONS NOT WELCOMED

This was a clear reference to the bombshell thrown out the first day of the conference by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, who has repeatedly called for the dissolution of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization — the main body that brings together Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

Beilin, who claims these entities have outlived their usefulness, unveiled an alternative plan at the conference for a new, mass membership organization linking Israel and the Diaspora called Beit Yisrael.

Arthur Hertzberg, a historian of both Zionism and American Jewry, responded to such talk of restructuring with, “Let’s stop the prattle.

“Yes, the Jewish community should be more democratic, but that won’t help the young,” he said. “They are voting with their feet and they are moving out.”

More than any other speaker, Hertzberg derided the organized Diaspora leadership for its “Jewish illiteracy” and failure to preserve a common Jewish culture that is not based on external threats.

“We can no longer (bank) on Arabs or anti-Semites to keep us Jewish,” he said. “Past and present tzuris, immigrant memories and nostalgia, are not enough to fashion a Jew.”

Hertzberg urged immediate action modeled on Jewish fund-raising efforts. “We must go out into the Diaspora, to ring bells and say, ‘I am looking for my brothers and sisters,'” he said, “not to demand money but to offer help.

“For God’s sake,” he said, “if the buzzword is ‘Jewish continuity,’ go out and find the Jews whom you need to continue with!”

Joined by some of the Israeli speakers, notably Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman, the Diaspora representatives also called on Israelis to examine the Jewish content of their own lives.

They warned that living in Israel and loving the land is not enough to maintain a meaningful Jewish identity. They argued that Israeli schools and society must pay more attention to Judaism and to the Diaspora.

“Coming on aliyah is not the (only) issue,” said Hartman. It is “how to retrieve the power of Sinai and give Jewish life ultimate significance.” The land only has meaning “if it embodies a deep Jewish dream to be a holy people.

The president, whose off-the-cuff, blunt style offered a fresh contrast to the more formal presentations of some academicians, tenaciously resisted the call to give up aliyah as the top priority of the State of Israel and thereby revolutionize relations with the Diaspora.

REFUSES DIASPORA HIS ‘STAMP OF LEGITIMACY’

At one point he directly challenged a delegate, a medical doctor from Poland. “After what the (Polish people) did to the Jews, why do you want to stay in Poland? As an Israeli, as a Jew, it is very un-understandable to me that after what happened, you stay in Poland.”

Indeed, despite repeated pleas from the floor, he refused to give the Diaspora his “stamp of legitimacy.” Nonetheless, he said he “recognized” the Diaspora and had convened the dialogue specifically to understand it better. The conference was organized in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry.

Shoshana Cardin, the new chair of the United Israel Appeal and one of the speakers, called on the president and Israel to “respect the integrity of Diaspora communities” and not merely view them as “fodder for aliyah.

“THIS IS AN INSULT,” SHE SAID.

Cardin also called for the recognition that “American Jewry has played a role for world Jewry in world politics.”

But this clearly was broaching sensitive ground. Weizman bristled at another speaker’s suggestion that the Israeli government still relies on American Jews to intervene in Washington. “We’re big boys now,” he said. “We’ve had our Bar Mitzvah.”

“We have halcyon days now,” said Alfred Moses, the American Jewish Committee president. “But they are not certain to continue forever.”

David Clayman, Israel director of the American Jewish Congress, said, “Nothing that was said was new. But under the auspices of the president, it signaled for the first time that Diaspora Jewry is an issue which concerns the Israeli body politic and is no longer the turf of a specific (body) such as the Jewish Agency.”

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