Statement by Colette Avital at the WIZO International Conference
January 16, 2012
Those of us gathered here today attach an enormous importance to the relations between Israel and the Diaspora. After all we have devoted to them our hearts, our minds, our relentless efforts. Over the years we have mainly acted to strengthen Israel and its society. And these relations have been the subject of many heated discussions, many debates, many conferences: what they are, and what they should be,. what is the place of Israel in your hearts?. We have argued about identity, religion and state, freedom of and from religion, secularism. We have asked if Israel is becoming part of your Jewish identity , we have preached "alya" and have disturbed many when stating that only in Israel one can live a full Jewish life.
The questions whether Jews in the Diaspora have a right to be involved in our internal affairs, or in Israel's policies, to voice their opinions, or even to criticize Israel has been settled long ago. Many organizations have been doing that for years. As to us, Israelis, we have come of age and we know that our partnership cannot be one-sided, and those who are devoted to Israel's survival and contribute to its well-being , have a right, even a duty to voice their opinions and concerns.
We all live in pluralistic, multi-dimensional worlds, where many voices are heard. Moreover, your concern is not only about our physical survival, it is about what kind of a society, what kind of country we want to shape here, in Israel, what kind of Jewish world you and us want to leave behind for the next generations. Also – we have come to realize that Israel's actions and decisions oftentimes affect the entire Jewish world. All these call for a stronger dialogue, for a more intensive and frank ways to communicate. We should therefore all welcome openness, even criticism when it is voiced out of love and concern for our wellbeing. We should overcome the notion that any form of criticism stems from an anti-Israeli bias: this is true for human rights groups, for Israeli groups – left and right – who cannot and should not be accused of self-hatred. We should listen , discuss, try to understand.
Therefore, I believe that we should turn to another important and urgent matter : that of the younger generation's attitude towards Israel, and towards the Jewish "establishment" in their country. I do not refer to the youngsters who visit Israel under the auspices of "Taglit" , for after a visit to our country they come back with different notions, and with some understanding of the complexity of our situation. I refer to thousands of young "progressive Jews", for whom human rights are the modern-times religion. All surveys and studies that have been conducted within the Jewish Community at large, ( mainly in America, but not only), indicate that there is a steady decline in affiliation with major Jewish organizations or agencies (in 2001 there was a 20% decline) and in philanthropic activities. One can mention many reasons for that state of affairs : There is a perception that Jewish organizations are less relevant nowadays, that they are elitist self-serving and resist innovation. Altogether there has been, for many years, a reluctance many Jews , to identify with the "establishment", and a sense there is too much overlap, too many duplications between the existing organizations. ( More than half a century ago, American sociologist Robert McIver was commissioned by the National Communities' Advisory Council to study Jewish organizational structures. He reached the very same conclusions and recommended to seek greater coordination between organizations and agencies .His report was never made public)
This is true for the communities at large, more dramatically so among students. The world in which young Jews live today – cyberspace – is different from the one we grew up in. They are more independent in thinking, less attached to "conventional wisdom". They live in a world of multiple identities. They are more critical of Israel, of the "occupation", and less attached to Israel than their elders. There have been many instances when they have refused to receive or to listen to official Israeli representatives on their campuses. Pollsters like Frank Lunz or Chaim Waxman who probed their views on Israel write that "they reserve the right to question the Israeli position"; they resist anything that they see as "group think"; they want an open and frank discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second : they want proof that Israel wants peace. Third : many empathize with the plight of the Palestinians. Briefly put, and broadly defined, these students are "liberal". They are imbibed with some of the basic defining values of the American Jewish culture : a belief in open debate, skepticism about military force, and a deep commitment to human rights. But unlike the previous generation, these young people do not define themselves as Zionists.
Thus, when we speak about Israel – Diaspora relations nowadays, this is the group we must focus on, and try to engage in an open, frank, creative dialogue , After all this is the group from which the next generation of leaders in your countries will come – whether in politics, in the business or financial world, in science , medicine or the arts. It is precisely because they have embraced some of the very basic cultural Jewish values of open debate, that we can find the common ground for a discussion It is up to us to reinvent ourselves, both with respect to ideas and with respect to organizations. And we must learn again to listen, discuss, understand, embrace.