Pioneering Israeli Reaches Out to the Diaspora
New Jewish Agency chairman promotes education and redefining Jewish identity
JERUSALEM — AVRAHAM BURG, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, is ruffling feathers as he strives to rescue and remold international Jewry's most important organization.
One of the ruling Labor Party's most upwardly mobile politicians, Mr. Burg has raised eyebrows by taking on the stewardship of the ailing custodian of world Jewry, an organization that many critics say has outlived its purpose.
Burg, who is due to be confirmed soon at a meeting here of the Jewish Agency Assembly and the World Zionist Organization General Council, has already clashed publicly with Israeli President Ezer Weizman and accused two senior Jewish Agency officials - its legal adviser and comptroller - of incompetence.
The success or failure of Burg's gamble will have a vital bearing on the changing relationship between the 4.4 million or so Jews in Israel and some 10 million Jews worldwide.
The widening gulf between Israel and Jews living abroad has profound economic implications for Israel and, ultimately, for the survival of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state.
The glue that once bound international Jewry to Israel is weakening as the country emerges as a modern free-market state, Middle East peace develops, and the globalization of trade, capital, and information technology affect the Jewish state.
As the generation with direct experience of the Holocaust dwindles and collectivism gives way to individualism, the Zionist forces that created and sustained Israel are waning.
Burg, who asked for 100 days to prepare a plan of action when he was elected in March, shares the concerns of Zionist and Jewish fund-raising bodies abroad: that Diaspora Jews will lose their Jewish identity and ties with Israel.
Burg must also grapple with the problem of recent immigrants - such as the country's 560,000 Russians - many of whom are classified as not Jewish and resist speaking Hebrew and integrating fully into the society.
"Do we give legitimacy to people who turn their backs on the Zionist ethos?" asks Burg, throwing his arms in the air and giving the characteristic Israeli shrug.
"What I cannot ignore is that more people left Israel to live in Jewish communities around the world last year than came from those communities to live in Israel," Burg says in an interview at the agency's Jerusalem education campus.
Burg does not quite fit any existing political mold. He is one of Labor's few Knesset members who wear the skullcap (yarmulke) of a religious Jew. He is also a vegetarian and seldom uses the word Zionist. Someone asked him recently why he didn't.
"For me, Israel is the experimental ground for thousands of years of Jewish civilization," he says. "The only place on the globe where I can be a Jew with total responsibility over my life is in Israel. As a Jew, I am an Israeli. It is not a question of being superior or inferior."
He is regarded by his old-guard adversaries as a Trojan horse for younger-generation Labor doves like Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, trade union (Histadrut) leader Haim Ramon, and Knesset member Haggai Merom.
The son of orthodox parents - his father was a famous politician in the National Religious Party - Burg was a leading figure in the protest campaign against Israel's war in Lebanon. Some analysts see him as a future prime minister of Israel. At 40, he is the youngest-ever head of the agency, a generation younger than the former incumbent, acting chairman Yehiel Leket
Today, about 5.6 million of Diaspora Jews live in the United States, 1.6 million in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. The remaining 2 million or so are spread over more than 100 countries.
Financial contributions from the Diaspora, which have sustained Israel in the past, are dwindling as Jews are assimilated.
"World Jewry is saying to Israel: 'For 50 years we took care of your problems. Now it is time to take care of our own problems,' " Burg says.
At this stage, he is asking questions rather than trying to answer them, but his first priority is to promote a dialogue of equality between Israel and the Diaspora.
Burg sees his role as overseeing the continuing waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union, crafting and promoting Jewish education to prevent further assimilation, and redefining what it means to be Jewish.
His outspoken views have brought him into direct confrontation with traditional Zionists like President Weizman.
At a recent meeting of visiting Jewish teenagers and Israeli leaders at the agency's Kiryat Moriah campus in Jerusalem, Mr. Weizman was urging the teenagers to immigrate to Israel when Burg unexpectedly and publicly challenged him.
It was wrong, he said, to praise only those who wanted to make the Jewish state their home. Those who wanted to return to their home communities as young Jewish leaders should not be belittled, he said.
"Catastrophic Zionism, with Jews fleeing for their lives, is over," he declared within earshot of the assembled leaders and the news media. This exchange captured the divide between the old and new Israel. Today, Jews are so accepted in North American and European societies that the attraction of making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) has lost much of its gloss.
Burg is frank about the problems facing world Jewry.
"Let's assume that one day we will live in peace," Burg says. "Then the Jews and Israelis will have to ask themselves: 'Can we survive as Jews without an enemy? Without a Hitler, who will define for me who I am?' "
"The unity of Israel was defined by external pressure. If I don't have it, what happens to me?"
Israel looks and feels today more like a 51st state of America than the struggling nation of Kibbutzniks and pioneers that founded it in 1948.
American fast-food restaurants, candy stores, and shopping malls line the streets of Tel Aviv. All-night coffee bars, clubs, a flourishing sex-for-sale trade, mafia-style crime, and a growing drug problem make Tel Aviv much like any other city.
"The Jewish people are going through a process of atomizing itself.... Fifty percent of Jews in the West are marrying out of the faith," Burg says, who adds that he does not want his children to become "Hebrew-speaking Americans."
But the past success of Zionism, the memory of the Holocaust, a common experience spanning 4,000 years, and hostile Muslim neighbors like Iran, Iraq, and Libya, will ensure Jewish continuity for the foreseeable future.
"Zionism is the single most successful national revolution in modern times," Burg says, "because Zionism backed the future and faced the past. It went back to the land, back to the language, back to the homeland. It went back to the Bible.... By going back, we gave life to the past. By giving life to the past, we give meaning to the present. And by having past and present united, we feel that we have a future."