An Interview with Gershon Kekst




Gershon Kekst. New Chairman of the board
Gershon Kekst


Q: When did you first become involved with the Weizmann Institute?

A: About 30 years ago I went to a Weizmann dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. It began with a one-by-one introduction of the scientists who were to sit on the dais. I had never seen such an absolutely awesome display of raw brain power in my entire life. The fact that all these people would come together in New York to identify with the Weizmann Institute made my mouth fall open. It was like a Fourth of July fireworks display at the Washington Monument. There was just absolutely nothing like it.

Q: How do you see your role as Chairman of the Board of Governors?

A: My predecessor, Murray Koffler, saw to it that the Weizmann would have professional leadership, which would put it on a very sound footing. As a result, with the changing of the guard, the Weizmann Institute is probably in better shape from an administrative, scientific, financial and operational point of view than ever in its history. What is now required is to re-energize its base of support. I believe that we have only begun to scratch the surface and that when our natural constituency throughout the world becomes more familiar with the Institute's potential, that constituency will want to participate and be supportive.

In Rehovot itself, I believe that everything possible must be done to provide 21st century facilities, so that the finest scientists in the world will be attracted to work at the Institute, either as part of the faculty or in collaboration with Weizmann scientists.

Q: Support for the Weizmann Institute, for Israel and for Jewish causes in general has come until now primarily from people of the older generation, people for whom the triumphs and tragedies of recent Jewish history are personally meaningful. Now younger people are coming along, people who don't have that same kind of background or memories. Do you think that we'll be able to attract them?

A: The current generation certainly does not share our memories of the Holocaust or of the establishment of the State of Israel, but it is searching for meaning, values and purposefulness. I believe that when the members of this generation become exposed to the Weizmann Institute, when they learn of its contributions to the Jewish world and to all civilization, they will support it.

Let me give you an example. Some years ago, the American Committee began to organize a young league of people immediately out of college and in the early stages of their careers. In truth, they were looking for a combination of social experience together with some information about Weizmann. Now, if you look at the governing body of the American Committee, you'll find that it includes many graduates of that group, people with no memory of the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel, and often without a deep religious feeling. But they have learned to understand the unique quality of the Weizmann Institute and, as a result they clearly want to identify with it.

Q: Is your work for Weizmann linked with your activities on behalf of the Jewish Theological Seminary?

A: I am really thrilled to have the privilege of serving as Chairman of both the Weizmann Institute and the Jewish Theological Seminary. I chose those two because I have a deep and abiding conviction that the jugular vein of Jewish existence is Jewish education. This is a thirty-five-hundred-year-old formula that has served the Jewish people and enabled them to flourish and be productive far beyond their numbers.

Moreover, I believe that the Jewish people have a holy mission, one described in the Bible, and that is to be a holy people. This means that we have a responsibility to be in partnership with our God in completing the process of creation, in seeing to it that ours is a world of justice, a habitable world in which civilization can achieve its highest potential in every respect. That, for me, makes the Weizmann Institute a profoundly religious institution. In my view, the work of its scientists is consistent with the prophetic vision of learning, of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.

The Weizmann Institute is not unique, and I don't claim that the Jewish Theological Seminary is unique. I simply feel that their contributions -- for the past 60 years where the Institute is concerned and 120 years where the Seminary is concerned -- are unparalleled. So I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to serve and work for both institutions at the same time.

Q: Do you think that a more peaceful and stable Middle East may give a new meaning to the role of the Weizmann Institute in the region?

A: I hope and pray that the winds of change that are blowing will bring constructive developments in the Middle East. Right now the dialogue is over the division of land and water, but increasingly, I think, there will be a serious dialogue about ways in which we can collaborate with each other to resolve the issues that affect the people who live in the area. I believe that the Weizmann Institute has an opportunity to play an absolutely historic role in providing leadership so that the results of its research can be shared with scientists throughout the region, who then, in collaboration with researchers at Weizmann and other institutions in Israel, can begin to identify an agenda that must be tackled for the common good.

Q: I'd like to ask a question in a completely different area. You, of course, have been a leading public relations practitioner for many years. Do you think a change is required in the way that Israel and the Jews present themselves to the world?

A: For the last twenty-five years, every time I go to a cocktail party some stranger will ask me what I do for a living. I'll typically say I'm a neurosurgeon because that's the end of the conversation. If however, I say I'm in the public relations business, they put that together with my being Jewish and they begin to attack Israeli public relations. They'll always give me a lecture about how the public relations field has reached a high level in the United States and that most of the men and women who have made that happen are Jewish. And since there are so many successful Jewish public relations people, why can't they help Israel do a better job in this sphere?

If I were to answer them, I'd point out that Israel's problem is not one of public relations. For the last twenty-five years, in fact, there has been very little reason for the business world to be supportive of Israel, which is why the Arab boycott has been very successful. The money, the oil, the power in the Middle East have been located on the other side of the issue, not on the Israeli side. So it's not a matter of public relations, it's a matter of reality.

Similarly, in the United States today there is a growing body of anti-Semitism that is absolutely frightening. There are skinheads, there are Black Muslim fundamentalists preaching anti-Semitic dogma of the worst kind, and there is a press that doesn't know how to react to these things. This is not a matter of public relations, this is a matter of reality.

Q: Do you nevertheless have some professional advice for the Israelis?

A: Even if I lived in Israel and were the czar of public relations or public communications, I don't have a clue what advice I would give. The Israelis are on the spot and just as no American-Jewish military expert should sit comfortably in New York and tell the Israeli military leadership how to wage a war, I don't believe any American-Jewish public relations expert should sit comfortably in New York and tell the Israelis how to conduct their public relations battle.