Talking to a journalist before an event on Sept. 6, Einat Wilf, a Member of Knesset in Ehud Barak’s Independence Faction, trotted out an old Israeli joke.
In Israel, Wilf said, “A third of Israelis serve in the army, a third of Israelis work, and a third of Israelis pay taxes — it’s just the same third.”
In light of the protests that took over Israeli streets this summer, the joke, Wilf said, has been enjoying something of a renaissance there.
“Now it’s that third that is actually protesting,” Wilf said. “And they’re demanding that the burden be shared equally — and they’re absolutely right.”
Wilf, who is 40 and has degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, could be the face of Israel’s future. She worked a stint at the consulting firm McKinsey, and ruffled a few feathers by marrying a non-Jewish German man. In August, according to The Jerusalem Post, the French daily Le Figaro printed an article about what Israel and the Middle East might look like in 2031, and their imagined future included Wilf as Israeli prime minister.
One of Wilf’s recent events in Los Angeles was organized by BINA-LA, the young leadership division of the Israeli Leadership Council that hosts frequent salons with speakers on a variety of subjects.
The audience at BINA-LA events usually consists of young Americans, Israelis and the “hybrids” who fit into both categories partially (or neither category neatly). It’s unusual to see many kippot at BINA-LA events; designer jeans and well-cut sundresses are more common. Wilf’s talk presented a new contract between the Jewish state and world Jewry.
“Israel should be the first or second home of every Jew,” Wilf said, and then went on to note just how radically this position differed from the attitude taken by most Israelis in the past — including Wilf herself.
At age 16, Wilf told the BINA-LA audience, while living in the United States on an exchange sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was asked by a young Jewish boy what the best thing he could do for Israel was.
“Make aliyah,” Wilf told him, using the Hebrew word that connotes the elevation that comes along with moving to Israel.
To which he replied, “What’s the second-best thing?”
Wilf now eschews such language, with its implicit judgment that life for Jews in “the Diaspora” is inferior to that in Israel.
Besides, Wilf said, today people don’t make big, life-changing decisions that last for their entire lives. Many Israelis, she said, live like she does, and the old terms don’t work for them.
“What was I when I studied abroad? Was I a yoredet?” Wilf asked, using a critical term for those who leave Israel. “When I came back six years later, was I an olah [one who makes aliyah]? The language just didn’t make sense anymore.”
Wilf, who left the Labor Party with Ehud Barak in early 2011 to remain in the coalition led by the Likud Party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, works to strike a centrist position in Israeli politics. She doesn’t advocate — as some in the Likud do — for annexation of most of the West Bank. And yet, Wilf told The Jewish Journal, she has “had it with the self-flagellation of the left that thinks Israel is to blame for everything.”
One could argue that Wilf aims for a similar middle-of-the-road approach in many of her proposals — including her new contract with world Jewry. Wilf would abolish the judgment-laden term “Diaspora,” but she has changed her mind and now supports the idea that Jews should learn at least some Hebrew. (They could do so in short immersion programs, Wilf said, located in Israel’s most appealing spots: “On the shores of the Kinneret,” Wilf said, “in Tel Aviv or in Eilat, combined with scuba diving.”)
Wilf also suggested finding ways for ordinary Jews around the world to establish themselves as donors — of small amounts of money, or of “human capital” — to the State of Israel, but added that such relationships shouldn’t just be one-way, and that Israelis should return the favor.
She said that there was even some consideration of the possibility of a second house of Knesset — formed along the lines of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords — which would allow representatives of world Jewry to have an advisory role into what goes on in Israel.
Of course, Jews outside of Israel have been advising the Jewish state in unsanctioned ways for longer than the State of Israel has existed — and Wilf was asked what she thought of foreign organizations that criticize Israeli policies.
With Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” American lobbying group J Street is the best-known and most controversial such organization, and Wilf addressed the J Street example directly, by outlining “two basic rules” for those who want to criticize Israel.
“One, that the implication of their work cannot be that the Israelis are incapable of choosing their government,” Wilf said. “I mean, it’s one thing to say that you don’t like the choice they’ve made, and it’s a completely different tone, implying that Israelis have made the wrong choice. Because the large majority of Israelis think they’ve made the right choice.
“The other rule,” Wilf said, “is that an organization or a group that seeks to engage in that critical discussion cannot abdicate responsibility for those who abuse the organization in order to promote things that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s interests.”
Wilf made several stops in the Los Angeles area during her trip, including one at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino on Shabbat. Her remarks at that venue focused on many of these same subjects.