Top Jewish Agency Official: Stifling Criticism of Israel Could Backfire

Some 1,800 Jewish leaders brainstorm new program to engage young Diaspora Jews.

In a sharp departure from the message delivered by other world Jewish leaders this week, a senior Jewish Agency official has warned that attempts in recent days to stifle criticism abroad of Israeli policies could ultimately backfire.

“If you want to engage young people with this country, you have to teach them that it’s about wrestling as well as hugging Israel,” said Jewish Agency Director-General Alan Hoffmann in an interview with Haaretz. “If the message is that you can only hug Israel, you will lose these young people.”

Earlier this week, Israeli and American Jewish leaders made strong statements against supporters of the global campaign to boycott Israel. Speaking at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, convening in Jerusalem this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the longtime leader of the Jewish American organization, all used the term “anti-Semitism” to describe the boycott movement, with the latter going so far as to describe it as the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.”

“Every single day when I hear Haaretz thud downstairs in my building at 5 in the morning and I go down and open the newspaper, what I see is the gap between the Israel that should be and the Israel that is, and that gap between what it should be and what it is is for me the most exciting part of living here,” said Hoffmann. “I think that’s what this country is all about, and it’s a very exciting message. And that’s what gets lost in the uni-dimensional way that Israel is dealt with by people who have a uni-dimensional understanding of things.”

'The next Birthright'

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations happens to coincide this week with another event taking place in Jerusalem that Hoffman has been involved in spearheading: a three-day online brainstorming marathon to generate ideas for programs that would enhance connections between Israel and Jewish communities abroad. About 1,800 participants around the world have been weighing in online on proposals prepared by a forum known as the “Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative,” whose unofficial mandate has been to come up with the “next Birthright” – a reference to the highly successful program, launched in 2000, that brings young Jews to Israel on free 10-day trips.

The forum plans to incorporate ideas and feedback from the participants in this week’s session into its final report, scheduled to be presented to the government of Israel and world Jewish leaders in September. Among other recommendations, it will propose that the government of Israel double its investment over the next five years in educational programs that target Jews abroad from 400 million shekels a year to 800 million shekels a year ($114 million - $228 million). According to the proposal, Jewish institutions and philanthropists abroad would contribute 2 shekels for every 1 shekel allocated by the Israeli government toward these programs.

Asked what kinds of programs were being considered, Hoffmann said: “When we refer to the ‘next Birthright,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to Israel. That was a huge idea, something that engaged the minds and energies of world Jewry, and ultimately their pocketbooks. But another important arena we need to be focusing on is the college campuses and getting young Jews more engaged there."

There’s all this talk about finding new ways to engage young Jews abroad and strengthen their connection to Israel. But no one seems to be talking about the elephant in the room, namely the occupation and the bad rap that Israel gets for it all over the world. That could definitely account for why so many young Jews abroad have a hard time feeling connected to Israel – couldn’t it?

“I believe that to the degree that young people have a nuanced, complex understanding of Israel, they will have a nuanced complex relationship with Israel, and they will have the same kind of complex relationship as do your children and my children. There will be things they love about Israel and things they hate about Israel. Hopefully, there will be things about Israel they will want to fix, and that is what’s exciting for a young person. I totally agree with you about the elephant, but that’s part of the complexity of Israel that has to be wrestled with.”

This complexity, Hoffmann noted, is illustrated best in “Ari Shavit’s version of Israel,” referring to the recent published “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” by the Haaretz's veteran journalist.

The Jewish Agency for Israel
Jewish Agency director-general Alan Hoffman.
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