TORONTO – The newly revived Canadian Zionist Federation got a shot in the arm last month in the form of a visit to Toronto from David Breakstone, vice-chair of the World Zionist Organization (WZO).
Originally founded in 1967 as a representative of the WZO, the Canadian chapter was dormant for many years until Les Rothschild stepped in as president earlier this year to “revitalize” it.
Breakstone, who made aliyah from the United States in 1974 and has served in a number of Jewish leadership roles, including as a volunteer for the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel for more than 40 years, said the mission of the WZO is to ensure that Israel remains high on the agenda of the Jewish community.
“I don’t need to tell you about the studies that have come out about the disenfranchisement, particularly of the younger generation, the distancing from Israel,” he said.
“There are many who see Zionism as having been all about creating a safe place for the Jews to live. And some feel we pretty much have that. The feeling is if that is what Zionism is all about, then we’re done. We can disband.”
Breakstone said that for Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, the movement was always about something much more than creating a safe place for Jews. It was also about creating a utopian society.
“It’s a work in progress. We’ve got plenty to do and we have to face that we have plenty to do without any embarrassment and without any apologetics.”
He said the biggest challenge is engaging millennials to care about Israel. In the past, writing a cheque and leaving the fledgling country’s development in the hands of Israelis was sufficient.
“That is long gone… What we have to do is create ways for genuine engagement, including finding ways for Diaspora Jews in general to impact Israeli society. I would love to see a situation… where the president of the State of Israel would be elected by Jews around the world,” he said.
“Gone are the days when we can tell Jews abroad that it is not for you to tell us what to do. It is your business, and we have to make sure it is your business, and we’re going to be enriched by it as well.”
He said if Israel is to be known as the state of the Jewish People, it can’t be expected that Jews from other parts of the world will buy into that if they don’t have a say in what happens.
He said the most recent example of Diaspora Jews having an influence on Israeli society was the historic decision to create a non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall.
“That was 99.9 per cent a result of Diaspora Jewish involvement,” he said.
But, he said, Zionism isn’t only about Jewish struggles.
“Pluralism is a problem. The treatment of minorities, the social gap in Israel – this is a Jewish state, and look at how many children are living under the poverty level, look at what is happening with migrant workers. These are all Jewish issues as well as Israeli issues.”
Breakstone referred to another challenge when it comes to Israel advocacy. He feels that some people have the concept of Israel advocacy backwards.
“You can’t have advocacy without education… It’s not a matter of handing them a script and telling them what to say. You’ve got to feel it first. I think for a number of years, the Jewish community has lost sight of that,” he said.
He criticized one of the strategies that tries to change the narrative that demonizes Israel with more positive messages about its accomplishments.
“They say, ‘Talk about how Israel is making the world a better place with pill cameras and drip irrigation and start-up nation.’ And all those things are wonderful, but I don’t think we can afford to try to change the conversation. My response, if someone were doing that to me, is ‘Don’t insult my intelligence.’ It’s great that you’re making the pill cameras and so forth, but if you’re doing it on the back of the Palestinian, then… I think both of those points have to come out,” Breakstone said.
“I talk about broadening the conversation. We should put it in context.”