Interview: Ze’ev Bielski
In July, the highly organized, energetic and affable Ze’ev Bielski, 55, became chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He says his life until now has consisted of two missions. The first was to encourage aliya from the diaspora. The second was to create a successful, high-tech model city—Ra’anana—where he served as mayor from 1989 until his recent appointment. Bielski’s third life mission, heading JAFI, may be his most challenging.
Q. As we begin the Jewish New Year, what is the single most urgent challenge we face as a people?
A. We must first and foremost preserve ourselves as the Jewish people. Connecting with Israel is the best way to accomplish this. We received our mandate over 3,000 years ago when we emerged as a people to be connected to this one land, Eretz Israel. This was promised to us, not to any other nation. Since then we have wandered, experienced many problems, yet we survived. Strengthening the connection between our people—wherever they are—and our land is the most important thing.
Q. We speak of Zionism, post-Zionism and anti-Zionism. Are the Zionist ideals that forged the path to the State of Israel stronger or weaker than in the past?
A. The ideology is still here. Jews everywhere enjoy a special tie to Israel…. Ours is the only state that is responsible not only for the people living within its borders but everywhere else as well. You will not find any other nation that feels responsible for people who are 3,000 miles away and who may never have even visited it. When the Air France jet [to Entebbe] was skyjacked many years ago, it should have been Air France or the [country] of France that assumed responsibility. But Israel…saw itself as duty-bound to save not only the Israeli citizens—but all the passengers.
Q. How do you see the Jewish Agency’s role?
A. Just as Israel feels responsible for its people worldwide, the Jewish people everywhere also feel responsible for the State of Israel. The meeting point between the two is the Jewish Agency. Ours is a platform where leaders of the Jewish world and leaders of the state can meet, consider the needs and take action.
Q. What is your ultimate goal?
A. I will work in the same spirit and love that drove me as a shaliah[emissary] in South Africa and as mayor in Ra’anana: To bring the Jewish people together and decide how the Jewish world and the State of Israel can be mutually strengthened.
Q. What is the best current example of the Jewish Agency’s mission?
A. Birthright Israel. It was the idea of a few individuals from the Jewish world that developed into one of the single greatest programs that has ever been initiated in this area. It is a present given to every Jewish youth, conveying the message: You have a birthright to come to Israel [free of charge] for 10 days. It is fantastic. The Jewish Agency is today becoming much more involved in Birthright because we think it’s a privilege for us to support this…. We can bring many, many more people.
Q. Where does aliya fit into the equation?
A. Aliya was, is and will always be the crowning jewel of ideals embraced by the Jewish Agency. This is deeply rooted in tradition. Today, for the first time, Israel has not only become a center [of the Jewish world] but is growing day by day. For years, [the Agency] was responsible for rescuing people in distress and bringing them to Israel. We used to send airplanes to accomplish this sacred mission, no questions asked.
Q. And today the model has changed?
A. Absolutely. The beauty is that today we have aliya of choice. Americans, French, Canadians are coming for many different reasons—religious, ideological, business—everyone has their own motivation. Hundreds of families from France have come in stages. First they got an apartment in Israel, then they got the kids enrolled in Israeli schools. Often one of the parents would commute for employment needs, even weekly, back to France. It all took place because these people realize that they are securing the future of their families, of their children and grandchildren.
Q. What about American aliya?
A. Listen, I am not one who expects all American Jews to come live in Israel tomorrow. But I do…expect that the proportion of Jews who visit Israel will dramatically increase. Today between 70 and 80 percent of the Jewish people in North America have never even set foot in Israel. I cannot accept this. If your roots are in the Jewish people, you must ensure that your children, at least, have come to Israel through Birthright or Masa, a new, longer-term program. They must come to taste Israel, touch the Western Wall, walk within the stone walls of Jerusalem and take a personal look at the history of our people. Once you have seen it and experienced this firsthand, the link of thousands of years will be continued. July of this year had the highest percentage of aliya from North America since 1983. With the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh in the U.S. and Canada, and a similar organization in France called Ami, I saw a dream come true at the airport. I saw children coming to live in our land, holding the hands of their beautiful parents. Where else does the prime minister of a nation…come out to greet these arrivals at the airport? In [most] countries the only state official who awaits newcomers are the immigration authorities or police. The Law of Return is a unique law in the world. Every Jew, wherever he or she is, is entitled to come whenever they like…to become a citizen.
Q. You accompanied Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on his visit to France. How was he received?
A. I have never seen the prime minister greeted so warmly and with such dignity as from President [Jacques] Chirac. Sharon devotes himself to aliya activities, wherever he goes or speaks. He has become the number one shaliah of the agency.
Q. Why is the Jewish Agency preoccupied with the issue of religious pluralism?
A. I am committed to leading a group of people that will bring changes in Israel by discussing, persuading and negotiating [religious differences]. We are hoping for people from different backgrounds to be recognized in Israel as Jews and to ease the conversion process. This will all be done by negotiation, not by force or ultimatum. Many [Orthodox] Israelis…are unaware of the different lifestyles I was exposed to [while visiting] North America. They do not realize that there are other approaches [to Judaism] that are just as legitimate. We are not an easy people and have never been one since the times of Moshe Rabbeinu. Yet I see it as my obligation and duty to negotiate with the rabbis in Israel and with those who take part in these decisions. The prime minister, by the way, is 100 percent behind us. The conversion process today in Israel is under the prime minister’s office—by design, not by chance. He told me, “You and I are going to fight this together, Zevik.”
Q. How does “being Jewish” in America contrast with being Jewish in Israel?
A. One can live a Jewish life anywhere in the world, but there is nothing like living a Jewish life here in Israel. The sense of building the state cannot be replaced by any other thing. In Israel, people are fighting for the survival of an idea, which is the state of the Jewish people. Every Jew can be a partner in the building of the Jewish state, whether you live in Israel or outside of it. I only wish that there had been such a state between 1939 and 1945. Only by living here or by keeping close ties with Israel, coming to visit, being a part of the leadership in organizations committed to the centrality of Israel enables you to take part in this beautiful idea of the Jewish state that will be here forever.