First and Foremost a Jew

Yehoshua's contribution - whether or not we agree with it - has raised the subject of Jewish continuity from its slumber, and for this he deserves thanks.

Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin
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Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin

The storm in the Jewish world that has been whipped up by A.B. Yehoshua's remarks reminds me very much of the storm generated by comments I made a dozen years ago, to the effect that it is better for the Jewish world to invest money in Jewish continuity and funding visits to Israel than to give aid to the state of Israel, which is one of the world's wealthier countries.

Then, too, the remarks were interpreted as an Israeli desire to disengage, heaven forbid, from Diaspora Jewry, instead of being understood as an almost desperate call to work together to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people, rather than making do with sending checks to people who can exist perfectly well without them.

This time, too, in response to Yehoshua's comments that only in Israel is it possible to live a full Jewish life, there were those who argued that without the Diaspora, Israel would not be able to exist, as it is Diaspora Jews who guarantee it financial and diplomatic aid. There is no greater nonsense than this.

A state with 13 million Jews is of far more significance to the future of the Jewish people than all the efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) - some of which have indeed helped Israel, but some of which have done it very serious damage - and of more significance than all the aid from the United Jewish Appeal and loans from Israel Bonds combined.

Like Yehoshua, I am a secular person, and like him I believe that the true fulfillment of Zionism is normality - a normal life in the state of Israel, in the framework of which Jews can live like human beings able to fulfill themselves. Unlike Yehoshua, I see myself as first and foremost a Jew, and only afterward as an Israeli, though I must admit that this distinction is only intellectual: It does not have any practical significance in my private life because I have never been required, and I assume by now that I will never be required, to choose between the two.

My Judaism is my extended family, which I love and of which I am proud because I was born into it. I am always glad to meet a distant cousin, happy to listen to Hebrew, Ladino or Yiddish in unexpected places and am moved to tears to hear someone recite "Hear, O Israel" in the furthest corner of the globe, because this is the slogan of my extended family. Religion, tradition, the many Jewish texts - all these are part of our self-definition, and even if they are not the be-all and end-all, dealing with them is important, and deepens Jewish identity.

Israel's great advantage is that the majority of its inhabitants are Jewish, and therefore the danger of assimilation does not exist here. Anyone for whom Jewish continuity is important, as it is for me, must make great efforts to achieve this end in the Diaspora. Among other things, he will find himself in a synagogue belonging to one Jewish movement or another, even if he is not religiously observant at all.

In Israel, you can stay away from religious ritual and still know that your children will remain Jewish, because their environment is a Jewish environment, they speak Hebrew and from kindergarten through university they study subjects connected to Jewish heritage (even if we have criticisms of the quantity and quality of these studies).

But our role, the role of Jewish intellectuals and Jewish leaders worldwide for whom the issue of Jewish continuity is important, cannot be confined to making statements like "come to Israel or you will disappear."

We must reinvent ourselves both with respect to ideas and with respect to organization in order to ensure Jewish continuity in a world that, for all its anti-Semitic phenomena, is prepared to smile at Jews in a way it has never before smiled, and where a Jewish spouse is not a disaster but often even a great blessing.

Immigration to Israel is the most effective solution, but it is practical only for very few in the wealthy countries. When I initiated the birthright project, I did this in the conviction that Israel must be a meeting point for the Jewish people as part of the effort to ensure Jewish continuity. The project's success should convince the Israeli government and Jewish communities worldwide to expand it, so that no Jewish young person who wants to visit Israel will be unable to do so.

Secular Jewry must formulate for itself its own definition of who is a Jew, and it must not grant religious Jewry a monopoly on this definition. It is untenable that a person whose father is Jewish and who wants to be defined as a Jew should be rejected by us and required to undergo religious conversion. It is untenable that spouses who marry Jews and who see themselves as Jews are required to undergo religious conversion, even if they themselves are agnostic, for example.

We must make significant changes in the Jewish world. It is inconceivable that the global Jewish organization should continue to be the Jewish Agency for Israel, that the World Zionist Organization should continue to act as though the Jewish state had not yet been established and that the representative of American Jewry should be the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, many of whose member organizations are nothing more than an empty mailbox.

It is necessary to establish a global Jewish organization in which a real discussion about Jewish continuity will be conducted, and which will advance innovative projects suited to the technological developments of the 21st century and afford an answer to the question of our extended family's existence even in a situation in which it is not persecuted, does not live in a ghetto and is not facing numerus clausus laws.

The initiative that was proposed on this subject by President Moshe Katsav could well be an opening toward the establishment of such an important global framework. Yehoshua's contribution - whether or not we agree with it - has raised the subject of Jewish continuity from its slumber, and for this he deserves thanks.