The Jewish future according to Eizenstat  

The Jewish future according to Eizenstat  

Menachem Rosensaft
Menachem Rosensaft

NEW YORK — In “The Adventure of the Empty House,”Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tells his friend, Dr. John Watson,  “I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors. …  The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family.”

The fact that Stuart E. Eizenstat is truly “the epitome of the history of his own family” places both his decades of public service and his outstanding book, “The Future of the Jews: How Global Forces are Impacting the Jewish People, Israel, and Its Relationship with the United States,” in historical context and perspective.  It is precisely because Eizenstat writes as a committed Jew who has always been guided by Jewish ethical and religious values that “The Future of the Jews” is, in the words of the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich, “mandatory reading for Jews and Israelis who must adapt old policies and institutions to new conditions and for non-Jews who want to understand the concern of an unusually successful yet vulnerable people.”

Eizenstat first came on the national scene in 1976 as a key figure in then President-elect Jimmy Carter’s inner circle.  A Dec. 7, 1976, New York Times profile described the then 33-year old Atlanta lawyer as a “pragmatic progressive” (his term) whose “sophistication about political issues and his skill at getting his way without alienating opponents helped steer Jimmy Carter past the many obstacles to the nomination and the Presidency.”  

Interestingly, he initially did not anticipate that his Jewish identity would emerge as a key dimension of what would prove to be a long and distinguished career.  “Mr. Eizenstat is proud of his many contributions to Jewish life in Atlanta, and takes his religion more seriously than many young Jews today,” Robert Reinhold wrote in the same New York Times article.  “However, he rejects suggestions that he will serve as spokesman for Jewish interest or interests in the White House. ‘That would be counterproductive,’ he said.”

And yet Eizenstat’s very real and very deep Jewish roots lie at the heart of his public and private persona.  In an interview published in “Jewish Fathers, a Legacy of Love,” by Lloyd Wolf and Paula Wolfson, he recalled that his grandfather “decided, at the age of 80-plus, to make aliya to Israel. … He said he wanted to die in the Holy Land.  My first trip to Israel was in 1965, and I saw him about six months before he died, in an old-age home in Petach Tikvah.  It was very emotional for me to have that connection to Israel.” 

Sixteen years later, Eizenstat and his wife, Fran, returned to Israel as the guests of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

“I made a trip to visit my grandfather’s grave,” Eizenstat continued, “and discovered something quite startling.  I discovered that his father, my great-grandfather, was buried only a row away, something I hadn’t known.  He had clearly wanted to be buried next to his father. … It gives me a very powerful connection to the State of Israel to know that both my grandfather and great-grandfather are buried there.”

On a personal note, I have known Eizenstat since 1978 when, as Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, he was the moving force behind the formation of the president’s Commission on the Holocaust, of which my late mother was a member, and initiated the process that led to the eventual creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He returned to government service in the Clinton administration where he served successively as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, undersecretary of commerce for International Trade, undersecretary of state for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, and deputy secretary of the Treasury.  He also led the U.S. delegation in the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. 

While ambassador to the European Union, Eizenstat took on the role of special representative of the president and secretary of state on Holocaust era issues.  In that capacity he negotiated international agreements that resulted in more than $8 billion in compensation and restitution for Holocaust survivors, including payments to slave and forced laborers, the return of thousands of Jewish communal and private properties, the payments of tens of thousands of previously undisclosed bank accounts, the recovery of hundreds of pieces of looted art, and the payments on thousands of insurance policies. 

Following the agreement by Swiss banks to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors and their families, a Jan. 19, 1999, New York Times editorial entitled “A Distinguished Public Servant” emphasized that this historical settlement “could not have happened without the efforts of Stuart Eizenstat … who has brought a rare degree of energy and attention to these difficult matters. … It is not often that American officials make an effort to explore the dark corners of history and help the victims of old injustices. Mr. Eizenstat has done both, and the country should be grateful for his work.”

Most recently, Eizenstat has served as special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Holocaust issues and special negotiator for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.  In the latter role, he has been largely responsible for persuading the German government to increase the reparations it is paying to Jewish Holocaust survivors, especially with respect to desperately needed home care, by hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Ever since 1845 when David Levy Yulee and Lewis Charles Levin became the first Jews elected to, respectively, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, Jews have been active in American public and political life.  Many, however, had only tenuous, if any, connections to their faith and the Jewish community.  Indeed, Yulee married a Christian woman, as did Judah P. Benjamin, the second Jewish member of the Senate who subsequently served as the Confederacy’s attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state, and both raised their children as Christians.  Like Henry Kissinger, who always seemed to identify far more with German intellectuals and politicians than with the Jewish community out of which he had emerged, their being Jewish was essentially an accident of birth.

Eizenstat, in contrast, is in the tradition of Oscar S. Straus, President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of Commerce, who affirmatively embraced his Jewish heritage and for whom, according to The New York Times of Sept. 4, 1906, “the Jew … is the most spiritual man alive.  He has been hounded by the ages, robbed and massacred, but he yields neither his traditions nor his ideals … he is intensely patriotic, and I am proud of the part he has taken in the development of this country.  I think the Jews to be equal in patriotism to any class of Americans.” 

In a 1998 speech, Eizenstat said, “The indefatigably courageous spirit of the Jewish people is responsible for our 4,000 years of unbroken existence.  It is a spirit and history of hope, survival, endurance and achievement.  That spirit has enabled us to come through this ghastly century still intact and now strengthened against our traditional foes. Certainly, we are strong enough to deal with our internal problems in the next century.”  In “The Future of the Jews,” he gives us his blueprint for the next stage of the Jewish journey through history.

Eizenstat cogently analyzes the forces that shape our contemporary geopolitical reality, from the globalization of not just commerce but human interaction generally to what he calls the “battle for the direction of Islam” and the challenge posed by the ever-increasing efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel in the international arena. “If there is a silver lining for Israel and the Jewish people in the Arab Spring,” he writes, “it is that over time, if the Arab Middle East can genuinely develop democratic values — and that is a big “if” — this will ultimately unleash the creative abilities of the Muslim peoples of the area and embed them in a globalized society with a stake in a stable, prosperous world.” 

From his unique vantage point as an active participant in many of the historical dramas of the past 36 years, he also reminds us that the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict predate the ascendancy of radical Islam.  During the first Intifada of the mid-1980s he once asked Yitzhak Rabin why the Palestinians were in revolt.  Rabin’s taciturn reply was simply that “They do not like to be occupied by us.”  Eizenstat believes that,

“For Israel, peace is a national security imperative.  Permanently controlling too much territory and too many hostile Palestinians is futile and self-defeating. … The longer the occupation lasts, the more expanding settlements collide with rapidly expanding populations of Palestinians; and the more anger and resentment that swells up among the Palestinians, the more the moderates committed to a peaceful two-state solution will have the ground cut from beneath them.”

Differentiating “between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, however harsh or misplaced they may be, and anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism,” Eizenstat urges the American Jewish establishment to engage rather than shun Jewish critics of the Israel government’s settlement policy so as to “help keep potentially disaffected liberal Jews, particularly young people, within the pro-Israel tent.”  He describes how he told Carter that the former president’s “use of the loaded term apartheid to describe the Israeli occupation was unjustified and historically inaccurate when applied to the Palestinian territories,” but also lays out his reasons for disagreeing with those who have labeled Carter an anti-Semite. 

On the domestic front, he considers the most serious challenges confronting the contemporary American Jewish community to be not anti-Semitism or other “external threats” but assimilation, a declining birthrate, and “out-marriage – Jews marrying non-Jewish spouses.”  The Jewish future Eizenstat contemplates in his book is neither self-evident nor assured.  “Being born Jewish,” he writes, “is no guarantee of staying Jewish or raising one’s children Jewish.  It is not just non-Jews who must choose to be Jewish; it is those born Jewish as well.”  Accordingly, he argues, “a new approach is needed for those on the margins of the Jewish community:  a more open, accessible, welcoming, nonjudgmental Judaism for anyone who wishes to identify as a Jew.” 

He makes a persuasive case for enabling non-Jewish spouses to “feel completely accepted in Jewish institutions so that the children of mixed marriages are raised as Jews.”  In this connection, he calls for “a proactive conversion program among non-Jews, with the principal targets non-Jewish spouses of Jews, the children of mixed marriages, individuals with some Jewish heritage, and many who are simply attracted to a Jewish way of life. … Ritual entry should still be required, but rabbis should reach out to encourage conversion and not make it more onerous and intimidating.  Converts should not be required to be more observant than nonconverts.”

As much as anyone, Stuart Eizenstat has played and is certain to continue playing a critical role during this time of existentialist transition for American Jewry.  “The Future of the Jews” is an insightful, compelling and indispensable resource for anyone who wants to know what the complex Israel-Diaspora relationship is all about, and especially for those of us who believe that the Jewish people must continually reassess and even on occasion redefine itself.

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)