AZM Biennial Assembly

Remarks by William D. Hess, Incoming President of AZM

William D. Hess, President, AZM

Delivering this speech, I have the sense of walking in the shoes of history and standing on the shoulders of giants. It is awe-inspiring. Shehechianu, v’kieimanu, v’higianu l’zman ha zeh.

Ken Bob and the Nominating Committee he so ably chaired deserve special recognition. The committee developed a strong slate that it is an honor to lead. I admire those serving with me. The willingness of Evelyn Seelig, Ike Blachor, Sondra Sokal, Steve Weinberg to serve as officers is humbling. We have served the cause of Zionism together for many years. The opportunity for us all to work with Marlene Post is particularly welcome as her experience as an international Zionist leader gives new vitality to the Zionist movement in the US.

In my view, AZM is the cradle, the crucible, for the production and implementation of Zionist initiatives and activities in the American Jewish community. Rather than representing the aggregate of its constituent members in a cumulative cacophony, we are on the front line speaking in one voice for Israel and the Zionist movement in the world’s largest Diaspora community. AZM brings the Zionist message to all the major arms of the community in one way or another. The Zionist movement has given birth to some of the cornerstones of the American Jewish community. We will continue building bridges to every organization in the American Zionist world to grow the movement.

On the Value of Zionism

Zionism is the value add, if you will, that gives every member, organizational or individual, the ability to transcend self, party or organization, even an international organization, for the benefit of a greater whole. And to what is it that we are adding value? We are adding value to Jewish life and the future of the Jewish people.

We stand here today to honor the hundreds of people who have paid the ultimate price for the existence of a free, democratic Jewish state during the founding of Israel. But this generation is finite and every day there are fewer founders. Their stories live on in our memories and in the Zionist archives. Alongside the reality of the Founding Generation’s mortality is the reality of their unfinished business. The State may exist but its building is not yet complete. Not all the Jews live there- yet and may never; but every Jew should know, deep in his/her soul, that Israel is there for them and that Israel is a good place for a Jew to live. Sitting with Hamas to the South, Hezbollah to the North the Mediterranean to the West, Jordan to the East and Iran feeding the situation the precarious nature of Israel’s external reality is always in mind. Internally, too, there is much to do and, despite the seeming plethora of organizations and people of good will, there are not enough workers and never enough money. Too few American Jews have been to Israel. Too few American Jews are connected to Israel even if they have been once or twice. Way too few American Jews speak Hebrew or regard that as an important facet of their Jewish identity.

Az, l’avodah, as they say in some quarters, let’s get to work.

I pledge to do all I can, with your help, to keeping raising the visibility of AZM. I will go to any forum that will have me. Please invite Marlene, myself, Karen and others from the Board to speak to communities where your organizations are active. Let us help you spread the word that the Zionist movement in the US alive, and relevant and that Israel is cool.

On the Role of AZM and the WZO

In thinking through a vision for AZM I made a 10-point list. Let me focus here on the two or three items I feel are most important. There is also one that may, in the short run, supersede them all.

  • Together, we will make the AZM the relevant, attractive, exciting and meaningful umbrella it is meant to be by sharpening its goals through a series of meetings with constituent leadership.
  • With the AZM mission statement in hand, we will travel to re-engage federated American cities and communities that have become estranged from support of Israel and convince them to increase their funding for WZO/JAFI by both dollar amount and percentage of campaign.
    1. Begin the conscious re-iteration of the Zionist movement’s founders, following Elie Wiesel’s admonition to find new ways to tell old stories to tomorrow’s leaders.
    2. If we can identify 10 communities to visit and succeed with 5 of them I will be bowled over and emboldened to try to visit 10 more.
  • Then we will figure out how to increase AZM’s budget through:
    1. Soliciting foundations and individuals known to be sympathetic to Zionist programs and initiatives to support AZM in new and larger ways
    2. Researching and developing foundations and individuals not yet known to be sympathetic to Israel and Zionism to help them better understand the important role both play in the lives of modern Jews
    3. There is no rocket science here, no magic pill, just outreach and hard work.

Other items on the list include: strengthening Hebrew education, advocating for aliyah of choice from the West, youth participation (which, parenthetically I am most encouraged to see at this Assembly), extending existing programming initiatives and creating new ones; but in the interests of time I will refrain from discussing for now as there is a more pressing issue to discuss, and that is the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. It is deteriorating at a rate more quickly than any of us could ever have imagined.

As it now stands, I understand that once again there are those among the Americans in present and former JAFI leadership positions along with a group of so-called “mega”-philanthropists who are talking, not just thinking and sending through committees, but actually talking about abrogating the contract with the Jewish Agency and somehow doing away with the WZO. That contract gives the Agency an exclusive relationship with UIA and is supposed to be worth $190MM annually. As we are all well aware, that contract has stood in the breach for several years at the Agency’s expense. We have watched a sick situation decline into absurdity. Sadly we felt powerless to change the situation. I had hoped that the incoming leadership of JAFI would resonate to retiring board chair Carole Solomon’s validation of the WZO and the Zionist movement as she left office. That did not happen. Compounding the quandary are the quality and intentions of those leading the charge to change. Mostly the quality is good but the intent misguided. The bottom line, to me, is that, once again, the Zionist movement has to stand up for the Jewish Agency and for Israel. We have to raise people’s visions toward the Israel that can be if we are going to change the Israel that is. We have to do what we can to bring more sanity and less ego to the governance over fund-raising and fund allocation among and on behalf of the Jewish people. The present model allows only the rich people to drive the car. We in the Zionist movement know full well from long, difficult experience, that every Jew must have a hand in directing the car, especially as we Jews are so few to begin with.

The situation, if it comes to fruition, is intolerable, unacceptable and we, in the Zionist movement, cannot stand for it. I for one am not ready to permit to surface any threat to close the venerable Jewish Agency, the child of the W-Z-O-, the beating heart of the Zionist movement. Israel could not have been built without the Keren Hayesod around the world not just in the US through UJC and its predecessor the United Jewish Appeal, among the names of whose founders I am proud to say is included at least one of my Great Uncles. Nothing gives anyone the right to threaten the existence of the Agency through starvation and evasion. It is just plain wrong and we have to stand together to fight it.

We all have to keep patiently and resolutely pushing renewal in the WZO, keeping it on the agenda until we effect meaningful change in that most historical of the National Institutions. The Zionist organization, after all, was never conceived to be a charity. Rather, it is the dynamic political arm of the enterprise. The Keren Hayesod was the vehicle by which hundreds of thousands of Jews chipped in to fill pushkeys to make dreams realities. The Zionist movement mobilized Jews on behalf of the idea of a state of and for the Jews and helped raise the money to create the state. We need to renew that activity today among the globalized Jewish youth of today.

On Current Affairs

Our problems are hardly just internal. What has happened to the world we live in? People question the need for Israel today?! British academics are calling for boycotts of Israeli professors while Ahmadinejad speaks just across the Hudson River there at Columbia under the banner of democracy and free speech. Meanwhile, 3 IDF soldiers: Gilad Shalit, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev have yet to be repatriated and the families of 5 other IDF soldiers anxiously await news of their sons’ fates. Can you believe this is the world today? Can 2000 years of yearning, dreaming and fighting be overturned after only 60 years? Are we going to stand quietly for this? It is said that prior to 1948 that the Jews had never held sovereignty over Israel for more than 70 years. This is the 60th year of Israel’s independence. Does that mean we have but a decade left? Is that an acceptable Zionist vision? I say, “No!!!” Do you join me? I want to be sure we are all in this together.

I ask you to join me and the AZM individually and as organizations to engage in the fundamental Zionist activity of organizing the American Jewish community working with the Conference of Presidents, AIPAC, JNF, UJC and others in order to bring a larger, united community to stand on behalf of the Jewish state.

The early pioneers, chalutzim, drained the swamps, made deserts bloom, built Tel Aviv the first Jewish city in modern times, and Haifa and Ashkelon and the new Jerusalem. 4 generations later their successors are re-filling the drained swamps to be eco-friendly and settling the Galilee and the Negev, revolutionizing water usage and still building in Haifa and Ashkelon, where Marty Davis lives and in Jerusalem whose 40th anniversary of unification we also celebrate in this year of celebration.

Yet the dreams of the Zionists are not yet fulfilled. Thankfully the declaration of a “post-Zionist” era fell flat. The 4 tenets of classical Zionism are there waiting for us: Building the State, bringing Jews home, Hebrew education and literacy throughout the Jewish world and the continuing mobilization of the Jewish people with reminders that as a nation we have accomplished great things and that great things are on the horizon for us and Israel. There is modern housing to build and there are still shikunim, housing from the 1950s, to renovate. There are parks whose fountains no longer work for lack of endowments and reduced municipal budgets. There are empty malls to rebuild or renovate. There is still plenty of desert to make bloom, lots of partially completed projects and others on drawing boards awaiting implementation. We don’t always see this side of Israel on our tours, missions and site visits; but it is there nonetheless. There are olim to absorb and others looking to make aliyah. And there is lasting, meaningful peace to achieve.

There is a cadré of new young-ish American Jews with energy and time and money that does not know a world without Israel, Jews to whom Jewish powerlessness is inconceivable. Through the Zionist Congress we are mandated to include 25% “young” people in our factions, delegations and committees. That fact is one about the Zionist movement of which I often boast. How many institutions do you know with a similar mandate? There is a new opportunity for the Zionist movement to show these folks how we Zionists bring light to dark corners, hope and rescue to a beleaguered people no matter where they may be, knowledge to buoy those seeking direction, medicine and food to ghetto hovels, the warmth of people hood to hearths where those embers glow only faintly in the chill of regionalism and isolation. This is where Israel’s future lies as does our own.

So, chaverot ve chaverim, the call of Zionism is ripe for sounding in this, Israel’s 60th anniversary of independence and the Zionist movement’s 110th anniversary of activity on behalf of the Jewish people and their state. The AZM, through you, its members, helps keep alive the spark of Israel the concept and Israel the place. I know that together we can provide tools, forums, blogs and seminars over the coming months that we can bring to your communities and together show federations and parties that a positive Zionist fire still burns in Jewish hearts where Israel is concerned.

MR. HERZL, OUR GENERATION WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN