January 19, 2020

21 Years Ago: L.A.’s Own Zionist Conference

As Zionism turns 100 and Israel approaches 50, a Sept. 14 conference re-examines our affection for the Jewish State.

Photo from Jerusalem in 3000 Years, Konemann, 1995.

To many American Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Zionism, the ancient dream of a Jewish homeland that spawned a political movement and the birth of Israel almost 50 years ago, is little more than a footnote in a Sunday-school textbook. Pursuing their own professional and personal goals in this country seems a lot more important than worrying about a tiny Jewish state on the other side of the world. And, besides, Israel doesn’t seem to need as much financial or political support these days.

But Los Angeles’ Jewish organizations are out to challenge these assumptions, for their future depends on attracting younger members and engaging the next generation’s commitment to Israel.

With this in mind, the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles decided that the confluence of Israel’s 50th anniversary, in 1998, and the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Conference, celebrated last week in Basel, Switzerland, was the opportune time to reintroduce a new generation of Jews to the idea of Zionism and Israel.

Along with nearly 40 other organizations, the JCRC is co-sponsoring an all-day event on Sept. 14 at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. “A Celebration of Israel” will include workshops, speakers, and networking at an “information fair,” and kosher food will be served.

The idea, said 29-year-old co-chair Norman Becker, is to attract people who normally wouldn’t go to organized Jewish events. The event will be geared toward Jewish identity and the relationship — or lack of it — that the participants feel to Israel. “We’re trying to light a fire under people and turn them on to any number of issues that might involve them in the community,” Becker said.

There will be a photo exhibit on the history of Zionism, workshops on politics, economics, art, history, music and the media, and a wine, nosh and dance party to cap the festivities.

Among the workshop topics will be:

* Religion and the Jewish state: Who is a Jew?

* Zionism: From Herzl to Hebron to Hollywood.

* Which Promised Land? Israel in the minds of American Jews.

* Gender myths and realities in Israel.

* Israel and the world: How bad is the neighborhood?

Keynote speakers will be Avrum Burg, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, and Joseph Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee in Israel and the Middle East.

Among the other speakers: Yoav Ben Horin, senior fellow of the Wilstein Institute; former U.S. Congressman Mel Levine; composer Lucas Richman; UCLA Hillel Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller; Renee Rothstein of AIPAC; Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America; writer-filmmaker David Notowitz; Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Communal Service at Hebrew Union College and an active member with Americans for Peace Now; Rabbi David Eliezrie of North County Chabad Center in Orange County; and Gene Lichtenstein, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal.

A 32-person committee co-chaired by Becker and pro-Israel activist Larry Greenfield helped plan the event. Although the group included a spectrum of views on Israel, there was a unity of purpose that kept things civil, said JCRC Israel Commission Director Elaine Albert, who served as the coordinator. “Everyone said, ‘No politics.’ All of us love Israel. We may not agree, but we all want this day to bring in another generation that loves Israel.”

Not that the process of putting together the conference was without its moments of drama. The use of the word “Zionism,” for example, sparked intense debate among the committee members. Some thought that it would turn off those who associated the term with their gray-haired grandparents or with a negative nationalistic or racist fervor. Others, steeped in the historic lore of such great Zionist heroes as Theodor Herzl, organizer of the first Zionist Congress, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said that Zionism was an essential part of the message. Still, the invitation to the event relegates to smaller print the fact that the day is intended to celebrate “100 years of building the Zionist dream.”

To committee member Kelly Baxter, 27, a native Angeleno who spent four years in Israel and has a degree in Jewish studies from UCLA, Zionism has only positive connotations. “I feel that whatever goes on in Israel is happening in my own front yard,” said Baxter, who markets Israel programs on college campuses for the World Zionist Organization.

The conference will provide a great opportunity to show the positive side of Zionism, said Lili Steiner, another committee member. “It’s the reason that Israel exists. At the time of the first conference, 100 years ago, people didn’t have television, CNN and telephones. Yet they managed to build a movement of people that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel,” she said.

Born in Russia and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steiner said that she was brought up “culturally religious” and that anything Jewish or related to Israel stirs her passions. Australian Jews, who number about 100,000, tend to be more emotionally connected to Israel, she said, probably because a majority are Holocaust survivors or descendants of survivors.

The conference is not intended as a “rah-rah campaign for Israel,” said Greenfield. “My deepest belief is that an honest dialogue showing Israel’s strengths and difficulties will inspire us to be supporters of Israel.”

Zionism, according to Greenfield, is still relevant for young American Jews. “I still think we’re building the Zionist dream. Israel is still about the rescue, relief and safe haven of Jews seeking their own land,” he said. “[Zionism itself] is a success story. Lots of other ‘isms’ have come and gone — Nazism, socialism, communism, even anti-Semitism in America, for the most part.” But Zionism, the glittering dream of the Jewish state, though embattled and bloodied at times, still survives.

Up to 500 participants are expected to attend the conference. Reservations are mandatory, since space is limited. Cost for the event, which includes a kosher breakfast and lunch, is $50 per person. For information, call (213) 852-7866.