Mission Not Accomplished

The war may as well never have happened; and the same can be said of the severe political crisis. In the handsome offices she occupies at the Foreign Ministry's new stone building in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appears to be brimming with confidence and optimism. Despite having stepped into the political limelight a mere seven years ago, Livni acts now as though she was born to be Israel's foreign minister. None of it - the office, the ministry, the burden she is required to bear - is too big for her. Even at the end of a long workday, she is smiling, energetic and charming. Unlike many Israeli-born politicians, Livni is fascinated by the relationship between Israel and world Jewry; and it is within this context that she views her upcoming trip to the United Jewish Federation's General Assembly (GA) to be of significant importance.

Foreign Minister Livni, former prime minister Ariel Sharon defined himself as a Jew first, and only then as an Israeli. What about you?

"I also define myself as an Israeli Jew. In my view, I am a Jew who is fulfilling her Judaism by living in the land of Israel and in a Jewish state. Life in Israel and the existence of the Jewish state are my realization of Judaism. I feel connected not only to the short-rooted Israeli existence, but to the Jewish existence that my people developed while living in various places around the globe."

You are not a religious person.

"No, I am not a religious person. I go to synagogue on a few occasions every year. Going to synagogue is nevertheless important to me because it is part of the Jewish melody. It evokes emotion and maintains the connection. Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote that in the years when the Jewish people did not have a land, they used religion as a hard shell to protect themselves against assimilation and loss. His vision was that once we could live in the land of Israel, we would no longer need that religious shell and would be able to create here new and independent cultural ties to the land.

"I think that this is both true and not true. For me, the new Israeli creation has to be nourished not only by the country, but by the historical Jewish issue too. I don't know how to make an absolute distinction between nationality and religion. What troubles me is the question of whether the younger generations that are growing up here also feel a connection to Jewish existence, or whether their Israeli existence overshadows their Judaism."

Author A.B. Yehoshua caused an uproar within the U.S. Jewish community last summer by claiming that it was essentially lost, that there was no chance of or point in living a Jewish life outside Israel.

"I don't share his opinion. I believe that a part of my commitment in the place where I live is to maintain that common denominator that still exists between the Jews living in Zion and the Jews of the Diaspora. For me, life in the land of Israel is the fulfillment of Judaism, but it is not the only way to fulfill Judaism. A person can feel Jewish and be part of the Jewish people elsewhere too. He can preserve the same tradition to which I belong in another place.

"I would of course like to see them all come here, because that is a part of the Zionist dream. But for millennia, the Jewish nation has preserved itself outside its land, and I respect that. I think that the desire to protect and preserve Jewish communities is legitimate and understandable. I expect these communities to demonstrate solidarity with the State of Israel, but I think their preoccupation with their own future is important too."

Are you concerned about the future of the Jewish people?

"First of all, and without sounding overly dramatic, I want to say to you that as a decision-maker in the Israeli government, I feel a responsibility not only toward the citizens of Israel, but toward the Jewish people as a whole. I have that sense of responsibility.

"In answer to your question, I think we are currently engaged in a single war that has several fronts. On the one front, we are fighting for the existence of the State of Israel; on another, we are fighting anti-Semitism. I consider the Jewish people a partner in the war for Israel's existence, just as I consider Israel a partner in the war against anti-Semitism.

"And furthermore, we are all also on a third front, that of the free world's struggle against radical Islam and global terrorism. We don't even have any choice in this matter. We are all there, as a single cause in one war."

Some believe that instead of alleviating the problem of anti-Semitism, Israel in fact exacerbates it. Through its actions and, perhaps, by its very existence, it provokes radical Islam and causes it to oppose the Jews.

"I find that claim galling. It is part of a belief that says that Israel is not the victim of Islamic extremism, but its cause. As far as I am concerned, that is taking the cause and effect and reversing them. The existence of Israel is unacceptable [to Islamic extremists] because those forces will not accept the existence of the other. That's why they won't stop with Israel. Their fight is not really focused on Israel. We are only an example because we are on the front lines. We are in the Middle East. If they succeed in their war against us, they'll move on elsewhere."

The threat to Israel and the threat of anti-Semitism are the external threats. But it seems that the Jewish people nowadays also face a threat at home. Among other things, the ties between Israel and the Diaspora are loosening.

"I think that one of the problems with regard to the Diaspora Jewry's attitude toward Israel is the tendency to think: Okay, here we are; we established the State of Israel and it is a strong country, thank God, so we can now put a checkmark next to it and move on - mission accomplished, the creation is complete.

"But I say, no, the mission has yet to be accomplished, the creation is not yet complete.

"At the same time, I believe that the problem insofar as Israel's attitude toward the Diaspora is concerned lies in the fact that the Zionist thesis was to create something without roots here. The demand made of immigrants was that they leave behind their heritage, their culture and everything that had accompanied them as a family and a community. This Israeli disconnection from the Jewish past is problematic. It causes serious problems for us here, but it especially jeopardizes our ties with the Jews of the Diaspora.

"When Israeliness is defined by the Hebrew language and military service, such a definition alienates the Israeli from the Jew who does not serve in the army and barely speaks Hebrew. Israeliness, of all things, then becomes the thing that threatens Jewish solidarity. And so I, for my part, am committed to strengthening Jewish identity within Israel, and I believe that at the same time, it is right for the State of Israel to act in order to help strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora."

Why should a young Jewish person in America today care about Israel? What can Israel say that will appeal to him?

"We at the Foreign Ministry are now involved in a project to redefine the Israeli 'brand name.' For me, it is a vital issue, not just a matter of advertising. We are trying to characterize Israel not only as a place that features a soldier, a camel and an Orthodox Jew. I believe that if we can find a way to define Israel as relevant and dynamic for the current age, and not only as a country of conflict, this will also allow us to get closer to young Jewish people.

"Beyond this, I believe in the importance of projects such as Taglit [birthright Israel] and Masa. I think that even a short-term experience of staying in Israel is important for bringing young Jews closer to Israel and for showing them that Israel is a part of their lives. I believe that this experience is also important for young Israelis, for whom contact with their peers in the Diaspora is a conduit to the Jewish side of their own identity."

Do you support the idea of having Israel fund Jewish education in the Diaspora?

"We are already doing that. True, there is a strange situation here: The State of Israel invests in the Diaspora and at the same time raises money within the Diaspora communities for investment in education in Israel. There is a certain exchange of checks here, but this investment seems right to me."

But perhaps therein lies the problem: The Jewish institutions, both in Israel and the Diaspora, have become fossilized. The contact between them is anachronistic. They are not connected to the real dynamism of Jewish society in Israel or of the Jewish community in North America. Ultimately, the interaction between them is an interaction of checks.

"The donations are important. The fund-raising drives during the war were heart-warming. But for me, the visits are no less important than the contributions. Delegations are important, unmediated contact between the Jewish communities and us is important. During the war, we felt this very tangibly. When people came here and stayed with Israelis living in bomb shelters in the North, it gave a genuine sense of warmth.

"Therefore, as I come now to the GA after the war, I say that we need to work on building that common denominator between us, but that we also need to preserve this feeling that we are not alone."