Israeli President Moshe Katsav is taking the first concrete steps toward forming a new forum of Jewish leaders from across the globe to tackle what he calls the “crisis situation” facing the Jewish world.
Katsav’s earlier proposal for a global Jewish parliament has been shelved, primarily because of the difficulty of holding worldwide elections. Instead, Katsav has called a preparatory meeting this June to begin planning what has been referred to as a “Jewish Davos” — a conference that will bring together some 300 Jewish intellectuals, politicians and communal leaders.
While the specifics will only be hammered out at the June meeting, Katsav’s aides envision the forum taking on issues that Jewish communal organizations have struggled to confront, such as assimilation and the declining identification of Diaspora Jewry with Israel. The engagement of the Israeli president suggests a growing frustration with the response of communal structures in other countries, said sources familiar with the initiative.
“If you’ve been around some time, you know the Jewish world, it’s usually the same 100 people that are everywhere,” said Collete Avital, chairwoman of the Knesset committee that has worked with Katsav to plan the forum. “The whole point is to try to bring in young people, new people.”
Katsav’s aides have been careful to say that the new forum is not an effort to replace existing Jewish organizations. But the proposal already has met resistance from American communal leaders, many of whom privately worry about Israeli efforts to win more influence in American Jewish affairs. A study of communal leaders by a Jewish Agency think tank found only two American leaders interested in creating a new body.
“The expectations about meetings of this kind can be extraordinarily inflated,” said John Ruskay, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, who will attend the preparatory meeting in June. “People can assume that somehow bringing together 200 people can bring solutions to problems that we have waited for generations. I’m skeptical of such messianic imagining.”
Katsav’s proposal grows out of a broader campaign to engage world Jewry more fully in Israel’s political process. The Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental organization responsible for Diaspora affairs, recently pushed for the creation of a new body that would give Diaspora Jewry a voice in Israeli policy decisions, particularly those that have an effect on Jewish security and culture around the world. For now, though, Katsav’s aides describe the new forum less as a place to discuss Israeli policy, and more as an opportunity to tackle issues that transcend national boundaries, such as assimilation.
“The question is how do we remain Jewish, and how do we remain a united people,” said Akiva Tor, Katsav’s adviser for world Jewish affairs. “In particular, how do we do it in an age of globalization, when ethnicity is not in anymore?”
Despite talking about the need for fresh leadership, Katsav has begun the process by summoning about 30 of the most powerful Jewish communal leaders to Jerusalem for the June meeting.
The new forum comes at a transitional moment that could provide some space for the new forum to establish itself. The major organizations that already exist to unite world Jewry are struggling to sort out crises involving governance issues. Both the World Jewish Congress and the World Zionist Organization are undergoing major restructurings after complaints that they were out of touch with Jews around the world. The WZO is the only elected body of world Jewry, but voters traditionally have come from a small core group of Zionist activists.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, which provides the main direct link between the Diaspora and Israel, underwent reforms in 2001 to introduce leadership from outside the communal world. Now, close to one-third of the Jewish Agency’s 120-member board of governors are chosen from the business and academic world. But critics say that has not been enough.
“The veteran Jewish organizations have died, but no one told them,” said Yossi Beilin, a former Knesset member who has campaigned for a new global Jewish organization since 1997. “What we need is a dialogue with the vibrant Jewish community. What we have is meetings between machers [leaders] of the Jewish world.”
The struggles at the current organizations speak to the difficulty of unifying Jews in the current era. When WZO and WJC were founded, the Zionist cause and the battle against fascism gave Jews causes to rally around. Now that Israel is a stable country, numerous studies have shown that identification with Israel among world Jewry is declining. A recent study of American Jews –– who constitute close to 70% of Diaspora Jewry — showed that the percentage who feel “very” emotionally attached to Israel fell from 31% in 2002 to 26% in 2005.
“For American Jews,” said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who led the study, “Judaism has become much more personal and private, and less ethnic.”
While Jews around the world may have a slackening identification with Israel, non-Jews have increasingly identified Diaspora Jews with Israel in antisemitic attacks and anti-Israel protests. The Jewish Agency think tank, which is headed up by former American ambassador Dennis Ross, has suggested that Diaspora Jewry be given a voice in Israeli policy decisions that may have an adverse effect on Jews elsewhere.
When Katsav proposed a Jewish parliament in December, he asked Ross’s think tank to advise him. The report they presented to him last week suggested he form a smaller body of current Diaspora leaders to have frequent discussions about Israeli policy with Israeli politicians. That proposal was rejected in favor of a separate recommendation for what is being called the “Jewish People Conference.” Two names often mentioned for the new forum are Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and author Philip Roth.
Dershowitz applauded the idea: “Right now Diaspora Jewish leadership is based solely on wealth. It’s the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ mentality. If you’re rich they think you really know.”
The lingering question is whether an annual conference will be able to effect any change on the scale discussed by Katsav. In 1994, then-Israeli president Ezer Weizman called a similar gathering in Israel. It quickly devolved into a shouting match over whether Jews should move to Israel.
The preparatory meeting in June will determine what resources will be put behind the new conference. Gary Tobin, a sociologist who has helped organize other Israeli-American dialogue groups, said if the new forum is to succeed, “it has to be a group that has the political and financial ability and will to tackle real problems. Otherwise it will just be costly conversation.”