SIGNALING a revolutionary reform of Zionism and the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, Avraham Burg was confirmed yesterday as the new chairman of both the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization (WZO).
Mr. Burg's first major act as the new chairman of organized Jewry's leading world bodies was to propose merging them.
The Jewish Agency was established in 1929 and served as the governing body of world Jewry until Israel was formed in 1948. Today it acts as the link between world Jewry and Israel, and raises funds for settling and developing Israel.
The WZO, the largest Jewish organization, shares with the Agency responsibility for Jewish education, and propagates worldwide the goals of Zionism, which also includes immigration to Israel.
Burg, who took up his post following a controversial election three months ago, has already clashed with senior officials in the WZO who resist his plans and see them as a threat to their positions.
If his program is accepted by the two organizations, it will mean the phasing-out of many of the WZO's 1,200 posts and much of its $40 million annual budget.
Presenting his reform program - "A Covenant of the People" - to the Zionist General Council meeting here yesterday, Burg stressed the need to radically restructure the relationship between the 4.4 million Jews in Israel and about 10 million in the Diaspora.
"We have squeezed the emotional lemon as much as we can squeeze it, and we must now ask ourselves what the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora will be built on in the future," Burg told several hundred Zionists gathered for the annual meeting of the guiding bodies of the Jewish Agency and the WZO.
Burg is trying to switch the emphasis away from immigration - as an end in itself - toward a more inclusive Jewish education that would have wider appeal in the Diaspora.
Burg has alienated many old-guard Zionists who see aliya (immigration) as the highest goal of the Jewish endeavor and tend to view Jews in Israel as superior to those in the Diaspora.
"Aliya cannot be a purpose in and of itself - it must be a result of Jewish education. People should come to Israel out of conviction rather than as a result of coercion," Burg said.
In his bold plan for reform, Burg says he believes that political Zionism may have failed totally in building bridges between the Jews of Israel and those in the Diaspora who feel more and more disconnected from the Zionist state.
Return to the fold
He said the well-being and continued existence of the Jewish people are threatened by this sense of alienation from Israel and the ongoing assimilation of Jews in the Diaspora.
Burg said the Jewish Agency should explore new ways to continue with immigration and develop the Jewish education system as a more inclusive system attractive to all Jews.
"It is necessary to turn to the Jews of the Diaspora who have no connection at this time with Jewish-Zionist activities ... and to include them."
He returned to the theme of building bridges between the Diaspora and Israel.
"Israel has almost emptied itself of its spiritual content because of its tremendous success," said Burg yesterday, alluding to the creation of the state of Israel and its consolidation with successive waves of immigration.
Burg, a leading figure in the ruling Labor Party, is seen as one of three key progressives in Labor's "group of eight" - upwardly mobile politicians seen as the future leaders of Israel.
The group includes Haim Ramon, leader of the trade-union movement - the Histadrut - and deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin.
"This group now commands key positions within the Labor Party as well as the leadership of three major organizations in the Israeli establishment ...," says Uri Masad, a former United States representative of the pro-peace movement, Peace Now.
But in an advertisement placed by the New York-based American Zionist Movement in Israeli newspapers yesterday, quotations from a recent article by AZM President Seymour Reich articulated the view of Burg's critics. "Regrettably, the WZO is about to make a monumental blunder," the prominent advertisement began.
"We say this because we believe that the WZO is proposing policies that ... will send a message that the Zionist Movement in the Diaspora is expendable.
"What is at stake is the spiritual survival of the Jewish people. As Zionists we know that this crisis must be addressed within the context of nationhood and a strong Israel component," Mr. Reich wrote.
Burg has recently caused an uproar in Zionist circles by questioning the culture of supremacy among Zionists and publicly challenging the views of the pillars of the Zionist establishment, such as Israeli President Ezer Weizman.
He noted in his plan presented yesterday that only 6 percent of Israeli respondents in a recent survey identified themselves as Zionists.
"And the other 94 percent? What will become of them?" he asked.
Immigration to Israel was once seen as a "magic solution" to Jewry's problems. "But the state of the Jewish people had not succeeded in becoming an entity in which the content of Jewish life is a drawing card for the Jews of the Disapora," he said, noting that 74 percent of Jews in the US had never visited Israel, and one-quarter of all US Jews felt "no emotional connection to Israel."