Commentary Magazine


His Brother's Keeper by Yossi Beilin

His Brother’s Keeper: Israel and Diaspora Jewry in the Twenty-first Century
by Yossi Beilin
Schocken. 272 pp. $24.00

Yossi Beilin, currently Israel’s Minister of Justice, is best known as the architect of the Oslo Accords, the negotiations conducted with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that resulted in the formal agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat at the White House on September 13, 1993. In a recent account of his role in that process, Beilin characterized himself as a man in a hurry. “I have continued to believe throughout my life that time was my greatest enemy, and that I had to attain my objectives with the minimum possible delay.” No one, surely, has ever doubted his zeal.

Until 1993, Beilin’s objectives were straightforward enough. Convinced that Israel was pursuing a mistaken foreign policy by seeking to link the Palestinian population to Jordan as part of an overall regional peace, he joined with members of a tiny “club” under the supervision of Shimon Peres to set up his own direct contacts with the PLO in order to formulate plans for a Palestinian state. The details Beilin has provided of these discussions are perhaps less significant than his description of how he got things done within Israel’s recalcitrant and, to him, wrongheaded democracy. “Plotting a course against the tide, knowing from the start that one’s actions or words are sure to be unpopular, and, in spite of that, creating a fact that cannot possibly be ignored—this was my modus operandi.” The means, in short, were justified by the end: by forcing a Palestinian state on his countrymen, Beilin would be helping to bring Israel out of “the Middle Ages,” a self-evidently laudable goal whatever the cost.

In His Brother’s Keeper, Beilin now turns his attention from Israel and the Palestinians to a no less daunting project, the reform of the Jewish people worldwide. As he sees it, the gist of the problem lies in another form of medievalism: the “Gordian knot” that ties the Jewish religion to Jewish peoplehood. He proposes to cut this knot in one stroke, by neutralizing the religious factor: “It does not make sense in the 21st century, when most of the Jews in the world are not religious, that they will continue to leave the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question to religious authorities.”

By “religious,” Beilin here means not only the Orthodox—that is, adherents of halakhic law as interpreted by rabbis—but any form of Judaism, including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist, that defines Jewishness in some relation to God. The idea of a national religion is, to Beilin, reactionary by definition. He wants Israel itself to become a thoroughly secular state, and, since the Israeli model of citizenship already allows someone like him to function as a Jew without pretending to be religious, he proposes to apply that model to all of Jewry.

In locating his sense of urgency about this matter, Beilin reverts to an argument that his maternal grandfather, a Russian Zionist named Yosef Bregman, once had with Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. In 1903, Great Britain had offered Herzl a provisional area of Jewish refuge in Africa. Herzl himself favored accepting this temporary shelter as an escape hatch for Europe’s endangered Jews, but when the offer was put before that year’s Zionist Congress, East European delegates like Bregman opposed it as a treacherous deviation from the goal of a national home in the Jewish homeland.

Today, Yossi Beilin retroactively sides with Herzl’s pragmatism and flexibility and against his own “zealous, impatient, and uncompromising” forebear. Herzl, in Beilin’s reading, was only interested in getting the Jews out of harm’s way, and “not at all concerned with the question of Jewish continuity or Judaism.” Hence, he would never have proposed a Jewish state in the first place “if he thought that it would have required an ongoing struggle for existence.” Indeed, had Herzl been better informed about America, he would have gone there instead, and, once there, would certainly never have moved to the Israel we know today, burdened as it is by “the dangers of war and terrorism” and “the enormous influence of the ultra-Orthodox.”

This is not to say that Beilin is altogether unambivalent about the country where he thinks Herzl might have preferred to settle. When this book was published in Hebrew, it bore the title, Moto shel hadod me’ amerika: “The Death of the American Uncle.” The words refer to the sharp decline of American Jewry through intermarriage and the attrition of identity, but also to the shift of power between a more confident Israel and the Diaspora on which it was once dependent Beilin makes light of what American Jews do for Israel—even, as it happens, what they have done for it in the past—and he is proud that Israel has now indisputably emerged as the center and leader of the Jewish world. And yet, he also wants Israel itself to become a smaller America, a liberal, secularized place where Jews can live free of military or religious burdens.

This brings him to the question of “What To Do?,” the tide of a programmatic chapter on how to revive American Jewry and to Americanize Israel.

The first of Beilin’s proposed innovations is secular conversion. Whereas, he writes, American Jews in great numbers marry non-Jews; whereas religious conversion “all too often . . . involves a white lie”; and whereas Judaism is not simply a religion but also “something else,” therefore non-Jews should be able to join that “something else” simply by affirming their identification with the Jewish people. The Jewish community might ask for references from other Jews, and perhaps even for some “knowledge of Jewish history,” but essentially it would take the convert’s wish at face value.

The second proposal is for a new institutional structure to replace the many organizations that currently mediate between the Diaspora and Israel. Israel Bonds, the Jewish National Fund, the United Jewish Appeal, the World Zionist Congress, the Jewish Agency—Beilin calls for dismantling all of them, at once. In their stead, he would establish a “House of Israel,” a new representative body that “would enlist a million members from Israel and the Diaspora and then conduct elections throughout the Jewish world.” Granting equal standing to “Zionists and non-Zionists” alike, it would meet on a regular basis and have “resources at its disposal” to exert influence on a whole range of issues. For the rest, the Internet will link and support a “virtual community” of Jews worldwide.

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What are we to make of this? The sheer fatuousness of Beilin’s plans, although it may not be their most troubling element, is difficult to overlook, and is rather startling in an author who brandishes so many academic credentials and decades of public service. To start with his proposed overhaul of Jewish peoplehood, it does not seem to have occurred to Beilin to wonder why, if Jewishness is to become a matter of self-definition, anyone, let alone the millions he envisages, would bother formally to convert to it. As for his new “democratic partnership,” the House of Israel, the very idea of an organization of both Zionists and non-Zionists suggests that the sovereignty of the Jewish state is still up for grabs, itself a peculiar assumption for one who holds high office in that state’s government. Suppose its million members—including some of those self-declared converts—were to decide in favor of yielding Haifa to the Arabs, or, alternatively, the immediate conquest of Damascus. Then what?

It turns out, though, that Beilin’s sloppiness as a thinker is conveniently in sync with his larger strategy, which just happens to be diametrically opposed to the one followed by the early Zionists. Both Herzl and Beilin’s grandfather undertook to persuade their fellow Jews to assume new and onerous obligations, requiring huge personal self-sacrifice and national discipline. Zionism (like, in that respect, Judaism itself) was a hard sell: if Herzl was prepared to accept temporary refuge in Uganda, it was not, pace Beilin, because he did not want a Jewish state but only because he realized how long it might take to secure the state he did want. Beilin, by contrast, promises to lift every Jewish burden, political as well as religious. He assures Israelis that all they need do to win peace is to give up a little land. He assures prospective converts that, in order to join a notoriously demanding religious culture, they need give up nothing at all.

Israelis once knew that, because they were rebuilding the Jewish homeland, they had every right to expect American Jews to help them defend the country against its enemies, to help pay for the absorption of their fellow Jews, and to join in strengthening a common culture. They knew that, of all the Jews of the past two millennia, they and their parents had made the best and boldest historical decision to break the cycle of Jewish political dependency and become sovereign—with the full set of responsibilities that that involved. Beilin, though, is one of a new breed of Israelis—one who resents the obligations his grandfather assumed on his behalf, and who wants for himself the same freedom from Jewish responsibility that he notices among his secularized cousins in America.

Politicians know that optimism is infectious, and Israelis may be especially responsive to those who promise them easy solutions for their problems. Far from revitalizing Jewry, however, Beilin’s plans would hasten the demoralization of an entire people. A percentage of modern Jewry has always looked for the easiest way out of its historical situation. It is very sad that this percentage should now include a prominent member of the political leadership of Israel.

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About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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