In the Jewish world, as elsewhere, old structures are cracking in the face of new challenges. Most of these structures, unable to adapt to a new age, will break and be overtaken by new ones now being devised in the minds of young activists sitting in cafés in the world’s major cities. A select few will succeed in adapting and transforming themselves, privileged to continue writing an illustrious history in a new century.
The World Jewish Congress has the potential to be one of those select few. From its current crisis, it may yet turn to make the leap from an organization that some have already written off and others ignore to one that is at the forefront of the Jewish world — and perhaps also of this new world that is still struggling to figure out the shape of things to come.
Globalization is presenting the Jewish people with both its greatest challenges and its greatest opportunities. Just as the rise of nationalism led to the greatest catastrophe ever faced by the Jewish people, so, too, has it given the inspiration and intellectual framework for its renewal in a national center in the Land of Israel.
Globalization harbors for the Jewish people challenges and opportunities of similar magnitude. Globalization is providing the Jewish people with unprecedented freedom and mobility, access to wealth and innovation, and the ability to connect instantly and cheaply with likeminded people while providing the infrastructure for the spread of vile and old ideas that have mutated into new hatreds.
This new global world calls for global structures. The old ones are no longer sufficient to take advantage of the emerging opportunities and to respond to the challenges, some of which are as yet unimaginable. In this new world, Jewish activists need to be able to come together, debate and discuss issues across borders, respond in real time to emerging issues, make decisions that are perceived as legitimate by all concerned and mobilize for sustained actions.
The Jewish world, at least in its official presentation, is governed by structures that were a product of the 20th century. These structures were remarkably effective in serving the Jewish people throughout that century — especially in its second half — rebuilding a thriving Jewish life and establishing a national center in the State of Israel.
But these structures are beginning to crack under the pressure, drifting away from the people and especially the new generation they are intended to serve. The World Jewish Congress is in danger of descending into irrelevance in a storm of bitter infighting and accusations.
There is, however, a new generation of younger Jewish activists that is prepared to do what it takes to transform it into the most relevant and innovative Jewish institution.
At an age that requires the ability to debate, organize and act across borders, the WJC has the makings to become the most representative body of the Jewish people. If nothing else, its name alone points to that aspiration.
Many have argued that the greatest asset of the World Jewish Congress is its name. But the name alone cannot hold forever.
The WJC has had an illustrious history of representing the key issues of the day for the Jewish people, from freeing Soviet Jewry to securing Holocaust restitution. So it is not the “J” in the WJC’s name that needs attending to.
When the president of the WJC meets with world leaders, he or she claims to speak on behalf of the Jewish people. The continued ability of future presidents to do this rests on the WJC doing more to truly represent the Jewish people as a whole. To thrive in the future, the WJC should give more substance to the “W” and the “C” of its name: It must become more “World” and more “Congress.”
Communications technology is opening up the opportunity for the WJC to do both. The next president could and should emphasize the “World” in its name by embarking on a global campaign to turn the WJC’s numerous small donors into true members who have a voice and a vote in its future workings. It could open up the possibility for individuals, wherever they may live, to become members directly involved and not necessarily mediated by the local community.
It could provide a vehicle for Jews in Israel and the United States — the two largest and most underrepresented communities in the WJC — to be truly engaged. And it could make a special appeal to younger Jews to become members and shape the WJC to fit their world.
Once the WJC has become more “World,” it should take advantage of technology to become a true congress of the Jewish people — a global agora where Jews come together from around the world physically and virtually to debate issues, make decisions and mobilize for action democratically, transparently and legitimately.
A new world is taking shape before our very eyes. The Jewish world will not remain unchanged by it. The WJC faces the choice either to be swept away by this world or ride the crest of its wave.
Einat Wilf, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, served as foreign policy adviser to Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres. She is a declared candidate for the presidency of the World Jewish Congress.