Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel-Diaspora Relations

On Restructuring the
World Zionist Organization

Daniel J. Elazar

The WZO is to be congratulated for undertaking a major restructuring as it approaches its centenary. In the one hundred years of its existence, it has an epoch-making accomplishment to its credit and clouds on its horizon. Its very success in securing the resettlement of millions of Jews in Eretz Israel and the reestablishment of the State of Israel has generated the new problems of function, membership, and image that now face it. That triumph has also generated the clouds on its horizon.

It may be that the WZO will reach its centenary as Israel enters an era of true peace and prosperity. It also may be that the new era will bring about the loss of much of the Jewish, not only the Zionist, character of the state, even as Israel becomes the largest single concentration of Jews in the world, thereby fulfilling a great Zionist dream. The Jewish world today is, I dare say, better organized than it ever has been, with a Jewish state and well-functioning organized Jewish communities throughout the world in places not even dreamed of when the WZO was founded. At the same time, the search for normalization collectively in Israel and through individual assimilation in the diaspora poses new threats to the Jewish people.

Every Jewish community and polity has four sets of institutions:
  1. government or government-like institutions;
  2. mobilizing organizations, normally mass-based;
  3. localistic institutions and organizations to serve the personal and private needs of the people;
  4. special purpose institutions and organizations (the "boutiques" of life) designed to advance the very specific interests of different members of the polity or community.

The State and the organized communities have inherited the tasks of governing, building and maintaining formerly in the hands of the WZO and other organizations. The principle tasks of the WZO now as it approaches its second century are tasks of mobilization, that is to say, it could be the mobilizing instrument for those Jews who take a very serious view of the Jewish-Zionist mission and who wish to adapt that mission to the needs of the contemporary world.

There is ample evidence that the Jewish people has appropriate government or government-like institutions, the government of the State of Israel and its local governments. The Jewish community federations and organizations of the diaspora serve this function. Any or all of them may need a certain amount of reform or tuning, but they exist, an investment has been made in their existence, and it is possible to make whatever changes that are necessary within the present framework.

The Jewish people also has the localistic institutions it needs, mostly in the synagogues of the Jewish world but also in the community centers and clubs that fill that function in a more secular manner.

The Jewish people also has many specialized organizations and institutions. Although these are changing all the time and must continue to change, the people who want them will be responsible for doing so.

Mobilization for maintaining, returning, or reforming the government and government-like institutions, however, must come from mobilizing organizations, of which the WZO has been one of the foremost. Any restructuring or changes made in it should be made with that end in mind. Notice that I have referred to the WZO as a mobilizing organization. In the past it has been an avowedly political one. No doubt it will continue to be by now it also needs to develop an additional civic dimension to mobilize not only for the political purposes of the Jewish people but for civic ones as well, not only to gain control of government and government-like institutions, but to provide a proper program for those institutions and the other forms of organization in Jewish life.

What and how the WZO should do and be in that connection depends upon a proper combination of the similarities and the differences between the various Jewish communities. In other words, the WZO will have to work somewhat differently in each to remain united as a World Zionist Organization. I have identified three groupings.

1. The old-style diaspora communities -- These are the communities in which the Zionist organization remains relatively strong and important in the overall scheme of Jewish life. These are mostly in Latin America, Europe, and the southern hemisphere (South Africa and Australia). Many of those communities are changing from older to newer styles so there are likely to be fewer of them in the next hundred years.

2. The United States, Canada, and other new-style diaspora communities -- In these communities the Zionist organization has a secondary or perhaps even tertiary role. In the largest of them, the United States, it never had a primary role. The closest it came was in the political mobilization attendant upon the establishment of Israel fifty years ago. While in others its role once had been more prominent, in most cases it has been reduced or is being reduced to a secondary role at best. Moreover, the number of Jewish communities falling into this category is growing.

3. Israel -- As the Jewish state, Israel has been sui generis since it was reestablished in 1948. soon to become the largest single Jewish community in the world, it will become even more singular. Whereas the Zionist organizations in the diaspora, in both the old and new style communities, essentially lost their great political mobilization purposes with their success in securing the reestablishment of the state and were forced to turn to civic mobilization in order to survive, in Israel the Zionists provided the political and governmental foundations of the new state and continued to function almost exclusively in the realm of political mobilization.

Until very recently, well over three-quarters of all Israelis and over 90 percent of all Israeli Jews fell within the ambit of Zionist political mobilization as a matter of course. Only the minority communities (Arabs, Druse, Christians, etc.), the haredim, and a handful of Jewish Communists fell outside of that Zionist consensus. At least since the beginning of the 1990s, however, that consensus has begun to break apart as a growing percentage of the new generation of Israeli Jews wants Israel to be a normal state like all others and correctly see its Zionist foundations as standing in opposition to that desire. They correctly understand that most of the current political manifestations of the Zionist foundations of the state - from the Law of Return to Hatikvah as the national anthem, to the commitment to the religious status quo - play a major role in keeping Israel from such normalcy.

This points us in the direction of what the new Zionist mission will be: in Israel, the preservation of the legitimate Jewish uniqueness of the Jewish state and, in both Israel and the diaspora, the unity and continuity of the Jewish people. Obviously, the WZO will not be the only movement concerned with that, but it can and must aspire to be the major mobilizing movement in that direction.

The extent and importance of this struggle between the two conceptions of what the State of Israel should be cannot be exaggerated. Historically, the Zionist movement has sought to achieve a Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel, whether as a national home or a state. The idea of a commonwealth implies not only that it be a democratic republic but that it be sufficiently homogeneous to maintain certain common ideas and goals that rest upon a shared moral understanding. In opposition to the ideal of commonwealth is the idea of civil society, that was originated at the beginning of the modern epoch in the seventeenth century by Spinoza, among others, who sought to divorce the polity from a shared moral understanding and emphasized instead the liberal and individualistic dimensions of democratic republicanism so that essentially the only task of the state is to preserve and enhance human rights and liberties.

Those who are calling for a divorce between the Zionist Jewish view of the state and contemporary Israel explicitly are doing so in the name of establishing a civil society in Israel, just as, in a profoundly different way, those liberal democrats who fought Communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe rested their fight conceptually on the idea of civil society as against the totalitarian state. But a commonwealth is not a totalitarian state. It is also a democratic republic, only one that is committed beyond the mere fact of democratic republicanism.

Very large polities such as the United States are civil societies not only by choice but because their size requires them to be. The smaller polities of the world such as Israel can choose to be commonwealths if they have a reason to be without in any respect violating contemporary democratic terms of reference. This is the struggle that will engage Israel for the next generation or more and the Zionist movement must be enlisted on the side of maintaining Israel as a Jewish commonwealth.

What we need, then, is a model that can work in different countries in different ways, all serving the end of Jewish commonwealth and continuity. This new struggle offers the WZO a chance to again play a major mobilizing role on the Jewish scene, in Israel and the diaspora. If a successful model is found and implemented, there is a very good chance that those people who care for the continued survival of the Jewish people and the State of Israel as a Jewish commonwealth will rally around the flag and will find in the WZO the instrument for pursuing their goals. If not, nothing can be done to save the organization and it would be better to applaud its successes and recognize them with appreciation as the organization is dissolved on its one hundredth birthday, and proceed with the new agenda in new ways.

If, however, we believe that it is possible to find such a model and to restructure the WZO mission along these lines, the WZO may still have a role to play in the Jewish future.

Two additional elements are needed for this in addition to a proper institutional organizational model. The WZO also needs to restore its ability to attract the top leadership of the Jewish people. This has been increasingly difficult. Not that the WZO and its affiliate organizations have not been led by good people and true, but that few of those leaders who are most closely identified with the Zionist organization are, with few exceptions, recognized as the top leadership of the Jewish world.

In Israel, while technically all leaders of the Israeli government are within the Zionist fold as members of Zionist parties, in fact, with one or two exceptions, they have essentially divorced themselves from the Zionist movement de facto and see themselves as leaders of Israel and the Israeli government exclusively. They may do what they have to to maintain Israel-diaspora relations and to continue the flow of voluntarily contributed funds to Israel, but their goal is strictly an Israeli goal. In the diaspora, it is precisely because all the rest of the Jewish leaders have formally embraced all the Zionist goals, that one need not be a Zionist leader to reach the foremost positions in the communities.

The other point to be made is that the WZO may achieve such a new mobilizing role but this will not be something that is granted to it. The Jewish world, like the rest of the world, is in a market situation. Nobody can grant a particular status to one group or another and there are no monopolies in these matters. The decision as to whether the WZO has achieved a role for itself will be made by hundreds of thousands of voluntary actions on the part of individuals who will either find their way to the WZO and give it their support through appropriate participation or they will not. If they do not, the WZO can be kept alive as a shell by grants or funds from budgets obtained for other purposes (taxes raised by the Israeli government or voluntary contributions to Israel more generally which may be diverted to keep the WZO alive), but that will not be a living movement, merely an organization through which a few people may be able to earn their living or to play a role on the Jewish scene.

Under these circumstances, what is needed? First of all, the WZO must become a world federation of those bodies concerned about the maintenance of a Jewish future for the Jewish people. In order to do this, the WZO must develop a strong base in Israel, a base which will be not only political but civic, that will offer those Jews of Israel who accept these principles a framework with which to express them. This can be through the political parties that adopt or maintain programs designed to maintain Israel as a Jewish commonwealth from whatever perspective, but it also means bringing in Israel's voluntary organizations who share that mission.

To give one example, the Nature Preservation Society, a fine organization in its own right, is designed to serve the cause of nature preservation in Israel. It does not have particularly Jewish goals or does not have a particularly Jewish way of doing it job. Therefore, it is unlikely that it would be attracted as an organization to the WZO. On the other hand, the Israel Forum or the various associations of Jewish community centers in Israel may indeed see this as one of their missions and so seek a linkage. Ways and means must be provided for them to do so.

If the peace process reaches a successful conclusion, Israel will in any case become more like the states of the rest of the world in that it will become a service state, one that provides certain services equally for its citizens from all ethnic backgrounds. That is as it should be. Thus the Jewish community may have to organize a whole variety of voluntary institutions to take over or to expand the Jewish dimensions of those functions. The Zionist movement in Israel should be prepared to undertake those tasks and to affiliate those institutions through it to the WZO.

In the diaspora, the WZO should seek to link the organizations committed to mobilization for these Jewish purposes. It should concentrate on organizing those who will provide the leadership cadres, in the sense of the most active and the most self-sacrificing. Historically, these people have been called magshimim in the Zionist lexicon, meaning those who intend to come to settle in Israel to add their weight to Israel's development. Those kinds of magshimim are still needed, those who understand that the chances for Jewish continuity are greater in Israel for themselves and their families and those who seek to reinforce the elements in Israeli society that are committed to the goals of a Jewish commonwealth. The WZO must be active in mobilizing such people and assisting them in their aliya and klita.

This means a substantial restructuring of the WZO. With regard to its organizational side it needs those elements of organization that every mobilizing movement needs. It may no longer need those of the various departments that presently comprise the WZO in Israel whose task it is to undertake the development functions that have not yet been transferred to the government of Israel or the Jewish Agency, are holdovers from the days when the WZO and the Jewish Agency were one organization. (One exception may be the need to perform functions not entitled to tax exemption by the governments of the countries in which diaspora Jews are located.)

This does not mean that the WZO does not need institutions. It does. It needs a group of streamlined, specifically focused institutions that will undertake the various missions that fall within the purview of the WZO. Some of these might be:

  1. fostering the Israel experience for diaspora Jews;
  2. Zionist activities on the campuses of the world;
  3. cultural activities designed to foster and expand a common Jewish culture on various levels;
  4. mobilization and fundraising institutions where needed to provide the necessary backup.
Other functions now in the hands of the WZO should be transferred to the Jewish Agency or the government of Israel.

A WZO that consisted of many small circles and institutes in Israel and the diaspora, dealing with the various problems of contemporary Jewry on a specifically focused basis will be a much stronger organization and a much better partner with the Jewish community organizations that will represent organized and structured Jewish life around the world.

What I would envision, then, is an organization built as follows:

  1. In every Jewish community, including Israel, efforts should be made, stimulated perhaps by those presently affiliated with the WZO, to establish circles and institutes committed to specific Jewish commonwealth purposes with an Israel interest or to recruit those already in existence to join the Zionist movement.
  2. These circles and institutions will constitute the ground troops of the new WZO, organized community- or country-wide and connected with a worldwide movement headquartered in Israel.
  3. A similar structure should be organized in Israel that may even include a local fundraising component that will raise voluntary funds for Jewish civic purposes in Israel and abroad.

Worldwide, the WZO should continue to be governed by its historic institutions, the World Zionist Congress, and the General Actions Committee but they should be reinstituted in light of these changes. As the institutes and circles develop, there may be place for coordinating bodies or parallel bodies in Jerusalem. These may include some worldwide body for magshimim, although I do not believe this is a helpful step; an institute for cultural development, which may include a publishing house but will be more designed to assist other bodies; and an institute for academic development to assist with work on campuses. The result should be a leaner and more effective WZO that will be able to play a leading role in the struggle for Israel and for Jewish continuity.

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