excerpts from remarks by Zeev Bielski
The Jewish communities in the Diaspora and particularly those of North America, where most of the Jewish people outside the boundaries of Israel reside, have developed a primary attachment and commitment to the countries where they live. Most Jews residing there are second and third-generation Americans who were born, grew up, were educated and reached maturity in the United States. Most of them haven’t been fortunate enough to receive a genuine Jewish education. The majority does not speak Hebrew; most are not Orthodox.
The State of Israel bears an obligation to guarantee the continued existence of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and validate the mutual responsibility between Israel and the Diaspora. Once world Jewry was committed to and mobilized on behalf of the State of Israel. Now is the time for the State of Israel and the government of Israel to help guarantee the future of the Jewish people.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert enunciated this position vigorously in the important address he delivered before members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors last June, in which he called for a change in the framework of Israel-Diaspora relations. The Jewish Agency shares this conception, and it is striving to inculcate it among decision-makers in the government and public affairs as an exigency of the first order to assure the salvation, preservation and prosperity of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
One should say that a few starts have already been made in recent years to respond to this challenge and particularly by the Jewish Agency, which recruited the government as a partner alongside Jewish communities and Jewish philanthropists worldwide.
Projects such as Birthright and MASA have brought over 200,000 young Jews here for short and longer visits, allowing them to experience and try out life here. Educational programs to reinforce Jewish identity and the link to Israel were developed in the countries of the former Soviet Union. There are programs for learning Hebrew as well as support for scores of Jewish schools in Latin America and Europe.
Although these programs deserve commendation, one must summon up the courage to say that these are very small beginnings, limited in scope in terms of the resources invested in them. They can’t by themselves provide the required answer, given the dimensions of the crisis and the emergency we are confronting. Furthermore, some of these programs are already being downsized, experiencing budget cuts or have even been canceled as a result of the world financial crisis and a drastic decline in contributions by Jewish philanthropists, who had contributed massive resources to them for years.
The troublesome processes in the Jewish world and the global economic crisis obligate the government at this juncture to display responsibility and commitment and enlist in this historic mission to invest in Jewish-Zionist education for the Diaspora. In particular there is a need to reinforce Jewish identity among members of the younger generation and strengthen its link to the Jewish people and its heritage and culture as well as to the State of Israel – the center of the Jewish people.
It is necessary to institute a fundamental change in Israel-Diaspora relations. It’s no longer the Jewish communities who are the contributors while Israel is the recipient of contributions. Today we must build a true partnership on behalf of the two major historic missions that await us – guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the continued construction and prosperity of Israel.
To accomplish this, the sporadic enlistment by the government in response to an emergency case or the individual distress of any Jewish community will not suffice. What is needed is a joint program by the government and the Jewish people. We are talking of a long-range plan with copious resources. The Jewish Agency, which has always served as a bridge between the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the State of Israel is best suited to advance that plan. If in the past the Jewish Agency provided a platform for the Jewish people to establish and consolidate the State of Israel, it must today function as the platform of the government and the Jewish communities throughout the world in leading this critical initiative.
There are leaders throughout the Jewish world who are committed and devoted to this challenge. Here as well there has been a maturing awareness with regards to its necessity. This awareness unites decision-makers, ministers and Knesset members as well as opinion leaders and the social and economic leadership.
Zeev Bielski is the immediate past Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a newly elected member of Israel’s Knesset.