For the past eight years, Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman has served as head of the World Zionist Organization’s (WZO) Department for Diaspora Activities. The department aims to build bridges between Jews around the world, strengthen Zionist identity and promote ties to Israel. Yehoshua-Braverman previously served as the associate director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. She was in Toronto recently to announce a new initiative, in conjunction with the Canadian Zionist Federation, to enhance ties between the Diaspora and Israel.
I understand you are in Canada to inaugurate a new program in Halifax and Saskatoon. Tell me about that.
This is one of the programs that I’m so proud of. It started a few years ago in Mexico.
After their military service, lots of Israelis travel abroad, wandering the world and not necessarily going to visit Jewish communities.
I realized there are many small communities that are far from the large cities where shlichim (emissaries) are based and they don’t have any connection with Israelis. The idea was to create a meeting point between those young Israelis who are traveling and small communities.
It started in Latin America, where we identified small communities that are willing to host Israelis. On the other side, we identified Israelis who want to spend two months in a Jewish community, for two periods of time during the year. One is the High Holidays, the other is during the Israeli national holidays that start right after Pesach.
It will benefit both sides. On the one hand, the small Jewish communities will get informal connections with young Israelis, who bring a taste of Israel to those communities. On the other, more people from the young generation in Israel will have a taste of what it means to be a Diaspora Jew and to carry some kind of responsibility for the future.
How many of these temporary emissaries do you have?
We have 23. We started with three. Now, for the first time, we are starting it here in Canada.
What will the shlichim be doing in these communities?
They will go to a school, they will go to a seniors home, to the Jewish community centre, wherever they are asked to be.
They are coming with a bunch of programs, like cooking, teaching Hebrew, they will show films like Ben Gurion, Epilogue and use that as a start for discussions about different topics.
Surveys show that young Jews are not as connected to Israel as the older generation, that they don’t see it in a positive light. Is that something your department can address?
One of the things that really bothers me is the detachment of young adults from Israel.
What I’m seeing more and more by meeting people in their homes is that some of them would consider developing a Jewish life and putting aside any connection to the State of Israel.
The outcomes are very severe for Jewish continuity and the bonds between the Diaspora and the State of Israel.
It’s always about the conflict and how it is perceived through the media.
I want to bring new facts to the table and confuse people. If someone is coming with a fixed idea about what an Israeli should do, or should not do, I want to challenge them.
We want people to question themselves, to question their relationship to Zionism. I think some, a growing number, have lost the idea of what Zionism stands for and they confuse this with the political issues in the State of Israel. We want to deepen the idea that the Jewish people should have a homeland.
What we try to do is engage them in a wider discussion about Israel, not only a discussion about politics.
You mentioned that points of friction relate to security, but there are a lot of internal issues that cause friction, as well. One is prayer at the Western Wall. A lot of Diaspora Jews were upset when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on his agreement to allow more egalitarian prayer at the Wall. How has that affected Diaspora Jewry’s relations with Israel?
In a very bad way. As an Israeli, I think that those who are not affiliated with the religious streams don’t care about the Western Wall. They don’t understand why it’s so important.
The Kotel became a symbol. It’s about receiving the same rights as the Orthodox stream.
I think what Netanyahu did was a slap in the face of the Jewish Diaspora. This is unacceptable.
Because of political pressure, the government is doing the wrong thing. All the streams that were coming from abroad stood united, regardless of the affiliation they had, against the decision to withdraw the agreement about the Kotel. It goes to the respect shown by the State of Israel to the emotions and the needs of the Jewish people who are not living in Israel. It affected mainly the liberal part of the Jewish people and I think it made them go at least one step back from any connection with the State of Israel and I think it is a threat to both sides.
Does the WZO have a role to play in addressing the issue of Orthodox control over religious matters and personal status issues in Israel?
It’s very complicated. Around the WZO table are Reform and Conservative organizations, and Orthodox parties, as well. We are trying to find a way to deliver a message to the Israeli government that we do carry a responsibility for the Diaspora.
It’s not something to which I can offer a solution. It’s a debate. It’s not necessary that we see eye to eye. I can tell you that what I can do in representing the Reform movement around the Zionist table, is to have this discussion over and over again, because some Israeli politicians are not completely aware about the damage it creates.
This past summer, the Knesset passed a Basic Law declaring that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Some people in the Diaspora criticized the law, calling it undemocratic and divisive. How do you see it?
I see it as they see it. Israel should be a Jewish state, there is no doubt about that, and it needs to remain democratic.
In Theodor Herzl’s vision, Israel will embrace minorities, not exclude them.
Among the minorities are the Druze. In Israel, it’s a big issue now, because they are full partners with us. They serve in the army. You cannot be only a brother when you give your blood and not be a brother or a sister when it comes to rights.
I see it as something that needs to change. I don’t think anyone in the Diaspora should doubt that Israel should remain a Jewish state, but it should also be a democratic, respectful, embracing state that gives equal rights to the minorities living inside Israel.
Earlier this year, Charles Bronfman said there is a rift developing between the Diaspora and Israel. Do you agree and is this something we should be worried about?
There is cause for concern. I would say this: the responsibility lies on both sides. The minute you give up on something, the rift will only grow.
What I am saying is, reclaim and take an active role in creating the world you want it to be.
It takes two to tango and when one part is giving up on the other part, there will be no future.
I ask: what will Jews living in the Diaspora do in order to make Israel different? It’s not by dis-attaching, it’s not by moving away.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.