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Focus on Issues (part 2): from Knesset to Jewish Agency: Candidate Sees a Natural Move

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It is midday and quiet at Avraham Burg’s campaign headquarters.

A few people mill around the modest office in a kibbutz movement building in the heart of Tel Aviv. Charts of the country divided into voting blocs hang on the walls, next to hand-drawn calendars listing meetings, appointments and speaking engagements. The pace picks up in the evening, when volunteers come in to call members of the Labor Party Central Committee, urging them to cast their vote for Burg.

This time, however, Labor Knesset member Burg is not running for a seat in the Israeli government.

This race is to become the new chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization. He is running against the Agency’s acting chairman, Yehiel Leket.

The Labor Party Central Committee is scheduled to vote for its candidate for the new chairman Feb. 16.

Prior to that, however, representatives of the Agency’s Board of Governors’ “advise and consent” committee will meet Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to make their decision. The committee, which represents the Diaspora fund-raising component of the Jewish Agency’s Diaspora-Zionist partnership, postponed making its decision last month after interviewing both candidates.

Without the endorsement of either or both candidates, the Central Committee will not vote. If that occurs, the election will most likely be postponed until summer, with Leket remaining as acting chairman.

On Monday, meanwhile, WZO leaders issued an “urgent appeal” to the advise and consent committee to approve both candidates.

It is the WZO that elects the chairman of both bodies, subject to the advise and consent of the Diaspora leaders. Because of the Labor Party’s majority in the WZO, any candidate selected by the Labor Party will presumably get the nod from WZO.

Burg, who just turned 40, first came to prominence in 1982, as the founder and leader of the grass-roots protest movement against the war in Lebanon.

In 1984 he was named as adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Diaspora Affairs. Burg is one of the Labor Party’s strong young Knesset members, together with deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and the new chairman of the Histadrut, Haim Ramon.

The group is strongly aligned with Peres, who is backing Burg in the current race. Leket, on the other hand, is being vigorously backed by Rabin.

As a rising star of the Labor Party, many Israelis have wondered why he would want to leave mainstream politics for the Jewish Agency,

“The Jewish Agency is as mainstream as anything I’ve ever done”, Burg responds in an interview.

“Those who ask this question don’t know me”, he says, noting that his first public post was working on Diaspora affairs. And as chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee, he says, he appointed a subcommittee on Jewish education in the Diaspora.

Burg outline two central issues in his life: the struggle to make Israel a more pluralistic society and Israel-Diaspora relations.

“It comes from the home I grew up in. The notion of collective responsibility for all the Jews was a cornerstone in my upbringing”, he says.

Burg’s father, Yosef, served in all of Israel’s parliaments until his retirement in 1988. But unlike his father, who was a leader of he National Religious Party, Burg found his home in the Labor Party.

“There can be no Jewish solidarity without a communication system between Israel and the Diaspora”, Burg says.

“And the Jewish Agency is the central communication system, with a vast untapped potential. This is a delicate partnership between two different, yet equal societies.

“Israel is a political society, with state institutions; the Diaspora is a communal society, with voluntary institutions. It is a marriage of love, but no always of convenience”, Burg says.

“Israel has made mistakes in its attitude toward the Diaspora”, he continues. “Our treatment of the dialogue has been insulting. We politicized the WZO and the Agency.

“We kept sending third-grade and retired politicians to represent us in this dialogue; we politicized the partnership itself, which could have brought it to an explosion. All of this must change”, he says.

Burg says he wants to lead the Jewish Agency to its centennial in 1997, with a different set of priorities — “ones that take into account all the Jewish people, and respond to their particular needs wherever they may live”.

“I want to see a WZO and an Agency that are relevant to every Jew. As an Israeli partner, though, my responsibility starts here”, he says.

“Once we have peace”, says Burg, a longtime activist in the peace movement who says he has no doubt that peace will come, “several ticking time bombs will surface in Israel: the gap between rich and poor, state and religion, and relations between religious and secular Jews.

“But the central issue will be the Israeli-Jewish identity”, he says. “Who are we, Israeli Jews, without an enemy to define us? What is our national Jewish uniqueness?”

Burg says he considers this an existential question, and a challenge to both Israel and the Diaspora.

He says the Agency’s primary task is to bring Jews from distressed areas to Israel. Its secondary task, in his view, is to deal with the issue of Jewish identity, in Israel and abroad.

“Surveys show that 52 percent leave the fold of the Jewish community abroad. We must change this trend, and make enormous efforts to raise the percentage of affiliated Jews there and here.

“We must stop the supercilious attitude Israelis have toward the Diaspora. Instead we must import and internalize the values we find there and lack here, like communal responsibility and solidarity.

“We must learn from them religious tolerance toward the different in our midst. This is what I want from them. They must decide for themselves what they ask of us. We can’t dictate it to them”.

Burg says his first act as the new chairman of the Jewish Agency would be to establish a think tank that would draw a master plan for the Jewish people in the year 2050

“We must plan two generations ahead”, he says. “A Chinese proverb says that even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. The Israeli addition says that it also ends with a single step.

“We must take the first and the last step, put them together, and work from there”.

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