Foxman: Keep the cash - save Diaspora Jewish youth
Abraham Foxman is calling for a revolution in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
Instead of Israel continuing to absorb the money donated by Diaspora Jewry every year, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recommends changing the direction of the flow. In the opinion of Foxman - one of the most prominent and powerful personalities in American Jewry - it is to Israel's advantage that it invest in the future generation of Diaspora Jewry. Otherwise, he warns, there will be no future generation of Jews in the Diaspora who will have a sense of commitment to Israel.
Foxman does not rule out the possibility of closing the Jewish Agency, the body that receives the money from Diaspora Jewry.
"That's a detail," he says. "That's a detail. There are anachronisms, like Israel woke up to find that its educational system has been an anachronism for the last 20 years. ... There are anachronisms in all life and certainly in Jewish life, and we have to find the guts to say `You know what, maybe this is not the way.'"
The man who is considered in the United States to be a foremost leader in the struggle against anti-Semitism barely mentions anti-Semitism this time. It's not because the problem has disappeared - Foxman is always ready with statistics that indicate the opposite - but because other problems disturb him more than another Mel Gibson film, or the findings of the latest survey about the percentage of Americans who suspect the Jews of dual loyalty.
The Haaretz interview with Foxman took place about two and a half weeks ago in Jerusalem. A short time earlier he had met with President Moshe Katsav, who tried to convince Foxman to support his idea of a "second house," a new initiative by the president to establish a worldwide Jewish assembly that would operate alongside the Knesset and serve as a forum for consultations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
Foxman emerged from the meeting very excited. He didn't buy the idea of the second house, but he agreed wholeheartedly with the urgent need for a drastic step in an attempt to save the future generation of U.S. and Diaspora Jews.
It's true that the Jewish community in the United States has never been wealthier, more influential and more self-confident. But Foxman regards with concern the way in which the young generation of American Jews is distancing itself from the Jewish collective, from Jewish organizations, from the established community and from Israel.
The handwriting on the wall is the findings of the comprehensive survey of the state of American Jewry in the years 2000-2001. For the first time in history, a sharp decline in the number of Jews in the United States was recorded. In 1990, there were 5.5 million Jews in the United States.
The researchers assumed in advance that the number of Jews would not increase, and expected that in 2000 there would be 5.7 million Jews, with the addition of about 200,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Israel and other places.
However, the study's findings, while disputed by some demographers, indicated that in the U.S. in 2000 there were only 5.2 million Jews, half a million fewer than expected. And even this figure turned out to be problematic, to put it mildly, because only 4.3 million of the 5.2 million were willing to define themselves as Jews. The other 800,000 did not define themselves as Jews but were included anyway, because they had a Jewish parent or had received a Jewish education.
Other findings that were published in the context of the study made it clear that this trend of shrinkage would only become worse. The percentage of intermarriage reached 47 percent, 45 percent of Jewish women up to the age of 34 had no children, and only 46 percent of the Jews attended any synagogue - Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.
The American Jewish community is still digesting the findings. At present, most of the Jewish leaders are willing to confess how concerned they are only in private conversations. Foxman is one of the first who is willing to say harsh things in public.
"So people are going to say, `That's not your business; you have to fight anti-Semitism.' But why am I fighting anti-Semitism? Someone has to say, `This is the crisis of our survival - it's not only anti-Semitism, it's not only the Arabs who won't recognize us, it's that we will dissipate.'"
Foxman was born in Vilna, Lithuania, 64 years ago, and was hidden during World War II in the home of a Christian family (see Box). His parents were forced to struggle in order to get him back, and afterward they immigrated to the United States.
Foxman received his Jewish education in Orthodox - Yeshiva of Flatbush High School - and Revisionist frameworks, outside the liberal, central, non-Orthodox stream of American Jewry. Maybe that is why he doesn't spare criticism of the accepted educational models.
"I think there is growing apart," says Foxman. "Intermarriage is growing. A lot of it is ignorance. We have grown two generations without being taught to be Jews. The next generation of Jewish kids on campus, if we don't invest in them, will find themselves with another problem. Because `Tikkun Olam' [repairing the injustices in the world] becomes the Jewish model, instead of `Im ein ani li, mi li' [If I am not for myself, then who is for me?] Tikkun Olam is everybody else but me. I survived the Holocaust and I still carry that."
In spite of his pessimism, Foxman believes that we can "stop our bleeding for now," as he puts it, with the help of leadership and monetary investments, not by establishing more councils.
In his opinion, 30 percent of the money should be invested in programs to bring young Jews to Israel, initiatives such as birthright or Masa, the new program initiated by the Jewish Agency.
"We have developed the most exciting audio-visual Jewish identity program that anybody could dream of, and it is called Israel," Foxman says. "We know it works. This is the tourniquet, this will stop our bleeding for now. If you send 100 kids here, one third will be Zionists forever, for one third it won't matter, and one third will be `different.' That's a pretty good investment for $5,000."
Foxman says that the remaining $70 million should be invested in Jewish education in the United States, in expanding the infrastructure and in substantial tuition subsidies. According to the study, in 2000-2001, 79 percent of Jewish children in the United Stated received "some kind" of Jewish education, but only 29 percent attended private Jewish schools and yeshivas. The main reason for that is the cost: One year of schooling in a Jewish school in New York cost the parents up to $20,000 per child.
"A good salary for people who don't work in Wall Street is $100,000, $120,000, and if they have three kids and they don't qualify for scholarship, they can't afford to send their kids to a Jewish day school," says Foxman.
Foxman is not the first to call for investment in Jewish education. Millionaire Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of birthright, announced in 2003 that he would contribute $10 million to a special education fund, if other donors would pledge to contribute an additional $90 million.
But to date, no one has taken up Steinhardt's challenge - American Jews are simply not interested in contributing their money to Jewish education.
Foxman understands that well.
"It's easier to raise money in the United States for Israel than for Jewish education," he says.
That is why Foxman proposes that Israel invest in Jewish education with the money it receives from American Jews. He says that Israel has to be a partner - and it isn't. He is familiar with all the arguments, he knows that $10 million is very important for the disabled, for single mothers. But he says that this $10 million, if invested in a program like birthright, will be much more important to Israel in another 20 years.
Israeli politicians, such as Yossi Beilin, have previously said that money collected from Jewish donations not be transferred to Israel. They claimed that Israel is sufficiently independent and mature to give up the support of Diaspora Jews, and that only in this way will it be possible to begin an egalitarian and mature relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Foxman uses this argument and goes one step further.
"I would suggest that Israel say to Diaspora Jewry: `Thank you. We want to reinvest your money to secure your future and our relationship, and for the next five years, the money that you raise for us we will reinvest in kids coming to Israel, building schools, infrastructure, scholarships.
"Let's say it's $300 million a year, which is a billion and a half dollars in the next five years. That is a significant sum of money even today, in terms of schools, scholarships. I don't question that $300 million are important to Israel, but not as important as what they can do to the next generation. Because if we don't have a next generation in the Diaspora who relates, who cares, who feels, you are going to be India. You know there are a lot of Indians out there - there is no United India Appeal. And India is okay, and maybe there shouldn't be a United Jewish Appeal.
"I think that should be our hope and our goal - Israel self-dependence, etc. To me, to say to the American Jews, `You know what? It's more important for you than for us' is the beginning of that independence. The fact is, Russia is looking out for its diaspora, the Turks are looking out for their diaspora, the Greeks are looking out for their diaspora.
"We have a Diaspora - you have to invest, that's all. ... It won't stop assimilation, but you could double the percentage [of Jewish children receiving Jewish education]. If today it's 20 percent, it will be 40 percent."