TORONTO — Israel is facing an entirely new kind of war, a war of ideas, member of Knesset Einat Wilf told a rapt audience of Jewish young adults at The House, a Jewish social meeting place in Toronto last week.
Wilf, 39, sits in the Knesset on behalf of Israel’s centre-left Labor party and she serves on the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee. She arrived in Toronto last week during the Knesset’s annual break to begin a month-long series of speaking engagements that will take her throughout Canada and the United States.
“The war has mutated again into another arena,” Wilf said, “and this time, it’s the arena of ideas and images.” She explained that since 1948, Israel has been in a constant state of war. First, it was traditional military war, followed by terrorism and then economic warfare, including the boycott of Israeli products.
The war of ideas, Wilf said, is the latest arena of warfare, wherein Israel’s enemies seek to undermine the basic Zionist idea of Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people. “Israel is a small country, and it cannot survive for long in a world that doesn’t believe it has the right to exist,” she said.
According to Wilf, the war of ideas is fought primarily in the media and on university campuses. It is for this reason, she explained, that young Jewish people around the world are on the front lines.
Wilf worries about the growing trend of Jewish youths distancing themselves from Israel because of the controversy that surrounds it. “Many people have responded with the idea that if Israel is not perfect, then [they] want nothing to do with it,” she said.
“I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend. This generation has found that Israel is not that perfect creation on which they have been reared. It’s a grey, complex reality. Many people have resorted to intellectual laziness and decided to distance themselves from Israel,” she said.
She emphasized the importance of engaging in the moral dilemmas that face Israel instead of running away from them and disassociating from Israel altogether. “Being moral in conditions where you do not have to face moral dilemmas is not much of an achievement,” she said, explaining how Jewish morality is unique in how it is taught in the context of dealing with real-life issues, as opposed to avoiding them.
When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its perception in the West, Wilf was quick to point out that the Palestinians maintain a culture of resistance against Zionism instead of building a culture of construction and self-determination. “Resisting may be heroic,” she said, “but it’s also kind of infantile.”
Wilf, who has studied extensively in Europe and the United States, added that, thus far, the West has been sympathetic to the Palestinians, but she believes this contradicts traditional western values of taking responsibility for oneself and of being proactive. She explained that a nation, like a person, grows up only when she or he stops “assigning blame to everyone around.”
Audience member Maya Strasser, 23, came to Wilf’s talk after spending a year living in Israel. “I thought it was interesting because she repeated a lot of things that kind of mirrored my own opinions about Israel,” she said.
Wilf stressed the importance of speaking to Jewish youths worldwide about Israel and challenging them to stay informed and engaged. She left the crowd at The House with an optimistic message. “I think, ultimately, that just how Israel has come out triumphant from all the various previous challenges, it will come out from this one, too,” she said.
Speaking with The CJN in a wide-ranging exclusive interview on Sept. 14, the day after her talk, Wilf spoke openly about her desire to forge a “new contract” between Israel and world Jewry and her eye-opening experience with Canadian support for her country under the current Conservative government.
On the former, Wilf said that according to the “old contract” Israel told Jews in the Diaspora that there were only two ways to be a good Jew from the Israeli perspective: by giving money, and lots of it, or making aliyah. “Today, this [contract] is not relevant to the vast majority of Jews.”
Wilf proposed that a new contract reflect the realities of life in an interconnected world. “It should be much more in tune with the lives young people live today, very mobile, very connected lives, fluid lives. The notion that you’re connected to one place from age zero to 100 is, I think, nonsensical. People have more of a sense that they can have a relationship with the country. They can come, they can stay for a few years, leave, come back and have professional and personal network.”
She suggested Jews everywhere make Israel their first “or second” home.
“I don’t mean buying real estate in Jerusalem,” she said. “I mean that Israel becomes a major relationship in your life, physically. It should be a place you can go and spend some of your life and go and come back. There are numerous ways to make Israel your own, it’s not just about living there all your life.”
Asked about her view of Canada in her new role as an MK, Wilf said she found the country’s support for Israel “remarkable.”
“It’s not well-known in Israel how good a friend Canada has become under Prime Minister [Stephen Harper]. And to the extent I can bring that message back to Israel, I will,” she said.
Wilf speculated that Israelis haven’t yet latched on to Canada’s political support for their country because they still, mistakenly, view it as a place hostile to them due to past media coverage of events here.
“[Israelis] still have a sense in which Canada is a place where there is a strong Palestinian community, where there is a lot of anti-Israel activity,” she said.
“They remember [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s aborted visit to [Concordia University] in 2002. So there’s always this thinking that Canada is more of a European-style country and less of a North American one. Even the educated class [in Israel] have not been aware of this big change in Canada.”
With files from Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf