by Yossi Beilin
The 23rd Zionist Congress was the first to be held in Israel. This historic gathering convened 60 years ago, on Aug. 14, 1951, in Jerusalem. After nearly two dozen congresses, five waves of aliyah, the Holocaust that destroyed European Jewry, the U.N. partition decision and the War of Independence, the Zionist Movement had finally achieved its goal: The establishment of the Jewish State.
On the face of it, the Zionist Movement could have declared victory and said this would be the final Zionist Congress. Indeed, many on hand would have agreed with the move.
At the Congress, there were fiery speeches by the second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and by prime minister David Ben Gurion, expressing hope for the continued huge wave of immigration during the first three years of Israel’s existence. But it was clear that the movement itself would continue its work and find new goals.
That’s exactly what happened. Although the Zionist Movement was primarily meant to establish the state – and all the nation’s sovereign institutions were created at the time to meet the needs of those who chose to live here, or simply had no place else to go – the movement’s wheeler-dealers simply refused to give up their posts.
The “Basel Program,” established at the conclusion of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, was replaced by the “Jerusalem Program,” aimed at helping an already established state, rather than assisting in creating a new one.
No one would have established the Zionist Federation in 1951, and if Herzl had witnessed the establishment of the state, he would have ordered everyone to close it down. But he wasn’t present, and Israel’s leaders at the time decided not to confront the wheeler-dealers, leading to ongoing trouble between them.
Ben Gurion, who was head of the Zionist Federation for many years, only believed in real, active Zionism. From his standpoint, Zionists who didn’t make aliyah weren’t real Zionists. The Federation, he realized later when he became prime minister, didn’t have any true significance.
The various Israeli political parties, however, were happy with it: a place you could send retired politicians and give a chance to young ones just starting out. You could use it to aid the projects and organizations the political parties found appealing, and also to secure financial backing. Over time, the budget for these projects dropped to just a few million dollars. But the political parties suffer from chronic poverty, and any financial aid they receive is considered a real treasure.
In the end, what was created was an organization comprised of those who were not necessarily immigrants themselves, but viewed aliyah as something positive. The Federation’s members love Israel, come here for the meetings of the Zionist Executive and the Zionist Congress, but wouldn’t think of permanently settling here.
If it was extremely difficult to make aliyah before 1948, and many Zionists were unable to do so, since the establishment of the state and the passing of the Law of Return, every Jew in the world can now immigrate here and instantly become a citizen.
As immigrants trickled in from developed countries, it became clear, however, that Israel was not going to become a magnet for world Jewry, and wouldn’t necessarily attract even the most outspoken Zionists among them to make aliyah. Instead, the state would mostly draw those suffering from economic distress. Nonetheless, the definition of who is a Zionist wasn’t changed, nor was it denied to those who could have immigrated but preferred to remain in the Diaspora.
These enthusiastic Zionists continue to come here every four years for the Zionist congresses. Some of them encourage us to settle in the West Bank, and some urge us to make peace. They’re all very excited, mostly older people, and their Zionism beats in their hearts just as it did before the establishment of the state. They don’t feel any difference, these new “refusenik” Zionists.
A Jew is entitled to not be a Zionist. He is entitled to decide for himself whether or not he loves Israel, but there’s no doubt that the Jerusalem Plan of 60 years ago gave an entire generation of Jews the chance to continue being Zionists without “fulfilling,” or having any intention of fulfilling, their Zionism by moving here.
If Ben Gurion had maintained his stand that with the establishment of the state any Jew who didn’t immigrate to Israel couldn’t call himself a Zionist, and there was no longer a need for the Zionist Federation, we would have been spared a situation in which it became so easy for many people to cloak themselves in an ideology they didn’t really believe in, and also to morph the definition of Zionism.
It was at that moment, in the summer of 1951, when Ben Gurion conceded. At that point, what he should have done was to establish a world Jewish organization defined as pro-Israel rather than Zionist, an organization whose goal was to help the state confront its existential challenges.
This new Jewish organization could have represented Jews from all over the world, campaigned for funding for Israel, and held discussions with leading Israelis about Jewish life and identity after the Holocaust.
Instead, 60 years later we’re left with something that’s entirely unnecessary and excessive. The Zionist congresses continue to occur every four years in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma, generally without any media coverage. The parties pass resolutions about the future of the Jewish people, about peace and war, and their decisions are kind of an in-joke that no one takes seriously.
The Zionist Federation has become a bubble in which there are power struggles and elections for representatives to the Zionist Congress in various countries. There is voting for positions on the directorate and the Zionist executive and at the congress itself. The ballots are counted very carefully – but none of this bears any impact on lsraeli life.
When they marked the 100th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, there were those who dared suggest that the Zionist Federation had run its course, and should be replaced by a world Jewish organization. Avraham Burg, Jewish Agency chairman at the time, presented a proposal to close the federation within a specified time period (which has already passed) and use the federation’s meager funding simply to pay the considerable salaries of the wheeler-dealers, with almost nothing left for federation activities.
The 60th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Israel and the Jerusalem Program could be an excellent impetus for reorganization: Establishing a new world Jewish organization. It would replace the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel. With the help of the full spectrum of Israeli leaders, it would try to deal with the real issues facing the Jewish people in the 21st century.
One of the greatest challenges facing Jewish leaders in some countries, particularly the U.S., is the high level of assimilation, a natural outgrowth of the Jews’ impressive integration into society in countries outside Israel. But these Jewish leaders also had to deal with existential problems faced by their communities. Today, when there are few Jews in distress, this leadership has to instead deal with “good” problems, mainly how this easy integration lends itself to the separation of Jews from the Jewish community as a whole.
“Taglit,” a program I initiated at the beginning of the 90s, which grants a free visit to Israel to college-age Jews who have never enjoyed a formal organized tour of the country, is one of the tools for combating this new situation and assimilation, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it was expressly the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization who opposed the project for years. There certainly must be other ideas that, if implemented, would cultivate Jewish continuity today. However, you won’t find them growing in organizations which would have been shut down 60 years ago – if our nation’s leaders had had the courage and strength to do so.
Dr. Yossi Beilin, a member of Knesset for eleven years, has held ministerial positions in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak and served as Israel’s Minister of Justice from July 1999 to March 2001. A leading thinker on issues of Jewish continuity and relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, Dr. Beilin was the initiator of the Birthright Israel program. Published courtesy of the author.