Knesset Member Einat Wilf, who studied government and fine arts at Harvard and earned her doctorate in political science from the University of Cambridge, is new on the Israeli political scene. She won a spot on the Labor Party’s 2009 election list and in January 2010 replaced retiring member Ophir Pines-Paz. Wilf is the author of two books, a fierce proponent of education reform in Israel and the co-founder of KolDor, a global network of Jewish leaders and activists ages 25-45 who seek to redefine Jewish identity and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora for a global age. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Wilf participated in a Jumpstart Innovation Forum and talked to The Jewish Journal about her interfaith marriage, how she’s fighting the ultra-Orthodox establishment and why Zionism alienates most Jews.
Jewish Journal: You’ve articulated a vision for the future of Israel and the Jewish people organized around a philosophy of ‘peoplehood.’ Can you describe it?
Einat Wilf: It is a global community where all Jews are virtually connected; it is a world in which Israel belongs to the Jewish people as a whole and where essentially all Jews are equal in their Jewishness — so there’s no judgment that a Jew in Israel is somehow worth more than a Jew outside of Israel.
JJ: Is this because you think traditional Judaism isn’t enough to sustain the Jewish people in the modern world?
EW: Many of us are no longer practicing and no longer believing, and yet we want to belong. People want to look for other venues — virtual or real — where they can be with other Jews, do things for the Jewish people, for Israel, for the world, and have that be their way of being Jewish.
JJ: Won’t the religious establishment dismiss that as some crazy liberal agenda that only serves secular Jews?
EW: I’ve had meetings with Orthodox Jews, and they’re like, ‘Oh, just a bunch of liberals looking for God.’
JJ: Is it fair to assume that your philosophy stems in part from the time you spent at Harvard and were exposed to campus Jewish life in the United States?
EW: In Israel there’s this sense that there’s the right way of being Jewish, and it’s the ultra-Orthodox way and somehow you define yourself in relation to that. Being exposed to Jewish life in the U.S. disavowed me of that notion.
JJ: What was your religious background growing up?
EW: None. Absolutely none. Totally secular; atheist; nonpracticing rationalist.
JJ: Have your religious views changed?
EW: No; I’m very proud of myself that despite a very intense commitment to Jewish life and the Jewish people and Israel it has never led me to question or rethink my rationalist thinking on religion.
JJ: In your speech for Jumpstart, you referred to yourself growing up as a ‘young indoctrinated Zionist’ but you also challenged the ideology of Zionism for diminishing the role of the Diaspora Jew.
EW: It’s inherent in Zionist thought that Jewish life in exile is illegitimate and the only legitimate form of Jewish life is the sovereign life in the land of Israel.
JJ: And you do not agree with that?
EW: It’s a message that ultimately alienates the vast majority of Jews.
JJ: Are you suggesting that Jews who are enjoying their Jewish existence elsewhere should not make aliyah?
EW: If they wish to make aliyah, they’re more than welcome to do so, but what we want is for every Jew to have a lifelong engagement with Israel.
JJ: You don’t sound like a typical Israeli politician.
EW: I have tremendous respect for the political profession, and I don’t appreciate people going into politics and brandishing about their nonpolitician-ness. I think politics is an important profession, and I want to be good at it. I don’t pride myself on trying to be the nonpolitician.
JJ: How does the fact that you’re married to a non-Jewish German impact your role as a public figure?
EW: My view is, if anyone sees it as a problem, they’ll just have to get used to it. Long before I married, I thought the Jewish world was making a big mistake in counting intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews as minus one, not plus one.
JJ: I imagine there are some in Israel who consider your views radical. Do you see yourself as a radical?
EW: Certainly in the field of Judaism: I believe in my ability to define Jewish life no less than a rabbi. I’m aware that this is a radical position.
JJ: You’ve even suggested that your philosophy of peoplehood is on par with rabbinic Judaism and Zionism.
EW: I think it provides an answer to the new world. And Judaism, at the end of the day, always survived by adapting.
JJ: Even if you have to fight a powerful religious establishment?
EW: They’re very powerful, but one of the reasons is that we somehow accepted their narrative that they’re the good Jews, the better Jews, and we are somehow the deficient Jews, and we have to be in a constant state of apology. I absolutely don’t accept that.
JJ: Are relations between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations as bad as they seem?
EW: There are clearly tensions currently between the administrations. Naturally, this is not the entire picture, and behind the scenes there is deep cooperation in many fields and on many levels. In some areas, cooperation has never been closer.
JJ: You’ve said that you support the idea of Diaspora deliberation on Israeli policy.
EW: I think there should be a parliament of the Jewish people that serves as a consultative body to the Jewish people and that the government of Israel has structures in place that can hear those views and recommendations.
JJ: This is an issue that divides the two primary American Israel lobbying groups — AIPAC, which supports Israel without question, and J Street, which is pro-Israel but doesn’t support all of its policies. You interned at AIPAC and say you’re a fan. What are your thoughts on J Street?
EW: It’s clearly answering a need. It was able to identify a space for people who want to engage with Israel but also want the space to criticize some of its policies. And it’s a space that opens up in the time of a right-wing government; if tomorrow the Israeli government were to be perceived as leading the charge on a peace plan, the space would close.
JJ: Some people think Israeli women politicians are too concerned with existential issues and neglect to advance women’s rights in Israel.
EW: I think that’s a slander against women, because objectively it’s not true. Women have been more than disproportionately — almost exclusively — responsible for advancing women’s issues in Israel, which is why it’s important to see more women in politics.
JJ: How can the status of women be a priority in the face of issues like a nuclear Iran?
EW: Advancing the cause of women is in many ways connected to reducing the grip of the ultra-Orthodox establishment on family law and Jewish life in Israel. So actually this is very prominent; there’s not a single day in the Knesset where a law isn’t being proposed or fought over that has to do with women.
JJ: Have you encountered any unusual obstacles as a woman in the Knesset?
EW: Not yet. So far, so good.
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