Zionism 101

Avrum Burg (left, chairman of the Jewish Agency, spoke at theconference.

Photos by Peter Halmagyi

Organizers of last weekend’s “Celebration of Israel” conference inSanta Monica had cause to be elated after a day of talking aboutZionism. More than 400 people, drawn primarily from the twenty- tofortysomething generation, packed the ballroom and breakout sessionvenues at the Loews Hotel on Sunday to listen to speakers and todebate topics that included the media, gender issues, American Jewishviews of Israel, Israel’s economy and the volatile “Who Is a Jew.” Inrooms renamed after the founders and leaders of Zionism and Israel –Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and so on –discussions were often heated but generally civil.

“I think it’s wonderful that the Federation is trying to set asidea day for contemplation on Jewish issues, especially when they dareface the ‘Who Is a Jew’ dilemma. I think they would not dare doing itin Israel yet,” said Gilla Nissan, an Israeli-born journalist who haslived in the United States for more than 20 years. Noting that therewere Orthodox speakers and visitors to the conference, as well asthose from other streams of Judaism, she said: “Here, in Los Angeles,maybe we can portray a model for religious tolerance.”

The conference, which was convened by the Jewish FederationCouncil of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Relations Committeeand sponsored by 40 other Jewish organizations, far exceeded itsorganizers’ expectations, said Norman Becker, who co-chaired theevent with Larry Greenfield. “Everyone is uniformly inspired.”

Among those who most seemed to inspire the audience were keynotespeaker Joseph Alpher, director of the Israel and Middle East Officeof the American Jewish Committee, and closing speaker Avrum Burg,chairman of the executive, World Zionist Organization and the JewishAgency for Israel.

Alpher spoke of both the accomplishments, failures and “incompletemissions” of Zionism during its first 100 years. Of all therevolutionary ideologies of the past century, “only Zionism…has notfailed its adherents,” he said. On the other hand, he noted, Zionismdidn’t prevent the Holocaust, and the “extreme messianism” that hasemerged in Israel among the more traditional Orthodox is the bitterfruit of the Zionist success.

Over 400 participants attended last weekend’s “Celebration ofIsrael” conference in Santa Monica, including (top) former U.S. Rep.Mel Levine and Connie Bruck, left, noted writer for The New Yorker,and Judith Miller, right, correspondent for The New York Times. Topright, Miller, who was also a panelist, speaks with Israeli ConsulGeneral Yoram Ben Ze’ev, an old friend from her days as acorrespondent in the Middle East. Above left, Yeshiva of Los AngelesHigh Schools’ Dean Rabbi Yizchok Adlerstein, engages in aconversation with a panel moderator and participants. Photos byPeter Halmagyi

The future of the Zionist dream lies in the hands of both Israeliand American Jews — primarily among Israel’s secular, traditional,and liberal Orthodox communities, and the American non-Orthodox, whoconstitute some 90 percent of this country’s Jewish population.Israeli and Diaspora Jews are drifting further and further apart fromtheir common origins, he said. Whether or not they bridge the gapwill have a huge impact on the future of Israel and Zionism, Alphersaid. “One hundred years ago, Herzl had a really incredible dream,and it came true. Today, we sorely need a new dream.”

Burg, taking a lighter tone, said he believed that Israel, in thenext 20 to 25 years, will live in peace. He compared the birth ofpeace to that of a baby, complete with attendant agony and bloodshed.But, ultimately, he said, the generation that sat in the audiencewould be the “single most important Jewish generation that everlived.”

The first Jews to live without an external enemy — without aHolocaust and without overwhelming peril from anti-Semitism to unifythem — they are also the first generation that has the option not tobe Jewish. “Not to be? No problem,” Burg said, his voice tinged withirony. “The [real] burden is the continuity of the Jewish people. Andit will happen in rooms like this.”

This and the other sessions he attended really made Steve Gofman,35, think about his own Jewish identify. “Sometimes, I feel like I’mnot as Jewish as I would like to be,” said Gofman, a lawyer who movedto Los Angeles from the Chicago area two years ago. His own path hasbeen a logical progression from his immigrant grandparents, whosegoal was to assimilate and become successful in this country, andthen his parents, who wanted him to be more traditionally Jewish andwho were members of a Conservative shul.

Despite his own enjoyment of the conference, Gofman said that heknows a lot of people of his generation “who don’t want anyconnection to religion. You can get a stilted view by coming tosomething like this.”

Attending a morning session on “War & Peace: Where Do We GoFrom Here?” Sherri Greene said that she came away with a morebalanced point of view on Yasser Arafat’s goals and beliefs than shehad previously. “It made me think twice about what I think Israelshould be doing or not doing,” she said.

David Kamm, 46, the founder of J-Tennis, a Jewish social tennisgroup, enjoyed the media panel, the closing speech and thepoached-salmon lunch. After attending the breakout session on Israelieconomics, “Doing Good by Doing Well: From Oranges to Microchips,” hewished that he had a made a point about using technology to buildlasting bridges between American and Israeli Jews. “Let’s show theactions of peace, not just the words of peace,” he said.

“The real importance [of this day] is that 40 organizations inthis city, who have as diverse political and social agendas as youcan imagine, got together out of love for Israel to plan this day,”said Elaine Albert, director of JCRC’s Israel Commission.