The Future of the Jews
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Jeff Bogursky: I noticed the names of your seven grandchildren in the book. Five of them have Hebrew names, and two of them have American names. Is this due to the location that your two sons have chosen to live, or the lifestyle they’ve chosen?
Stuart Eizenstat: Well, the five who have Hebrew names, Menachem, Bracha, Eliezer, Michal, and Yitzchak are from our oldest son, who is a baal teshuva and orthodox, and the other two are from our son in New York who is Conservative. One thing that has given me a powerful sense of identification is that both my grandfather, who made Aliya at the age of eighty-something from Atlanta after having arrived there from Russia in 1904, and my great grandfather, are buried to the public cemetery in Petach Tikva, only one row apart. We have many other relatives and friends in Israel, but to have your grandfather and great grandfather buried there creates a very powerful bond.
JHB: You were the chief domestic advisor to President Carter in 1976. You are a lawyer, but you have done so many things over many years of public service. Talking to young people, how does one start a career such as yours?
SE: I started in 1963, when I was selected as a Congressional intern while attending the University of North Carolina. I got the bug from there, came back in 1964 to work on the Johnson presidential campaign. I went to Harvard Law School. Right after that I went to work in the Johnson White House for a year, serving as his Research Director. When he decided not to run, I went back to Atlanta and clerked with a Federal judge, then became a Policy Director for Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign, and then four years later for his presidential campaign.
JHB: When you think of yourself, do you see yourself in any way playing the role of the Shtadtlan, or Court Jew?
SE: No, I strongly reject that designation. If that’s what I was, or that’s how I was perceived, I could never have had the influence that I did. Everyone knew I was Jewish, knew I had Jewish values and Jewish concerns, but I was not the Jewish advisor to Carter, I was the domestic policy advisor. I was not the Jewish Ambassador to the European Union, I was the Ambassador to the European Union who was Jewish. I was not Under Secretary of Commerce, or Under Secretary of State, or Deputy Treasury Secretary as the Jew; I was there because of my ability and competence. Now, I brought Jewish values and that’s what led me to push the Holocaust Restitution to the forefront during the Clinton administration, and to recommend that President Carter create the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and to create a special visa category to save Christians, Bahai’s, and Jews from the Iranian Revolution. In other words, I brought with me Jewish perspectives and insights, but I was always perceived, because I was, essentially an American, who was a policy expert with political skills. Everyone knew I had a perspective that was sustained by Judaism, but I was absolutely not the Court Jew or I would have been just a figurehead.
JHB: I would imagine that in many ways this is a similar position to that of Henry Morgenthau, who served in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet.
SE: He’s a perfect example. He was a Secretary of the Treasury, he wasn’t a Court Jew, but because of his background and sensitivity, he was finally able to impress upon Roosevelt that he needed to create a War Refugee Board to help Jewish refugees.
JHB: As you put it in the book, we are all Jews by choice today. The things we choose to emphasize or show about ourselves are oft en very critical in determining how people see us. What is the role of religion today in the question of how we live as Jews? In the past, Jewish identification was common on a number of non-religious bases. Is that still the case today?
SE: That’s a great question, and it’s one of the real challenges. I think without some rootedness in the religious aspects of Judaism, it is very hard in our pluralistic society to maintain Jewish continuity. Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be Orthodox, or follow a particular prescription, but some knowledge of the religion, some practice of it is critical, but it’s not the only important attachment. Indeed, increasingly, American Jews’ attachment to Judaism is heavily related to Israel. So, for example, one of the most important projects of the post-war era in a changing Diaspora/Israel relationship is Operation Birthright. Most of the people on Birthright trips have never been to Israel at all. Many, if not most, are not religious, and many are completely secular. But Birthright creates a strong identification with Judaism and Israel. Likewise, cultural activities: Jewish Day School education, anything that has a Jewish content is critical. But, I think that in the end it has to be under-girded by at least some component of the religious side, some knowledge of the history of the religion, some practice—it can be Passover, or Purim, or Chanukah—something that reminds you that this is not just an ethical attachment; otherwise you could be an ethical humanist. At bottom, Judaism is a culture, but also a religion. And the two are and always have been, inextricably intertwined.
JHB: How would you define or measure Jewish continuity?
SE: By every rational consideration, Jews should not even be here, when you consider two homelands destroyed, exile not only from the homeland but from England, France, Spain, Portugal, from Arab countries— millennia of persecution. The reason that Jews, albeit in smaller numbers than we would like, remain here, when those empires which had sought to destroy Jews have themselves been destroyed, is because of three things. One is an identification with a Jewish homeland, in Israel. There has always been a very powerful sense during exile that there was always an identification with Israel. Second is some identification with holy scriptures—with Talmud, the Five Books of Moses—in one way or the other. And third is a profound sense of people-hood.
No matter where you go, if you see someone who’s Jewish you feel an immediate sense of kinship; you can strike up an immediate conversation. It’s an almost mystical sense of people-hood. And those three are intertwined and all essential. Some people have more of one, more of another, but without those three you have nothing. And with one of those three you have something, and if you have two of three it’s even stronger, and if you have all it’s an even stronger identification.
JHB: Why is it so important?
SE: I cite the figure of 52% intermarriage rate—even among our friends who have very strong Jewish identifications, religiously as well. The degree of assimilation, of acceptance of Jews is so powerful, that for the next generation it is exceedingly difficult to hold on to a strong enough sense of Jewish identification to have all-Jewish marriages. When my wife and I get invited to an all-Jewish wedding, it’s an exception.
JHB: In your book, in this context, you make an argument that Conservative rabbis should officiate at mixed marriages, which at this point, the majority do not.
SE: I would not have made that recommendation five years ago. But, I see what’s happening around me, and I feel an urgency about outreach at a critical time in a young couple’s life. And, I’m fearful that if we circle the wagons too tightly, we’ll have a diminishing number of people inside the circle.
JHB: Do you not concern yourself with the fact that the introduction of more heterodoxy in the acceptance of Jews of various backgrounds will lead to question marks within Judaism?
SE: When I talk about Jews by choice, there is already a question mark on everybody in terms of maintaining Jewish continuity and identity. I have said in terms of these mixed marriages, that they should only be performed where there is a commitment to raise their children as Jewish. We have to open our tent more than in the past, when we could afford to be more selective. There are 13.5 million Jews in a population of 7 billion. In 1939, before the Holocaust, there were 17 million Jews in a population of 2 billion. In 2050, with current trends, there will be a population, if we’re lucky, of 14 to 15 million Jews in a population of 10 billion. We’re an increasingly small percentage, and if we’re not willing to be more accepting, although there are risks on the other side, the risk of losing whole couples at a crucial ti me of their life cycle is greater.
JHB: Turning to Israel. You have critical words for Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his proposals for a division between Palestine and Israel that would accommodate for larger Palestinian centers in Israel going into an eventual Palestinian State, and large settlement blocs being incorporated into Israel. There’s been a lot of heat over his various statements, but are you so against the general concept of his proposal? You seem to advocate for separation between the two populations.
SE: Yes, but it depends on how you arrive at that. You have to remember that these are, after all, citizens of Israel. They have voting rights, they are eligible for government services. To take one segment of your population and suggest that they be part of a political transfer is a poor policy. Israel already has enough concerns about Israeli Arabs and their loyalty to the state, without creating a situation in which they appear to be unwanted. It’s also simply an anti-democratic thing to do. These are not illegal aliens who have come across your border improperly, like some of the African refugees. These are by and large peaceful citizens of the State of Israel.
JHB: Do you believe that should there be a settlement between the parties, that the Jewish population in the territories should be repatriated to Israel, or be allowed to remain in a Palestinian one.
SE: There are a couple of ways of answering that. The first is that for the vast majority of Jews living in the West Bank, almost every peace proposal that’s been out there for years would include the large settlement blocs being incorporated into the new borders of Israel. So, we’re talking about people in places like Ariel, or outposts. But Ariel is a very different thing than an outpost, so Ariel, one way or the other will have to be part of the state of Israel, as reconstituted. But for the rest, they should be given their choice as to whether to stay. I would imagine the overwhelming number of them will choose to leave. And, if Israeli Arabs should choose to move to the new Palestinian state, there should be no roadblock to them doing so. But, they shouldn’t be coerced to do so.
JHB: You are a good Democrat, having served your country and your party for many years. But, you have had critical words for the Obama Administration’s support early on for a settlement freeze. Do you think that was a mistake?
SE: It was clearly a mistake, it didn’t recognize the nature of the coalition, it was done publicly, with no consultation, and it set a bar for the Palestinians that was used as an excuse not to return to the bargaining table. I think that was rectified, and indeed Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to a freeze for ten months, not including Jerusalem, but that was considerable. It was more than any Prime Minster has done. And, during that time the Palestinians didn’t enter into any substantive negotiations until the last month, and then the Prime Minister didn’t agree to extend the freeze.