Robert Singer, chief executive officer of World Jewish Congress, addressed more than 100 Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver donors at an event hosted by Gary Averbach and sponsored by Garry Zlotnik of ZLC Financial. (photo from WJC)
The professional head of World Jewish Congress says Diaspora Jews and Israelis are too wrapped up in their own worlds and need to strengthen the dialogue between the two components of the global Jewish community.
Speaking to the Independent during his first-ever visit to Vancouver, Robert Singer said relations remain strong in terms of Diaspora support for Israeli organizations. Programs like Birthright, through which young Jews experience Israel, and Masa, which offers young adults gap-year, study-abroad and other opportunities, also enhance connections. But there must be more person-to-person contacts like these, he said, which foster real conversations across the divide.
“I’m not sure that both sides are talking,” said Singer. “I think both sides are busy with their own stuff. Israelis are busy with stuff in Israel and Diaspora Jews are today busy with their survival, in many cases, both financial and community survival.”
World Jewish Congress is an organization that can facilitate dialogue, he added.
WJC was founded in Geneva in 1936 and now represents Jews in 100 countries, focusing on issues including protecting the memory of the Holocaust, advocating for the recognition of the experiences of Jews from Arab lands, combating antisemitism and encouraging interfaith dialogue. The Congress is headed by Ronald Lauder, president of the executive committee. Singer, who has been the chief executive officer of WJC since 2013, previously served 14 years as the director general and CEO of World ORT, one of the largest nongovernmental education and training providers in the world. Singer was born in Ukraine and made aliyah at age 15.
While in Vancouver, Singer met with rabbis, representatives of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and other communal organizations. He also met with Russian-speaking members of the community and said he was impressed with Vancouver’s flourishing Jewish life. He acknowledged that British Columbia’s Jewish community faces challenges common to many similar-sized communities.
“The main thing that struck me is the issue of assimilation and how to deal with this,” he said. “Being more inclusive, bringing more people of non-Jewish faith into the community, issues of education, issues of fighting BDS and antisemitism on campuses, and issues of relations between Israel and the Diaspora.”
Interviewed days after many young Jews blockaded the AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., Singer rejected the idea that younger Jews are alienated from Zionism.
“It’s very different,” Singer said of the way young Jews relate to Israel. Previous generations, he said, were Holocaust survivors or their descendants who knew a world without Israel. “For somebody who is now 20 years old, all this is now either history or they just don’t remember the situation where there was a world without a Jewish state.” This generation cannot be expected to have the same visceral connection to Zionism, he said. “I think it’s just a different approach. Different technologies, different approach.”
He compared the suggestion of declining Zionism with the situation among young Israelis.
“In Israel all the time they say that the previous generation was much more patriotic,” he said. Yet, when young people are conscripted into the Israel Defence Forces today, more – not fewer – are requesting assignment to the most difficult combat and elite units, he said.
“It shows that this generation of young Israelis is at least as good as the people before them and I think it’s the same in the Diaspora,” Singer said, citing the Jewish Diplomatic Corps, a WJC program of about 200 young adults from 43 countries, including international lawyers, businesspeople, parliamentarians, professors and others who meet with government leaders and international agencies.
“They are outstanding young people,” said Singer. “I’m sure that, on an intellectual, Jewish and pro-Zionist level, they are at least as good as the leadership of the people who went before.”
On external threats, Singer said it is too soon to make a determination about long-range impacts of contemporary antisemitism. A new WJC study indicates an antisemitic comment is posted to social media every 82 seconds.
“It’s very bad,” he said. But, he added, it may be less a matter of growing antisemitism than attitudes that were already there merely finding expression.
The situation in Europe is concerning, he said. Antisemitic and neo-Nazi parties are seeing unprecedented public support in France, Germany, Hungary and Greece. “This is a real danger,” Singer said.
On the impacts of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, Singer said it is too soon to judge. He is impressed, however, that Trump’s appointee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has adopted a very different approach from her recent predecessors.
While the United Nations General Assembly is a wasteland at present, Singer said, Canada and the United States should remain active there, “because there is a stage there and you can have some influence.”
Of the new Canadian government, Singer said he is pleased that relations between Israel and Canada remain close and that this is something that transcends politics.