The Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) held its Plenary Conference Sunday 21 November, online. The conference gathered over 100 Jewish leaders from across Australia, including student and Zionist youth movement leaders to discuss important issues facing the Australian Jewish community, the Jewish world, and the State of Israel.
ZFA President Jeremy Leibler addressed the conference on the subject of the disconnect between the diaspora communities and Israel. This is an issue that American Jewry have been grappling with for decades. Leibler said, “The only antidote for what’s happening to American Jewry and for ensuring the same phenomenon doesn’t ever descend upon our community is education.”
He continued, “We must ensure that our community – not just our youth but our entire community – is Jewishly literate, that people are equipped with an intellectual as well as emotional connection to Israel and Jewish history.
The success of Masa and Birthright in instilling young Jewish Americans and Australians with a connection to Israel provides ample proof of this.
And, in this area of engagement, we have so much to be proud of here in Australia. Our reputation as a strong and proudly Zionist community is an achievement owned by everyone here tonight. From our youth movements and AUJS to our affiliates – our partners at UIA-Keren Hayesod and so many more who contribute to what we do.”
One of the biggest achievements in 2021 has been the launch of an exciting two-year pilot program – Israel Go – which provides financial support for young adults to participate in gap year Israel programs in 2022 and 2023. Referring back to the importance of education, Leibler said, “It is why we have chosen to invest heavily in our Israel programs. Because the data tells us that this is the key to ensuring the next generation of Australian Jews are meaningfully engaged and connected with their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. It is why we raised more than $1.7 million for Israel Go.”
The conference included two keynote sessions. The Global Peoplehood session brought together guest speakers representing Jewish and Zionist communities from Russia, South Africa, Italy, UAE and of course Israel. Conference delegates participated in a fascinating series of conversations on what connects us a Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, and discussed the nature and challenges in Jewish life in diverse communities.
The session was opened by Pnina Agenyahu, the Director of the Partnerships Division at the Jewish Agency for Israel, discussed the importance of Jewish peoplehood in communities around the world. Conference participants heard from a selection of speakers: Rowan Polovin (National Chairman, South African Zionist Federation), Noemi Di Segni (President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities), Rami Teplitskiy (Diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, former Russian Jewish community shaliach in Melbourne) and Sarah Benchimol (leader of the Jewish community in Dubai). These speakers provided a wonderful insight into the way their respective Jewish communities operate and the challenges they face on a micro and macro level.
The second session was a fascinating in camera discussion between Mohammad Darawshe – a leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations – and Tal Becker, a lead negotiator in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and one of the main architects of the Abraham Accords. The two discussed a broad-range of issues such as co-existence between Arabs and Israelis and tangible steps the people can take for a lasting-peace in the region.
The delegates also heard messages from Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Israeli Prime Minister, who both warmly addressed the ZFA and noted the warm relations between the two countries.
Noting that he misses Australians in Israel, and looks forward to welcoming us back now that the borders have reopened, Herzog reiterated his commitment “as President to strengthening Israel’s unbreakable bond with Australian Jewish communities and with the Government of Australia, a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people. The recent decision to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism is but one expression of our common values, the important values that you help to promote.”
PM Naftali Bennett also congratulated the community for being at “the forefront of pro-Israel action. Your passion, dedication, and unwavering support for the State of Israel is greatly felt and greatly appreciated.” He also reiterated what he told Jeremy Leibler when he joined him during the ZFA’s Lockdown Learning series in July 2020 when he said, “If I were Prime Minister of the State of Israel, I would view myself as prime minister of the citizens of Israel, but also as the leader of the Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or outside, because ultimately the Jewish State belongs to all Jews of the world.”
ZFA CEO Ginette Searle said, “after a busy year, our Plenary Conference was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of the year. I am proud that despite the pandemic we were able to bring the community interesting discussions and online events catering for the youth, our Hebrew and Russian-speaking communities and so much more. We look forward to seeing our affiliates in person next year at our Biennial Conference.”