Outgoing Masa CEO Ofer Gutman with participants in the program. Photo: Courtesy of Masa Israel Journey.
Outgoing Masa CEO Ofer Gutman with participants in the program. Photo: Courtesy of Masa Israel Journey.
featureJewish Diaspora

‘The war proved there is a blood bond with Diaspora Jews’

Ofer Gutman is finishing his term as CEO of Masa Israel after six tumultuous months of war.

“The bond between Israel and the Diaspora is one of the most strategic elements for the continued existence of Israel, and this can now be seen most clearly,” says Ofer Gutman, outgoing CEO of Masa Israel Journey.

“We are becoming more isolated in the world, and it is precisely now that Jews are coming here, raising funds in droves. They are the first to stand up and tell the story of the State of Israel.”

Gutman has been dealing with Israel-Diaspora relations for 20 years—initially as an emissary in the U.S., and in the last decade as CEO of the Masa Israel Journey organization, founded by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

Some 2,500 Masa fellows, alumni and professionals from 40 countries gathered at Ra’anana Park Amphitheater in Israel to celebrate the launch of the 2019-20 programming year. Photo by Ran Biran.

For years, the organization has been bringing Jewish youth from around the world for long-term programs in Israel. Unlike its sister program Birthright, Masa brings them to Israel long-term, with the ultimate goal of them making aliyah. About 30% of its alumni eventually move to Israel. Every year, about 12,000 young people come to Israel as part of the program.

Gutman is finishing his role after an intensive six months during the Gaza war. On Oct. 7, there were thousands of Masa participants in programs across Israel, including in communities near the Gaza Strip. Some chose to leave Israel due to the situation, but Gutman says that most remained in the country and, along with program alumni, serve as ambassadors for Israel around the world.

“It was clear to me on that on Saturday [Oct. 7] that I was not closing the programs, but continuing,” he explains. “The participants proved that Diaspora Jewry is with us. They volunteered in agriculture, teaching children who were displaced, and many other areas.

“In fact, two weeks into the war, we received 4,500 inquiries from more Jews interested in volunteering. It warmed the heart. The Jews around the world received a wake-up call, and suddenly understood that it is not taken for granted that Israel will always be here.”

Israel Hayom
Some Masa participants were in the Gaza periphery on Oct. 7. Photo by Yossi Zeliger.

Targeted antisemitism

According to Gutman, Jews around the world have been and continue to be the front line of public diplomacy. “They do it online, on campuses, in dorms. Antisemitism has reared its head and people are seeking a sense of belonging.

“I was an emissary 20 years ago and spoke on dozens of campuses, and then I thought our situation was not good. Today I would buy that situation with both hands. It is classic antisemitism, from the right side of the map, as well as antisemitism from the liberal side—people who say that Israel has no right to exist. As far as they are concerned, the Jews are the only people without the right to a state.”

Q: It is often claimed that these statements are made out of ignorance.

“It is not ignorance; they pull out facts when they want to and ignore the rest. Unlike past operations, here the war is black and white. True, there is not total agreement on some of the moves, but on the very fact of the war, there is wall-to-wall agreement from anyone who defines himself as a Zionist.

‘Therefore, the blow is so hard. You expect people to stand up for us because it is so black and white—and instead, they stand against us. It comes from much darker places.”

Gutman calls on the state to turn this crisis into an opportunity. “I am finishing my role during a difficult, existential war, and therefore my feelings are not simple. Last year we had the largest number of participants in the program, with the greatest impact, and so in that sense, I am very satisfied.

“On the other hand, this war has mixed all the cards. This crisis, like COVID, also created many opportunities. Because of the war in Ukraine, we had to bring twice as many Jews, and now we have doubled the number. We brought almost 200 doctors to Israel this year, while in a regular year, we bring 70. It’s amazing.

“It must be understood that these people are not only potential immigrants who assist here in various volunteering efforts, but they are also our ambassadors in the world. Some 30% immigrate to Israel, and the rest return to their communities and become the next generation of leaders, donors and activists—ambassadors of Israel. The war showed how much we need such people, and not just Jews.”

Reconnecting

According to Gutman, programs like Masa and Birthright need to expand to also bring to Israel non-Jews who do not understand what is happening here. “Even if all the Jews in the world engage in public diplomacy, it will still be a very small number. The state knew how to invest in projects like Masa, but we must also expand these mechanisms to non-Jews.

“The war proved that we need friends who are not just from our tribe—potential leaders from strategic countries where public opinion is important to us.”

When the State of Israel was beset by an enormous crisis, Diaspora Jewry was there in full force, among other things because programs like Masa prepared hearts and minds, he says.

“The Jewish communities are under attack and they are not in a good situation, but in the context of Israel-Diaspora relations, the war proved the blood alliance between us.

“The antisemites tell us explicitly: Even if you distance yourselves—you will still be Jews and Israelis. In this sense, I am actually optimistic, because we have found a way to reconnect despite adversity,” says Gutman.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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