Hagai Merom
Hagai Merom. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Hagai Merom, 64, a member of Kibbutz Yifat in the Jezreel Valley, will tomorrow end his term of office as treasurer of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. In the convoluted mechanisms of these two organizations, Merom also serves as acting chairman of the WZO and as such, heads the 36th Zionist Congress that opened yesterday at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. The thousands of delegates from Israel and abroad are in effect the direct successors of the early Zionists who gathered in Basel in 1897.

Many ask what need there is for a body like the World Zionist Organization. Is this not an anachronistic body and has the time come for it to end its historic role?

To my regret, that is correct. Not many Israelis ask because not many of them are familiar with the WZO's enterprises. Most Israelis do not have criticism or questions about this body, and that is one of our problems. How do we create a new situation in which the activity has a real effect, an influence, and creates a dialogue? That is one of the things we're working on at this congress. In Israel, people also think it's an Israeli body; they don't understand that half of the participants are people who come from Zionist communities abroad. The WZO is a kind of partnership with the communities abroad.

How do you see their role today?

Over the past four years, something very important happened from an ideological point of view. I feel the change in attitude of Israeli society toward the term "Zionism." There is a feeling that if we don't do this, we will go astray. Once upon a time when they said Zionism, they meant something archaic, something void of content and completely irrelevant. Today people are nostalgic about the more ideological past. Zionism today embodies national pride for the Israeli public. With this in mind, we carried out a survey among the youth and we found that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, 96 percent of the youth aged 14 to 17 know about Herzl, know who he was and large sections of this population have even heard of "The Jewish State", "Old-New Land" and the Dreyfus affair and its role in Herzl's life. We thought we no longer had a common language with the younger generation, but we found we were wrong ... we found that our hope was not yet lost, and if we wish to educate toward Zionism, it is no dream. We must also say a good word about the Education Ministry that decided to include the subject in the matriculation examinations.

From the point of view of Zionism's place in the Israeli discourse, does the post-Zionist buzz - and the buzz against it - work to your benefit?

There is no doubt about it. It is good for us because it galvanizes the Zionist mainstream in Israel. The post-Zionists are very vocal and colorful and the peak was in the movement to get foreign passports. Those are positions of lack of confidence in our existence. But we see there is an increasing desire to serve in the army - 86 percent of the [surveyed] youth said that implementing Zionism meant serving in the army.

What is your opinion about Shas joining the WZO?

There is a very big argument within the heart of the WZO about whether their joining is an asset or a drawback for the Zionist movement. The opponents, who come from the more left-wing circles of the WZO and the Israeli political map, view Shas' entry as an attempt to lay their hands on positions and jobs and money. There are others, and I am one of them, who see Shas' membership as the victory of Zionism over the anti-Zionist Orthodoxy. They are going to sit at the same table as the Conservative and Reform members. In the past, they wouldn't go into the same room with the Reform and Conservative members. Now they will sit and talk not only about Rabbi Yaakov from Shas but also about Rabbi Elisheva from the Conservative movement. Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef] came under an unprecedented attack from the Ashkenazi rabbis as a result of his decision to join the WZO. The Ashkenazi members of Knesset also attacked Shas ... but they nevertheless sit down with us. I see this as a great victory, it expands the Zionist circle.

But it seems that Shas has decided to try to formulate Zionism according to its own way of thinking. In the proposals for amendments to the WZO's constitution that they submitted, they want to replace the aspirations for a state "mutually respecting the multifaceted Jewish people" to one based on "a love of the Jewish people"; and instead of the words "an exemplary society rooted in the vision of the prophets", Shas would like to see, "according to the Torah of Israel."

Their proposals, which at first glance seem replete with a love of Israel, include a kind of rejection of other streams, and a decision of this kind could not get the required majority in the Congress. So that will be their first test and [we'll see] whether they remain members. But as I understand it, Rabbi Ovadia's decision is a firm one and it is not intended as a short term one, and it says 'we will serve in the army and we are Zionists.'

What are you planning to do now when you retire? Will you be a pensioner?

No [laughs] - I'm not the kind of person who goes on pension. I'll go back to my law practice, to administration, to serving on boards and the activity that lies on the border between law and business.

What are your feelings today about your background in the Labor Party?

I am precluded from bearing witness. I left the Knesset 11 years ago because of very bad relations with Ehud Barak. I saw him as very damaging to the party and then I made my "Pied Piper of Hamelin" speech in which I prophesied that Barak would play his pipe and the rats of the Labor Party would run after him and drown in the river. That was in April 1999. On the personal level, I haven't changed my mind even for a moment. But I'm a member of the party and I pay dues out of the hope that one day I'll be able to give my support to a more worthy leader who can lead us back to being an alternative government.

Who should that leader be?

I think that Isaac Herzog is a worthy leader and if he had a little more daring and the personal leadership that is required to stand up against the leader, I have no doubt that I would stand by his side.