'Israel Isn’t a Brand Some American Jews Want to Identify With'

Liran Avisar Ben Horin is head of Masa, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to participate in long-term programs in Israel.

Masa CEO Liran Avisar Ben Horin in conversation.
Emil Salman

“Israel is no longer relevant enough in the eyes of Diaspora Jews," says Liran Avisar Ben Horin, the CEO of Masa Israel Journey, an organization that encourages young Jews between the ages of 18 and 30 to visit Israel on long-term study, service and career programs.

A lawyer by training, Avisar Ben Horin says much has changed since she went to Texas at 17, as part of a scouts’ delegation, an experience that opened her to a world Jewry outside her hometown, one she cared deeply about, and inspired her to later become an aliyah emissary.

What has changed since you were 17?

“The country that inspired great excitement and had wall-to-wall support has changed, and is no longer a ‘light unto the nations’ in every situation. Israel’s brand today doesn’t cause Diaspora Jews to want to identify with us. Israel is not relevant enough in their eyes.”

She grew up in the northern town of Migdal Ha’emek. Her father immigrated to Israel from Morocco, while her mother was born in Tunisia. Before working at Masa, she was a legal assistant to the attorney general, a representative of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department in North America, and the chief of staff for the director general in the Prime Minister’s Office. She is married, with a child, and lives in Tel Aviv.

Avisar Ben Horin’s period working for the Jewish Agency was a fascinating time, she says. But the issue of aliyah is not a simple one, she adds, and says that what she is “doing today at Masa is a more significant step. Instead of trying to get them to make aliyah, every year Masa brings 12,000 young people to Israel for a few months. Hidden here is the deep-rooted assumption that this will make more young Jews want to live here. An equally deep assumption is that they will link their fate with ours after they stay here for a significant period. My plan for 2018 is to get 20,000 participants a year.”

Participants at the Masa Israel Leadership Summit, 2013.
Courtesy Samuel Lebens

Why is it more complicated to sell aliyah today than in the past?

The experience has changed. In North America, it’s easy to live as a Jew in the “New World,” and you need a good reason to deal with questions about Israel and Judaism. Among the fruits of our program, aliyah still seems the optimal result, the most exciting, and I support it. But Masa recognizes the existence of the Diaspora and says, “Come and have an influence on the continued existence of the Jewish people and its relationship with Israel, wherever you are.”

What’s your main problem?

Diaspora Jews are not seen as important as far as the [Israeli] public and the government are concerned. It doesn’t bother anyone here. When does it interest them? When they [Diaspora Jews] support the agreement with Iran. The problem is that we don’t live with a deep understanding – not of the shared fate between us, and not the deep significance of their part in our lives. The latest research conducted in the United States, which was very extensive, showed that 80 percent of young U.S. Jews said being Jewish was not important to them, and the fact that they’re Jews is not a significant part of their identity.

Amazing, and sad.

In addition to that, Israel is having a big problem with its foreign policy. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did his “silence” stunt in the United Nations [last October], I thought to myself maybe he was complaining about the world. But we are really entering an era in which the young Jewish people in North America are partners in this silence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, poses for a photo with members of Masa, a program which provides educational trips for young Jewish adults, in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 30, 2014.
AP

Do you think silence is a more serious problem than disagreement?

Yes, there’s a difference between a lack of support and alienation and silence. Anger and disagreement isn’t that bad, because it comes from concern. I’m worried not about Iran but those who are silent. They’re checking out from our discussion. We must ask ourselves how it will look in 30 years. The traditional Jewish leadership is aging, the young leadership is depleted and silent – that’s the story in a nutshell. One of the main things we do is train 500 graduates a year for leadership. Today, Israel is such an underdog on campus and the Jewish students don’t have the answers. They have no unified narrative to handle the debate.

What debate? About the occupation?

About all the anti-Israel stuff and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. They say to themselves, “Israel isn’t a brand I want to identify with, so I’ll just quit the discussion.” We haven’t been able to develop a sense of belonging. All the battles of Birthright, Masa and others come down to this fight. Academia is one of the sensitive areas. This is Masa’s next story.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t the only thing that’s bothering them.

A large part of the disconnect is linked to Jewish pluralism: Our relationship to Reform Jews, to religious coercion, to the status of women in religious affairs – this is the soft underbelly. It’s of great concern and infuriates North American Jewry. That is why their attitude toward Israel is ambivalent. I was at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York recently. The rabbi mentioned Israel so I was pleased, but then he told worshippers that in Israel women are not allowed to light the Hanukkah menorah at the Western Wall and recommended that they sign the Women of the Wall petition, which proposed boycotting the official candle-lighting ceremony.

'Masa' students at the 'Connect cafe' lounge offering Israeli snacks and a space to share their experiences in Israel, at the GA 2011.
Natasha Mozgovaya

There is an entire [stream of] Judaism across the ocean that views Jewishness in an alternative way and feels it has no place here. Of course, the conflict doesn’t help and there’s a link between these things, too – because North American Jewry is liberal. There is a very large perception gap.

And the Israeli leadership isn't aware of this?

The Israeli leadership makes its decisions based on what is important for Israel, and rightly so. But it should give more room in its considerations to the positions and feelings of North American Jews. I met Reform Jews who told me, “I will never set foot in Israel.”

So what good will six months in Israel do?

I want them to understand the complexity of things here – that it is legitimate to be critical, but also that the fabric of Israeli society is delicate and the solutions are not simple. That’s why I run this organization under the working assumption that the year or six months in which they live with us – not like tourists but getting up in the morning, going to work, running to the safe room when there are missiles, experiencing the same experiences, seeing the good, bad and not so bad – makes a difference.

I always tell them, “Come and be part of the story, help find a solution.” I invite them to participate in the largest enterprise of the Jewish people. It doesn’t matter what their opinions are or what they care about – Bedouin in the Negev, social inequality, the struggle of the Women of the Wall or anything else – the main thing is for them to care about something.”

What’s happening in Diaspora countries other than the United States?

The picture is complex in the United States, but we have 110,000 graduates around the world – 50 percent of them from the former Soviet Union, and we have doubled participation there. We are also expanding in France. South Africa is another fascinating place.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett (who is also the education minister) attracted harsh criticism last month for visiting a Conservative Jewish school in New York, including from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who said it was forbidden to visit such a place. Senior officials in the Chief Rabbinate said it endangers the Jewish people, while other rabbis spoke of a spiritual holocaust.

Only 10 percent of the Jewish population of North America is Orthodox. If someone proposes for the diaspora affairs minister to be the minister of only those 10 percent, then they are sinning against the value of Jewish survival. It is similar to proposing that the education minister administer to state religious education only.

Bennett responded to the criticism by saying, “Diaspora Jewry is in a state of emergency as the phenomenon of assimilation reaches millions of Jews.”

Bennett is speaking to his brothers in Tel Aviv, and I have no doubt he must turn to his Conservative and Reform brothers everywhere in the world. I am one of those who sees existential value, significance and meaning in the continued existence of the Jewish people, and I am aware of the challenges facing us. But when we turn to those who don’t feel like that, the discourse of rescue and emergency is not a discourse that draws them close, but is patronizing. World Jewry that does not see a significant component of its identity as Jewish does not feel it needs rescuing.

The tension between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama certainly can’t help you in your mission to bring people closer.

North American Jewry is characterized by American patriotism, so this tension creates discomfort. We have a tendency to say, “You don’t live here, don’t tell us what to do,” but Netanyahu is also the head of the government, and they want a leader they can identify with. On the other hand, Obama is their president. But Netanyahu actually understands the debate in the Diaspora and recognizes its strategic importance to Israel’s existence. He sees value in our projects.

Tell us who provides Masa’s funding, and how much.

The Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, to the amount of $67 million a year. We have 30 employees in Israel and another 40 or so around the world, In addition, we also get help from the Jewish federations.

Does the Startup Nation brand work?

Israel stands out with this branding. We have a program with Israeli high-tech, too; the question is how to be the number 2 focus of attraction after Silicon Valley, ahead of Berlin, Paris and Rome. High-tech has become one of the factors that enriches the Masa experience and has strategic appeal for participants.

As opposed to appealing to their Jewish souls?

Yes, once they would have turned to youth movements as part of the Zionist discourse. Today, we tell them it will improve their résumé. They come here for half a year or a year, and intern at Google, Check Point, Waze, and in startups too.

Do they enjoy it?

What are you talking about? This is the best year of their lives!