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'Our job is to live here'
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The Jewish Agency fulfills important tasks no one else deals with, says its new chairman, Ze'ev Bielski

On June 28, Ze'ev Bielski, mayor since 1989 of Ra'ananah, north of Tel Aviv, was elected 13th head of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, succeeding Salai Meridor. Bielski's candidacy was supported by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The election was particularly testy because former Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky was also maneuvering for the post- asserting that Sharon had promised it to him - but withdrew his name at the last minute rather than face defeat after an internal Agency committee endorsed Bielski.

Speculation is that Sharon was reluctant to have Sharansky, a strong opponent of the Gaza and northern West Bank withdrawal plan, heading the Agency at such a sensitive political moment. Bielski supports the plan.

Insiders say Bielski's organizational talents are just what the lumbering Agency needs. Energetic, organized and friendly, Bielski, 55, is credited with transforming Ra'ananah into one of Israel's most successful cities by running it like a CEO, attracting high- tech industry and philanthropic assistance from abroad. And an influx of Western immigrants has boosted real-estate values.

The Report spoke with a plainly elated Bielski (he used the word "wonderful" roughly 10 times) on his second formal day on the job.


The Jerusalem Report: With aliyah figures in decline, isn't the Agency a dinosaur that has outlived its usefulness?

Ze'ev Bielski: Not at all. The Agency fulfills many important missions that no other organization deals with. We are committed to encouraging immigrants by choice from Western countries and I want those numbers to grow. Also, our new Masa program, with government support, is preparing to bring to Israel some 100,000 young Jews, ages 18 to 26, from around the world, for up to a year of study. Some will hopefully stay, but those who don't will be future leaders and supporters of Israel in their communities. The veterans- the Max Fisher types- had boundless energy for Israel. Young people are less involved, and we aim to change that.

But hasn't the privately run Nefesh B'Nefesh basically taken over the task of recruiting North American immigrants by offering them cash grants?

We are the aliyah wholesalers and sell the product all over the world. Nefesh B'Nefesh is our "retail" partner. It is a very impressive organization. We welcome every player.

Why should anyone in a comfortable North American Jewish community come on aliyah?

As beautiful as those communities are, nothing compares to living in the Jewish state and raising one's children in Jerusalem, or Ra'ananah for that matter, where, incidentally, the standard of living is quite high. The Jewish people have fought and died for this land. Our job is to live here.

What is your greatest challenge?

Eighty percent of American Jews have never been to Israel. I can't accept that. I want to create a kind of Birthright program for adults. And I want to help raise funds by appealing to the thousands of Diaspora Jews who have never given to Israel.

Are you satisfied that Israeli millionaires are beginning to participate in philanthropy?

Many Diaspora Jews are giving just locally these days and wealthy Israelis know they cannot sit on the sidelines anymore, and are opening their wallets and partnering with the Agency. I aim to boost their participation. For example, Avi Maor [of the Amdocs software firm] is involved with Youth Future, a new Agency program that helps disadvantaged kids. And Ofra Strauss [of food giant Strauss-Elite] has raised hundreds of thousands of shekels for the Agency program that matches up new immigrants with veterans.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have emigrated to North America for a better life and are raising American children.

Israel is a free country and people can live where they want. I hope those young Israelis, whose parents left Israel when they were 2 years old, will come back.

Is it harder to sell the Zionist dream these days to North Americans? Aren't people tired of hearing how great Israel is in the face of mounting problems?

Tired? Not at all. When I talk to audiences I tell them how, as a small boy growing up in Jerusalem, I used to accompany my mother to buy ice for our icebox, and would question her about people who had numbers tattooed on their arms, and she was silent. My parents were the sole survivors of their families. All my grandparents perished in the Holocaust. What Israelis created here after all that suffering, and what they sacrificed their lives for, is incredible. Zionism is just entering a new phase.

And when left-leaning Jewish audiences question you on the Palestinian conflict, what's your response?

That we are fighting for our lives and our survival, and that despite our military power, we are surrounded by people who cannot accept the fact that we are here to stay. I also ask people to look at what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is trying to achieve with the disengagement plan. He's going against his own party, friends, settlements he helped build, to achieve peace.

The Agency and the Joint Distribution committee have been bitterly fighting for years over financial resources gleaned from Holocaust restitution funds. They assist needy Jews in Diaspora communities; you want Jews to come on aliyah.

The war is over. I know the JDC leaders and have partnered with them on projects in Ra'ananah; they are my friends and have been doing a great job. We will not fight with each other. We will work together. We fully understand that not all Jews will immigrate here and that they need help wherever they are.

Netty C. Gross

Copyright c 2005. The Jerusalem Report
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