Lobbying for a super Jewish assembly

By Yair Sheleg

Haaretz

Tevet 12, 5765

An initiative to establish a new international body, a sort of world Jewish parliament, is beginning to materialize. It would include the most prominent Jewish leaders and public figures and would devise policy (albeit solely in an advisory capacity, without decision-making or enforcement authority) on the most pressing Jewish issues - the struggle against anti-Semitism, assimilation and Jewish education, relations between the Jewish people and other cultures and religions, etc.

But Diaspora Jewish leaders fear being charged with dual loyalties, and Israeli-Arabs worry the state's Jewish character will be strengthened at the expense of its civil identity.

The idea of a global Jewish parliament has been in the public domain for decades. Ten years ago Yossi Beilin, along with his proposal to dismantle the Jewish Agency, recommended the establishment of an alternate body of a world Jewish parliament, which he called the "House of Israel." However, neither Beilin's nor any similar proposal has seen much in the way of practical steps.

Now President Moshe Katsav is being enlisted in the effort. In his speech two years ago at the opening of the 16th Knesset, Katsav spoke about the establishment of "a sort of Second House that would operate alongside the Knesset, would represent the Jewish people and speak for it, and would have the right to express an advisory opinion on matters related to the future of the Jewish people."

Two months ago, Katsav's office released a document of principles for the new body, which emphasized that "the Second House would have solely advisory status, would not harm the status or rights of minorities in Israel, and would not discuss subjects directly related to Israel's national interests such as peace, security and the economy (to prevent a situation in which Diaspora Jews might seek to influence decisions on internal Israeli issues - Y.S.)." Last week, the president held a special session of the Knesset's Committee on Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora at his official residence on the "Second House" initiative and ways to promote it.

What is behind the sudden promotion? The president's adviser on Diaspora affairs, Akiva Tor, says that the initiative seeks to contend with two main challenges: "The main problem is the crisis of the Jewish people - assimilation, the high cost of Jewish education in the Diaspora and the low number of recipients of Jewish education. The president feels that despite the proliferation of Jewish organizations, there is no centralized, systematic strategic effort. In addition, there is a strong sense of a weakening connection between Israel and the Diaspora. Not at the level of leaders, where the connection is strong, but in the field, between the Israeli public at large and the Jewish public at large."

The chairman of the Knesset's Diaspora committee, MK Colette Avital (Labor), is even more blunt in emphasizing the need to formulate an alternative, or at least a supplement to the existing Jewish establishment: "The Jewish establishment, at least in the United States, is composed of a nice layer of wealthy Jews, but not necessarily the most prominent or profound ones. Below this level are the professional managers, who make a career - and also hefty salaries - from their work. Only 20 percent of the Jewish public at large has ever visited Israel."

Tibi perturbed

Is strengthening the Jewish-Zionist character of the state, in the face of "a state of all its citizens" trends, behind the new initiative? Tor does not deny it. "The initiative is certainly partially based on a desire to strengthen the Jewish component in the character of the state," says Tor, although he emphasizes that the non-Jewish public in Israel has no need to fear the new initiative. "This is not a case of an Israeli body that ignores the non-Jews, but of a global Jewish body. On the contrary, we are interested in this body tightening the bonds between Jews of the Diaspora and the non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and enlisting Jewish support for non-Jewish settlements in Israel, as well."

MK Ahmed Tibi (Hadash-Ta'al) is nevertheless perturbed. "We feel that the state is already too Jewish and not democratic enough. Therefore, there is no justification for even further enhancing the Jewish character of the state, even if symbolically, through a Second House, when the integration of non-Jews in the 'First House,' including the Knesset, has not yet been resolved. It will only intensify the sense of alienation of Arab Israelis from the state and its symbols."

Before the panel met at the President's Residence, a practical proposal for the new body was submitted by the strategic forum of the Zionist Council (an arm of the World Zionist Organization, which aims to promote Zionist values in Israel). The proposal says the new body should not be called the Second House in order not to complicate it with questions of links to the Knesset, and in any event there is a need for representation of all citizens of Israel, as the director-general of the Zionist Council, Moshe Ben Attar explains. He says it should be called the People's Council. It would be composed of 120 members, half from Israel and half from the Diaspora.

The body would convene twice a year, once in Israel and once abroad. In spite of its solely advisory nature, it is assumed that the patronage of the president's office, in addition to the presence of noteworthy figures in the Jewish world, would give it a status of that would be difficult to ignore.

An interesting issue is the selection of members of the body. The Zionist Council's proposal essentially invokes the old model of the organizing committee, partly because the body would not be representative, and because it would be difficult to hold elections among "citizens of the Jewish people." The intention is that a public committee would recommend the initial membership, which would in turn choose the other members, with the entire membership being replaced through a similar process every five years.

Despite the presence of a formulated proposal on the table, the Immigration and Diaspora Committee disregarded the Zionist Council document at the President's Residence last week, and decided to assign the task of formulating a proposal to the Jewish People Policy-Planning Institute.

"The fact that a close deadline was given for completing the work - only three months - is indicative of the seriousness of the president, the committee and the Policy Planning Institute," says a source close to the initiative.

The Zionist Council document was rejected, says the source, because "they don't have organizational or professional tools to formulate a proposal on such a sensitive issue - for example, on the legal issues of dual loyalties. They didn't even consult with Diaspora representatives before formulating their proposal."

There seems to be a preference for the establishment of a body that would develop strategy for the entire Jewish world, which is why it would also have Israeli representatives. Nevertheless, it is clear that Israeli Arabs would not be the only group to express its reservations about the initiative. Existing Jewish organizations are also expressing more qualifications and questions than enthusiasm. In principle, all are expressing support - how could Jewish organizations oppose the formation of another super-organization - but nevertheless, one of the biggest questions that arose in initial discussions with the president's office was concern at accusations of dual loyalty as members of a quasi-parliamentary body linked to Israel.

Foxman cautions

Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, says it explicitly: "The idea of a pan-Jewish body is wonderful, but its realization raises various problems. For instance, although I am not one of those who are constantly afraid of 'What will they say?' nor do I want to furnish the excuse for those who talk about the Jews' 'dual loyalties.' In this context, the fact that the initiative came from the president can only complicate matters, because he is nevertheless a sovereign Israeli factor. Nor is it clear how such a body would be elected, or what its agenda would be."

Another Jewish leader, who prefers to speak off the record, raised concerns that the membership of such a body would comprise "famous Jews, who have nothing to do with Jewish community affairs and in any event cannot contribute a thing to discussion of these matters."

A third leader, after expressing support in principle for the idea, suggests that instead of a rapid implementation of the idea, the subject ought to be weighed in a series of long-range (10-12 years) discussions and documents, "similar to the Federalist Papers that preceded the formulation of the U.S. Constitution."

In response, one of the Israelis involved in the initiative says, "Evidently, lurking behind the questions on matters of principle raised by the Jewish leaders, some of which are fully justified, is the simple fear of loss of the status and power they now enjoy."

President Katsav made it clear in last week's Knesset committee session that he is not insisting on the Second House title that he suggested, particularly if this might create a sense that said body bears a representative parliamentary character that would generate problems of alleged dual loyalties and negatively affect the attitude of Israeli Arabs.

In this context, the sensitivity exhibited for the status of the Jewish Agency is noteworthy. Beilin had originally proposed a "Jewish parliament" as a replacement for the Jewish Agency (incidentally, at last week's committee meeting, Beilin was careful not to use the term "parliament," opting instead for "assembly"), and the Jewish Agency is now the main body that links Israel and Diaspora Jewry. This explains why Tor, the president's adviser, took pains to clarify that "the president does not favor dismantling the Jewish Agency; nor does he have any intention of setting up a new executive body or new mechanism. We are talking about a body that would constitute a central hub for ideas, of moderate scope and with modest resources, with executive powers remaining in the hands of the Jewish Agency."

"If the new body enjoys high prestige," adds Ben-Attar, "this will reflect on the importance of the subject of the Jewish People, and most certainly also on the prestige of the Jewish Agency."

Nevertheless, among those involved in the initiative, some note that "there is a problem that the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors represents activists in organizations, and not the Jewish people at large, and it is doubtful if it is an effective body in addressing the dimensions of the crisis faced by the Jewish people."

At this stage, Jewish Agency officials have chosen not to comment on the new initiative, and Agency spokesman Yarden Vatikai made do with, "We are studying the subject."

MK Tibi is convinced that in this matter, the Jewish Agency will be his ally: "We trust the Jewish Agency will see to it that the idea is torpedoed," he says.