by Rebecca Honig Friedman
Israeli writer and activist Einat Wilf made headlines recently when she announced her candidacy for president of the World Jewish Congress. As she tells us below, the bid was largely a rhetorical one, to take advantage of the WJC’s decision to hold open elections, without actually expecting to win, but that doesn’t mean Wilf doesn’t have her sights set on Jewish-world domination, at least intellectually.
At 36 she is a founding member of Kol Dor, a network “of young Jewish leaders from around the world, [coming together] as equal partners, to forge and act upon a new global Jewish agenda,” on whose platform she stood for the WJC race. She has already served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and is in the process of completing her second book, Back to Basics, “a detailed proposal for repairing Israel’s education system.”
Wilf writes regularly for Ynet in Hebrew and English, and her editorials have been published in Israeli and foreign papers. She received her BA in Government and Fine Arts from Harvard University, her MBA from INSEAD and she is completing a PhD in political science with Cambridge University.
Her first book, My Israel, Our Generation, published in Israel in 2003, is now available in English.
Ms. Wilf took time out of her busy schedule of over-achieving to tell us why she withdrew from the race for WJC president, why being attractive is important, and to share her vision for the future of women and the state of Israel in world Jewry.
1. JEWESS: Why did you decide to run for WJC president, and why did you withdraw from the race?
EINAT WILF: The reasons I ran were elaborated in the various op-eds that were published prior to the race (Forward; Jerusalem Post; Jewish Telegraphic Agency). But in short, the two key reasons were: (1) the desire to help make it a contested race; (2) to take advantage of the opportunity to present the vision for the Jewish people and the WJC that was developed by my colleagues and I in KolDor.
The race for the WJC presidency was motivated by a desire to promote certain ideas and a vision for the WJC. There was no realistic expectation of winning. In retrospect, given the outcome of a large majority for Lauder and Bronfman, it would not have mattered if I withdrew or not, but at least leading up to the vote, there was a real concern that while it is clear that I would not win, the votes I would get might skew the outcome in case of a very close race. The purpose of my campaign was to play a constructive role and therefore I choose to withdraw in order to avoid the possibility of unwittingly playing a destructive role.
2. JEWESS: A commenter on your Jerusalem Post op-ed in which you announced your candidacy wrote:
“She’s hotter than my wife…Since none of them do anything of use, let’s have someone who is at least hot. She’s hot.”
How do you respond to statements like that? Is a woman’s attractiveness an asset or a hindrance to success in traditionally male fields?
WILF: I mostly find these statements amusing, at least as far as my personal looks are concerned. Of course, what is more worrying is the underlying sentiment that the head of the Jewish organizations are of no use and its implications for participation in Jewish life.
As to women’s attractiveness in general - I think these days the issue is relevant for men and women. Looking good, or at least well-groomed and put together is becoming more and more a requirement for any position, and certainly for positions that are high-profile. I believe when a person looks good it reflects a certain respect for the job and for other people. I certainly don’t like it when people who claim to represent me don’t put in the effort required to look good (and yes, I believe that looking good is 90% effort and only 10% genetics).
3. JEWESS: With all the talk lately about a “boy crisis” in the Jewish community and women dominating synagogue life in the Reform and Conservative movements in America, the lack of female leadership in Jewish organizations is rather appalling. Do you think this is because there is still an old boy’s club attitude amongst the higher levels of Jewish leadership, or are women just not aspiring to these higher levels?
WILF: Not only is the lack of female leadership wrong in itself it also hurts the organizations.
I firmly believe that just as women made great strides in matters of human rights and equality in the 20th century, they will make even bigger strides in gaining leadership positions in the 21st century. There is no shortage of women who aspire to these positions. But there is no shortcut. To achieve leadership positions we will need to put in the same persistent effort as our foremothers. The solution is to keep shaming Jewish organizations who fail to represent women in leadership positions. I would also not discount the importance of starting new organizations that are more female from their foundation and generally more diverse. Sometimes the only way of showing old organizations that they are irrelevant is starting something new, that is better and more successful.
4. JEWESS: In 2005 you wrote an opinion piece in Ynet News arguing that “Peoplehood, the instinctive feeling that one is a member of one Jewish people present around the world, - is emerging as the new Jewish identity for the global age.” But in two recent debates in the online magazine Jewcy, two editors argue that Jewish peoplehood as a concept is dead or irrelevant.
Tahl Raz says the concept has “No significance… American life has annihilated Jewish Peoplehood.” And Joey Kurtzman agrees, writing, “Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews.”
WILF: I admit that it is funny to notice how quickly peoplehood moved from an anti-establishment idea into the establishment. It is actually testimony to the willingness of the existing organizations to adopt new and attractive ideas. This is a healthy dynamic and one that encourages the emergence of new ideas. As a rule, pluralism of ideas is critical to Jewish survival and thriving. There is no way to know which idea will stick and which will carry the day. The best way then is to offer as many alternatives as possible. Specifically to the argument made: there is no doubt that both Zionism and American Judaism each pose a challenge to the idea of a global connected Jewish people. Ardent Zionist and ardent Americans feel no need for the sense of peoplehood. Many of them reject the very notion. However, there are many who are not content with the exclusiveness offered by either paradigm and seek to give shape and form to their Jewish belonging beyond its local manifestation in Israel and the US. The idea of peoplehood appeals to these people. While this group may be a minority, I expect this group to increase and therefore the demand for a global community to rise.
5. JEWESS: What role do you see Israel as playing in World Jewry. Is it and should it be the focus, or just one of the players?
WILF: Israel should move from a role of the one who takes to the role of the one who leads and even gives. Israel is no longer a small Jewish community in need. It is a wealthy and powerful state that could do much much more to foster a strong Jewish people. To do so, Israeli leadership needs to move away from the expectation that the Jews in which it invests would make Aliyah. Rather, it should invest in Jews for the sake of having a strong Jewish people. Israel would also benefit from fostering a true relationship of equals among all Jews. For too long, Israeli leaders have fostered a culture of submission, in which Jewish leaders are expected to abstain from any real criticism of Israel and engagement with its policies. I would like to see Israel as a state that truly belong to all Jews and with which all Jews who truly care have a real engagement.
6. JEWESS: Does Tzipi Livni have a shot at becoming Israel’s second female prime minister? Why or why not?
WILF: She has a good shot. Her name is certainly mentioned in the first row of candidates. At this point the reasons why she might not become a prime minister have to do with the vagaries of Israeli politics rather than with her being a woman.
7. JEWESS: As a former foreign policy advisor, what do you think of the Israeli Consulate in New York’s recent publicity stunt to win over public opinion (of young American men) with a “Women of the Israel Defense Forces” spread in Maxim magazine?
WILF: Too much has been made of it. It’s a nice initiative, and the IDF could do worse than being associated with beautiful women. Unfortunately, Israel’s image and certainly that of the IDF will continue to be dominated by the Conflict and even the most clever marking techniques won’t be able to change that.
Posted on July 4th, 2007 Filed under: Interviews |