With Jewish People Challenges Conference, WZO looks to the future

Speakers disagree on what Jewish unity means after Oct. 7 and how to move forward; WZO president calls for strengthening 'aliyah,' secular Zionism

JERUSALEM — The Oct. 7 terror attacks and ensuing rise in antisemitism around the world has made the ties between Diaspora Jewry and Israel stronger, highlighting for each community the need for the other, World Zionist Organization President Tova Dorfman told eJewishPhilanthropy at the start of the WZO’s inaugural Jewish People Challenges Conference here on Tuesday.

The onslaught left some 1,200 people dead, and some 250 people were taken hostage into Gaza. Following a cease-fire agreement at the end of November, which saw the release of 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners, yet more than 130 Israelis and foreign nationals remain in captivity in Gaza, though dozens of them are no longer believed to still be alive.

“As a result of a crazy outburst of antisemitism and antisemitic acts all over the world which began in a very violent way on Oct. 8, and with all the ‘monsters’ coming out of the woodwork, [Diaspora Jewry] realized that with a weakened Israel their place in the Diaspora is also weakened,” said Dorfman, who was elected in 2023, the first woman president of the WZO since its inception in 1897. 

“In Israel today, where we saw a growing distance between Diaspora [Jewry] and Israel over the years, what’s happened has strengthened certain elements. That is not to say that it’s completely across the board, but I think that there is a realization that we need each other more than ever.”

Put together in less than a month, the Jewish People Challenges Conference was scheduled to coincide with the February meetings of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors and the Zionist General Council of the World Zionist Organization, along with the earlier meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Unintentionally, it also fell on the day of municipal elections throughout Israel. 

The conference, which was held in the capital’s Binyanei Ha’uma International Convention Center, brought together 500 Jewish leaders from more than 38 different countries in a joint meeting in Israel for the first time since Oct. 7.

“After Oct. 8, we understand that the challenges of the Jewish people are different,” said WZO Chairman Yaakov Hagoel at the gathering. “We have come together to assess amongst ourselves what the challenges of the Jewish people are, to understand them and think how we can deal with them together. It is simply heartwarming to see how people have come here for two days of thinking and understanding the challenges.”

While no solutions were expected from the meeting he said, it would serve as an opportunity to map out the challenges and brainstorm about how to deal with them together for the future.  

Jewish unity was a key focus of the conference, though not all of the speakers agreed on what that looked like.

Hagoel told the assembly that in the face of growing antisemitism, there is a need for a change in direction and to find a solution to create a united front.

“There is no right or left, not religious or secular,” he said. “We must all be united.”

Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue of New York agreed that it is necessary to present a unified front in responding to issues in the traditional media and on social media, yet he warned against calls to “pick off people from the Jewish people” if they don’t hold the same beliefs as the majority.

“We can’t win the long battle…without acknowledging that there is a plurality within Judaism,” he said. “I must disagree with what was said. I do think that there is a right and a left, religious and non-religious Jews, but all these people are my family and you don’t quit on your family. Only by (allowing) ourselves that we have a plethora of voices will we be able to find a path forward.”  

Noting that since Oct. 7 the lines of antisemitism and anti-Zionism have been similarly blurred in the U.S., Cosgrove said there has been a “tremendous sense of whiplash” in the American Jewish community.

“We always felt we could live comfortable lives and be supporters of Israel and U.S. citizens at the same time,” said Cosgrove. “Maybe now we realize it ain’t so. What now? We have to define goals.”  

Though the Jewish community is not quite at the “day after” stage, it is imperative to start talking about what world Jewry should do moving forward, Dorfman said.

“We are still in the midst…but we are beginning to talk about what to do, how to do. How do we rebuild this place from all different standpoints,” she said. “We are bringing to the forefront issues that we haven’t dealt with in a long time. We are fundamentally changed. It’s been such a transformative moment. How can we go back to business as usual? So I think this convening is trying to talk about: How do we not go back to business as usual? How do we change things?”

Dorfman told eJP that funding for WZO programs is focused on connecting Israel and Diaspora Jewry, connecting Israelis who live abroad with Israel, aliyah programs and Zionist activities all over the world, including supporting aliyah by secular Jews and rejuvenating waning secular Zionist youth movements.

“The ultimate goal is to maintain our connection with Zionism and what it’s all about, that’s sort of the fundamental basis of the State of Israel. We’re ready to reintroduce the notion of aliyah as a value. Today, we really need strong people in Israel,” said Dorfman, who also serves as director of the Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel. “Part of the rebuilding is having people come here, expanding programs for students,” she said, adding: “We need people who have humanistic values.”

The international Jewish leaders heard overviews and remarks from the spokesperson of the Israel Defense Force Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari and former head of IDF Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. (res.) Tamir Hayman, as well as moving testimony from Thomas Hand of Kibbutz Be’eri whose 9-year-old daughter Emily was held hostage by Hamas. Hand reminded them of the urgent need for the immediate return of all the hostages still in Gaza.

The leaders also sat down for in-depth discussions on the fight against antisemitism and the future of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.

Johanna Arbib Perugia, a member of the Jewish Agency board of governors and past world chair of the board of Keren Hayesod spoke to the conference about the need for greater education of Jewish history for the younger generation of Jews in Italy, especially the university students who, she said, have “zero knowledge” about Jewish history and why Jews are in Israel. There is a need to tell them “the real story,” she said. She said the Italian government is extremely friendly toward Israel and while in the past 15 years there had been a distinction made in Italy between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, with the Palestinian issue barely discussed, Oct. 7 brought antisemitism to the surface.

Richard Prasquier, former president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, and Paul Charney, chairman of the Technion U.K., presented the current situation for the Jewish communities in their respective countries. Prasquier noted that while there were a large number of antisemitic acts in France following Oct. 7, it was not near the scale of events in the U.S. and U.K., and French Jews were “appalled” at what they saw happening in those countries.

“We have the antisemitism of the old right, but this is not an issue now. Hate of Israel is a major problem coming from the Muslim population on one side and from the leftist parties who are looking for electoral strength from the Muslim voices,” said Prasquier.

There is also a major generational gap where the older generation is not used to the social networks used by the younger generation where they see anti-Israel messages including accusations of IDF genocide in Gaza and images of bombings in Gaza.

With up to 500,000 Jews, France has the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora outside the U.S., he said. Because of France’s secularist foundational principles, it is not permitted to count people by religion on the census, he added, so there is no exact number.

In the U.K. the Jewish leadership has failed “miserably” to stand up for British Jewry for the past 20 years, said Charney, charging that they have preferred to allow the government to step in when needed because of disagreements in the Jewish leadership about Israel’s government. In the meantime, he said, the Muslim community has been organizing itself.

“The vast majority of people in the U.K. don’t care about Israel, but they do care about the Jewish minority,” he said. “We have friends in the U.K. who don’t want to see Islamic fundamentalists marching over memorials. But we need to stand up for ourselves. We can’t sit back and expect others to defend us. We need more coordination and better funding with the rest of Europe. We have one major advantage and that is the law and we have to use that to our advantage.”

Conference participants also heard from social media experts on how Israeli and Diaspora Jewry has been working to counter anti-Israel and antisemitic social media campaigns.

“We need to change the paradigm,” said Ella Kenan, head of Civic Influence Initiative. “We need to move from hasbara [explanation, in Hebrew], which is a terminology which does not serve us, to ‘influencer.’ The young people start young [on social media] and their ID is shaped by the people they follow. Facts don’t make them change their identity. We need to set the agenda.”

She said that though Israel social media influencers have a relatively small online presence, they are being backed up by the abundant online community in India who support Israel and help pro-Israel social media campaigns go viral.  

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who addressed the attendees  at the President’s Plenary at the conclusion of the conference, called for Jews around the world to not hide their identities in the face of antisemitism.

“People taking off mezuzot in modern Western democracies. Jewish schools and synagogues being attacked. We know that in each generation they rise up to annihilate us — and now we see it coming true in our generation,” he said.

“But there is a silver lining — and that is the unity of the Jewish people. Now is the time for Jews to unite all over the world together, to fight back, not to be fearful, to fight in the legal arena, to fight in the public arena, and all over. The Jewish world is facing one of its greatest challenges, definitely since the Second World War. Now is the time to work together and fight back.”