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Debating Israel-diaspora Relations: Two Approaches Face off at B.b. Forum

Differing prescriptions for strengthening the faltering ties between Israel and the Diaspora have made fiery adversaries of Yossi Beilin, deputy foreign minister, and Yehiel Leket, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

But at a forum Saturday night sponsored by the B’nai B’rith World Center, the two former sparring partners sounded surprisingly conciliatory.

At the forum, “Expectations and Fulfillment in the Israel-Diaspora Equation,” both Beilin and Leket stressed the need to respond to the problems of assimilation and intermarriage that threaten Diaspora ties to Judaism and Israel.

And both agreed that a new, more balanced Israel-Diaspora partnership has to be devised to address common Jewish challenges in the face of changing politics, economics and demographics.

But the two have radically different formulas for structuring that new partnership.

Beilin repeated his standard call to abolish the World Zionist Organization because he believes it is an anachronism. And he said the Jewish Agency should be replaced with a more democratic organization whose centerpiece focuses on free trips to Israel for Diaspora youth to help curb assimilation and instill Jewish pride.

He said the WZO, which consists of Diaspora Zionist organizations and representatives of Israel’s political parties, has no ideological raison d’etre since the Zionist movement is made up of people who “support Israel and like Israel” but have no intention of “fulfilling the Zionist dream and making aliyah.”

The Jewish Agency, he said, “is not a democratic organization and does not reflect a real picture (of) the Jewish world today.”

Beilin’s much-touted plan is to replace the Jewish Agency with a new organization he has tagged Beit Yisrael, which he says would be based on a Jewish census in “which every Jew will be counted and will count.”

Its principal purpose would be to strengthen Jewish identity and stop the trend toward assimilation.

Since universal Jewish education is not feasible, he said, he has proposed fully subsidized visits to Israel for Diaspora youth.

He believes the money to fund the trips should come from funds now dedicated to Jewish Agency activities in Israel such as social welfare, which should be the sole responsibility of Israelis, he said.

For his part, Leket agreed there is an urgent need for reforms that would broaden the base of participation in organized Jewish life.

But he believes that the Jewish Agency and WZO are the best – indeed the only – existing framework for a viable Israeli-Diaspora partnership and that they are strong enough to sustain the necessary reforms.

Though Leket in the past has labeled Beilin’s plan “ridiculous” and “impractical,” the Jewish Agency official said at the forum over the weekend that he would support any new democratic organization that would attract unaffiliated Jews.

He also said Zionist ideology has a critical role to play in combating the increasing failure of Israelis to identify with Jews of the Diaspora. He believes this failure of identification poses a critical threat to Israel- Diaspora unity which must form the backbone of any partnership.

While “the future of the Diaspora as a Jewish people isn’t guaranteed without Israel,” he said, the future of Israel, as a Jewish country, “is not guaranteed without the Diaspora.”

He also said he believes the Israel experience for Diaspora youth should be a major part of any effort to stem assimilation. And, though he said he does not believe Beilin’s plan would be effective, he is not opposed to trying it as a pilot program.

Leket stressed, however, that bringing youth to Israel is not enough.

“We must bring them to an attractive Israel,” he said. “The Diaspora shares the responsibility for making Israel attractive” and rich in Jewish culture and creativity.

He also said the Jewish Agency and WZO are deliberating over how to expand the institutional partnership beyond the Zionist political parties and the Diaspora fund-raising establishment that are now represented.

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