As a first-time delegate at the World Zionist Congress I was particularly interested in reading Professor Gil Troy's opinion piece of June 16 about the Congress. With all due respect to Professor Troy, I was disappointed in how critical he was of the Congress. I would like to explain why, as the only representative from Puerto Rico and one of the youngest delegates at the Congress, being part of the Congress was an inspiring experience that strengthened my sense of Jewish identity and my support for Israel.
There are about 800 Jewish people in Puerto Rico among a population of around four million. My grandparents' families, like many others, fled from Poland with visas to Cuba. When Fidel Castro took control, they left Havana for San Juan and established a clothing business. On the other side, my great grandparents left Eastern Europe for England and then moved to the US where they went west in a wagon train and ended up in Denver. I am indeed the descendent of wandering Jews. But on both sides, the family passed down to me a love and commitment to Israel. My parents both spent a year in Israel after high school on the Young Judaea Year Course, and I have been to Israel many times.
In Puerto Rico we Jews are a tiny minority within the local population. This means that maintaining an understanding of Jewish heritage and identity and having connections with the wider Jewish world is vitally important for keeping our Jewishness alive. Not only my family feels this way, but my friends also have a strong Jewish identity. Nonetheless, until recently we haven't been seriously challenged. I have never experienced anti-Semitism at home.
Unfortunately, things have recently become more challenging for Puerto Rican Jews. The way the international media has reported the flotilla issue is the latest reason why people's attitudes have hardened against Israel and against Jews. As a result, I have seen and heard some people now accusing the Jews of unacceptable actions at the same time as they are criticizing Israel about what they have seen on TV or read in the newspapers.
I have experienced this personally. Just recently in class, somebody said to me that they couldn't believe what "you people" have done. When I was put in this position, I felt a responsibility to defend not just Israel, but the Jewish people as a whole.
I came to the Congress realizing that it would provide a unique opportunity for me to prepare for speaking up effectively.
I have learned so much from being at the World Zionist Congress. It has helped me understand more about Israel, about Zionism and about defending Israel and the Jewish people. I feel much better equipped to argue Israel's case and support my people.
But the Congress was so much more than a place to discuss how to defend Israel. There were sessions on Zionism education and its social, cultural and spiritual components, on Zionism in Israeli society and on the development of young Zionist leadership, which is of particular importance to me. From what I hear from my older brother Yoni, (named for the Prime Minister's late brother) the challenges of answering anti-Israel propaganda on campuses are huge and strong pro-Israel advocates are desperately needed.
You might not think an 18-year old would care, but I was particularly inspired by the historical context of the Congress. I kept thinking, "this is the continuation of the Congress where Herzl proposed the Jewish State." And although we weren't asked to decide between accepting a homeland in Uganda or waiting for one in the Land of Israel like the delegates at the Sixth Zionist Congress, (I brushed up on my history on the way over!) we had to consider issues, too. Never have I felt so close to Herzl's vision and to worldwide Jewry as I did during the Congress. Professor Troy called the Congress "a ghost of its former self." I can't compare it to past experiences, but for me it was major. He also wrote that the meeting should be a forum for "embracing creative ideas to renew Judaism" and that delegates should learn more about the concerns of young people and address them. Judging by my experience, it achieved this. As much as it educated me about history, it looked to the future and it inspired people like me who hope to spearhead support for Israel and Jewish identity in the years to come. I want to give back. I am already on the Board of my Young Judaea chapter in San Juan and, inspired by the Congress, will run for the Presidency.
I do have a suggestion. After I graduate from high school, like my parents and my brother, I'll be spending nine months in Israel on the Young Judaea Year Course. I suggest that the Congress planners meet periodically with a committee from among the 300 post-high school Young Judaeans from different countries to make the meetings even more compelling for young delegates.
Looking around me at the Zionist Congress, seeing delegates all around me from all over the world and all countries, I realized that being a pro-active Zionist is an on-going, lifelong commitment. That was daunting, but at the same time I also felt a new strength in standing side-to-side with so many representatives of my people, sharing a passion for the State of Israel.
Eitan Bender, 18, was a delegate of Hadassah-Young Judaea at the World Zionist Congress