June 2, 1998
Washington -- The Jewish people around the world are witnessing a "remarkable reawakening" of their culture and influence, says Stuart Eizenstat, under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs.
In a speech May 27 at a State of Israel Bonds' lunch, Eizenstat catalogued the reasons behind the dramatic turn of events during the last five decades, and the new challenges Jews face as they enter a new millennium.
"Who could have imagined where we would be 50 years later? In five decades there has been a dramatic revival of Jewish life around the world -- a testament to the indomitable, almost incomprehensible spirit of the Jewish people which has kept us alive as a people for 4,000 years," Eizenstat said.
According to Eizenstat, four "great events since the end of World War II -- all unprecedented, all unpredictable, and all unexpected" created this revival.
They include the rebirth of the Jewish state, the fall of communism, the passage of Jews to the center of American life, and international efforts for justice, i.e., efforts "to right the wrongs of this and previous centuries against the Jewish people."
Towards that end, Eizenstat said the United States plans to establish a Presidential Advisory Commission to look at what happened to the assets of Holocaust victims that flowed into the U.S. for safekeeping from 1932 to 1945. He said legislation establishing the commission "is moving rapidly through Congress with strong bipartisan support and with the strong support of the White House."
The Under Secretary ended his remarks by speaking about three "new challenges" Jews face as they "move from the end of a century marked with supreme tragedy into a new millennium with renewed hope for humanity and for the Jewish people."
"These (challenges) are each the product of the very successes we have enjoyed -- but different challenges than we have traditionally faced, for they are not from our traditional external foes but internal to the Jewish people," Eizenstat said.
"The first are serious internal divisions -- in Israel between the secular and parts of the orthodox community; between segments of the diaspora and the religious establishment in Israel; and within the United States between different denominations."
A second is "the sharp political division within Israel about the nature of the Jewish state's relationship to its Palestinian neighbors and about its final borders," he said."
"And last is the mortal internal threat of assimilation posed to Jews throughout most of the diaspora. Our very success has permitted us to vanish into the comfort of America. We would do far more for our religion and our country by maintaining our traditions and our heritage, thereby contributing to America's rich mosaic."
Following is the text of Eizenstat's speech, as prepared for delivery:
It is a privilege to be here today. I want to thank Sheldon Weisel for inviting me here to address you. I also want to acknowledge my friend Gerald Charnoff who is being honored today.
As we approach a new century, it is natural to reflect on the past as we prepare for the future. We are living in a remarkable period in the history of the Jewish people. This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Third Jewish Commonwealth. We are witnessing a remarkable reawakening of Jewish life in Europe. Jewish influence is continuing to flower in America, and we are seeing a renewed sensitivity to the suffering of Jews in this century.
This century has been the cruelest in recorded history in terms of mankind's destruction of itself -- with two world wars, two other major conflicts in Asia, killing fields in Cambodia, brutalization in parts of Africa, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. But for the Jewish people the 20th century was even more appalling; it challenged our very survival in Europe, the heartland of world Jewry.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, there were around 16 million Jews in the world, with more than 9.5 million living in Europe. Poland and Russia alone accounted for over 5.8 million.
In only 6 years that followed, more than one-third of the total Jewish population of the world was destroyed. We have still not recovered today our numbers in 1939. The Jewish population in Europe is less than one-third of what it was before the war. But the loss was not just numerical; it was incalculable. The loss of Jewish scholarship and rabbinic leadership, of paintings never drawn by artists, of books never written by writers, and of music never composed or played by musicians; of businessmen and artisans and, yes, of farmers and simple folk steeped in Jewish tradition and learning. This would seem to have cut the heart out of world Jewry and left us on the ash heap of history, a marginalized people.
In 1946, at war's end, what was to be our fate?
In the Book of Numbers, the great commentator Rashi explained that God's love for the Jewish people was reflected in His continuous desire to count them. But the numbers of the war years are numbing. The Jewish communities of Europe were devastated -- 6 of 8 million, over 70% perished. The Iron Curtain was about to descend on the remaining Jewish communities of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by a communism bent on wiping out any vestiges of the Jewish religion. Waves of post-war antisemitism drove away the devastated remnant of Jews attempting to return to their houses in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe after the fall of Nazi Germany. The British controlled Palestine as a colony and restricted Jewish emigration, even from the tattered, stateless refugees of Europe. Relations between the Jewish community and the Vatican were tense. The American Jewish community was still uncertain of its place in U.S. society, having been relatively quiet and inobtrusive during the war years.
Fifty Years Later/Four Great Events
Who could have imagined where we would be 50 years later? In five decades there has been a dramatic revival of Jewish life around the world -- a testament to the indomitable, almost incomprehensible spirit of the Jewish people which has kept us alive as a people for 4,000 years. Far from dropping off the pages of history, as could have been imagined in 1946, Jews today are authors of our own destiny.
How did this come about -- and what does it mean? Four great events have occurred since the end of World War II --all unprecedented, all unpredictable, and all unexpected, creating this dramatic revival.
Rebirth of the Jewish state
First is the rebirth of the Jewish state. There is no parallel in world history of the rebirth of the Jewish state in 1948 -- after 2,000 years. No event so completely has transformed the status of Jews, as we went from a people living at the mercy of powerful rulers to a people controlling its own nation-state. Beneath the daily headlines of conflict and tension, of intifada and terrorist bombings, is a more profound and positive reality: after only 50 years and six bloody wars, the State of Israel is a strong, independent, self-reliant, and--yes--secure and permanent country, increasingly accepted in the councils of government. No country in modern history and none which emerged after World War II has gone from a colonial status to independence with such success.
Israel has one of the most powerful, sophisticated, and capable militaries in the world with a population of only 5 million people. Israel has achieved developed country economic status in per capita income, with one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Israel has become one of the most technologically advanced nations from agriculture to computers, from medicine to aerospace. The ingathering of the exiles poetically proclaimed by the prophets has come true in our lifetime from North Africa and Ethiopia, from Europe and the former Soviet Union and the Americas -- Israel has assimilated immigrants from the four corners of the world into one tongue and one culture, more than quadrupling its population. In only the past 10 years Israel has successfully absorbed over 750,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union--the equivalent of the U.S. absorbing the whole country of France--and in the process given itself a priceless commodity in human capital--from engineers and technicians to musicians and artists who have created their own theaters and local symphony orchestras. Despite wars and sieges, Israel has remained a vigorous democracy with an independent judiciary, a boisterous free press, a raucous political system -- never coming close to being a Sparta, despite its reliance on its military for survival and its military leaders for leadership. Israel has become the clear spiritual, cultural, and religious center for world Jewish life, the essential identification point for the Diaspora, the magnet for revival of the Jewish spirit worldwide, and soon the largest Jewish community in the world.
That all of this was accomplished in a brief, 50-year period is as remarkable as it is inspirational. Just as remarkable has been the growth and development of the relationship between Israel and the United States -- a "special" relationship between the world's largest democracy and one of its smallest, though most vibrant.
Our bilateral relationship has evolved from one of initial coolness to one of increasing warmth. What was once a thin and fragile thread connecting the two countries has grown thicker and stronger over the decades.
We too often take for granted this special bond between our nations. It was not always the case. We can more fully appreciate our current relationship by looking back to the period from Israel's inception in 1948 to 1960 which can be characterized as "distant years." While President Truman is properly revered for recognizing Israel, it is less remembered that during the Truman administration, an arms embargo was imposed on Israel during its time of maximum peril in the 1948 War of Independence. The guiding force at the time -- containment of the Soviet influence -- continued through the Eisenhower years, as shown by the strained relationship resulting from the Suez invasion of 1956.
The next phase from 1961 to 1980 were the "evolving years" when a deeper, closer relationship with Israel developed. President Kennedy broke the arms embargo with the sale of defensive weapons yet would only see Israel Prime Minister Ben Gurion in a private capacity in New York.
It was not until 1964 that an Israeli Prime Minister was given a state visit to the White House when President Johnson hosted Prime Minister Eshkol. President Johnson's administration was the first to sell offensive weapons to Israel.
The Nixon years saw Israel play a strategic role in the region, and President Nixon became the first U.S. President to visit Israel and his airlift of equipment was a crucial factor in turning the tide of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Carter years further solidified the U.S.-Israel relationship and led to the first peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, brokered by President Carter.
A brief look at financial assistance levels underscores the tremendous progress in America's relations with Israel. Between 1948 and 1971, total U.S. aid to Israel averaged about $60 million per year, for a total of $1.5 billion overall -- of which $1.35 billion was economic and only $162 million was military in nature. The watershed was immediately following the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Congress voted an emergency appropriation to Israel, including a $1.5 billion grant in military aid to rebuild a severely damaged military infrastructure. Israel today receives $3 billion in aid annually, $1.8 billion in military aid and $1.2 billion in economic assistance. This yearly total is double the combined total for the first 23 years of Israel's existence. It is a sign of Israel's maturity that at Israel's initiative, U.S. economic assistance could be gradually phased out.
In short, this evolving relationship has moved from what was once an arms-length relationship to what now is a full embrace.
Fall of Communism
The second astounding and inspirational event of the post-World War II era has been the cataclysmic change in Jewish life brought about by the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Jews of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have alone lived through the twin tragedies of the 20th century -- Nazism and communism -- 6 years of systematic extermination followed by 40 years of repression.
My wife Fran and I have seen this rebirth from the ashes with our own eyes. As the State Department's Special Envoy on Property Restitution, I have traveled to 11 countries to urge the leaders of the newly free governments to return Jewish communal property -- synagogues, cemeteries, day schools, community centers -- confiscated by the Nazis and nationalized by the communists so these reemerging Jewish communities will have the infrastructure needed to sustain them. We have visited synagogues and attended services, gone to Jewish museums, eaten at kosher restaurants, met with religious and lay leaders. The revival of eastern Europe Jewry, albeit in tragically smaller numbers than before the war, is miraculous. From the Baltics to Poland, from the Czech Republic to Bulgaria, from Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, to Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine, the reconstruction of Jewish life is taking root. People with only partial Jewish parentage are identifying as Jews; Jewish Day Schools are overflowing; adult Jewish education is attracting more and more people; lovely Jewish museums have opened; Jewish camps abound--one in Hungary supported by the Lauder Foundation with over 2,000 kids; Hungary is the home of a rabbinical seminary and Jewish teacher training institute, and Budapest has four Jewish newspapers. Over 50 educational institutions in the former Soviet Union are teaching Jewish studies at the university level, most state universities. Russia still accounts for one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. While still some 50,000 Jews leave each year for Israel, around 1 million Jews remain in an increasingly thriving and active Jewish Community.
Although slow and still inadequate, Jewish communal properties confiscated by the Nazis and nationalized by the communists are being returned across central Europe. Synagogues, day schools, yeshivots, cemeteries, and community centers are being returned to Jewish community hands. In Prague, the 400-year old Jewish town hall again functions as the seat of the Czech Republic's organized Jewish community which also owns and administers Prague's beautiful and historic synagogues and the Jewish museum.
The Slovak and Czech Governments have returned the value of the gold, jewelry and other precious metals stolen from the Slovak Jewish community by the Nazis. A special foundation, the Ezra Foundation, is using the funds to construct an old age home and hospice for the Slovak Jewish community and for the refurbishment and maintenance of synagogues and cemeteries in Slovakia.
Communal property restitution has also taken on special significance for Poland's small remaining Jewish community. A new restitution law has transferred ownership of properties to the congregations and established a commission to adjudicate claims for the restitution of further Jewish communal property. Each of Poland's 9 Jewish communities now has use of a synagogue or prayer hall. A Jewish primary school and kindergarten have also been opened in Warsaw. And Warsaw is the home of the Kaminska Jewish Theater, one of the few regularly functioning Yiddish theaters in the world.
In Hungary, an agreement between the government, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities established the Jewish Heritage Public Foundation, which will be the vehicle for the return of Jewish properties and will use government funds, is now providing over 20,000 Holocaust survivors with between $20 and $40 per month for the rest of their lives. This kind of agreement between the government, the local community, and representatives of world Jewish organizations should serve as a model for other countries and communities to help in the restitution process and to provide urgently needed assistance for elderly holocaust survivors.
In western Europe, also, Judaism is taking on new strength. A new democratic Europe in the European Union stretching from Ireland and Portugal to Germany -- and eventually as far east as Romania and Belarus -- Russia has provided an opportunity for Europeans of various nationalities and religions to rethink their own identities. Jews in eastern Europe and throughout the European Union in western Europe can now define their Jewishness on their own terms. European Jews are becoming a full participant in the construction of the new, pluralist, democratic Europe -- a third partner with the U.S. and Israel, in building a revitalized Jewish identity.
Passage of Jews from the Margins to the Center
Third is the remarkable passage of Jews from the margins to the center of American life with full equality, again with traditional Jews as full participants. With less than 3% of the population at the end of this century, the level of Jewish participation in the leadership of the arts, science, business, finance, politics, and government in the U.S. is, in a word, amazing. If the people of Israel have the first real power Jews have enjoyed since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews in America have real influence unlike those in any other diaspora country in world history, and use it in constructive and positive ways.
With this influence there has also been a rebirth of religious interest--16% of American Jewish households keep kosher, there are over 500 Jewish day schools with over 100,000 Jewish students, now including the reform and conservative movements as well as the more established orthodox ones, compared to only 75 schools after World War II. Kipot on college campuses, in law firms and in businesses abound. Every denomination in Judaism has become more traditional than it was 30 years ago. Anti-Semitic stereotypes have sharply declined as barriers in education, the professions, and in housing have fallen. The legislative calendar of Congress marks the major Jewish holidays along with the major Christian ones, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum has become one of the most important stops for Washington visitors--non-Jewish visitors make up two-thirds of those visiting the museum.
International Effort for Justice
Fourth, and most recent, is the equally remarkable effort by countries and institutions to right the wrongs of this and previous centuries against the Jewish people; to come to terms with their responsibility for the mistreatment and suffering of Jews through the centuries, capped by the Holocaust. Nothing is more surprising or more significant for the Jewish people as a whole. The Holocaust, after having been largely assigned to the history books for 50 years, has become front page news. There is a remarkable coming to terms with the most ghastly events of the 20th century so that we can enter the 21st century wiser and more just.
Last May, our U.S. Government report disclosed the full implications of the Nazi gold issue. We found that on a vast scale -- $4 billion in today's values -- the Nazis plundered gold from European central banks, and from individual Jews which was resmelted and disguised as central bank gold. These gold bars were transferred to Switzerland and converted into Swiss francs which the Germans used as the essential way in which they funded their war machine. We discovered that some of this victim gold was inadvertently swept up by the Allied armies after the war and mistakenly returned to European central banks. Our study has galvanized an effort by numerous countries to face their past, as former neutral and allied countries alike are rethinking their roles during the war. A dozen countries have established historical commissions from Latin America across Europe. A French commission is charged by President Chirac with uncovering for the first time the role of Vichy France in the deportation of French Jews to their deaths and the plundering of Jewish assets, including works of art which hang in their national museum. The London conference held in December brought together 42 countries to shed light on the Nazi gold issue and put the final nail in the coffin of Holocaust revisionists. In November, we will sponsor with the Holocaust Memorial Museum a Washington conference to focus on looted art and insurance never paid to its beneficiaries. Together, these conferences will document one of the greatest robberies in world history.
Next week, we will release our supplemental report on Nazi gold which will examine further the economic relationships Nazi Germany had with neutral and nonbelligerent countries, other than Switzerland, which was extensively covered in our first report. These countries include Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey. We will also have a small section on Ustashe gold in Croatia and the role of the Vatican.
The United States will establish a Presidential Advisory Commission to look at what happened to the assets of Holocaust victims that flowed into our country for safekeeping during the 1932 to 1945 period. Legislation establishing such a commission is moving rapidly through Congress with strong bipartisan support and with the strong support of the White House.
No nation has come further than Switzerland, which has established a first-rate historical commission, the Bergier Commission, to examine Switzerland's record in handling looted Nazi gold, its refugee policy toward Jews, and its entire relationship with Nazi Germany; the Volcker Commission is identifying dormant Holocaust-era bank accounts and will return them, with interest, to their owners or heirs; and a $200 million fund for Holocaust survivors has been created and has paid out its first $11 million to eastern European survivors.
And on the Nazi gold itself, with U.S. and British leadership, a new Holocaust Survivors Fund was created to which most of the 10 countries which have claims to the remaining $60 million in gold collected by the Allies after the war will contribute--foregoing their remaining claims. Many other countries are also contributing, including $25 million from the United States.
Apologies are coming from all sides and should not be taken lightly, for they represent an effort by countries and institutions to cleanse themselves of the past as we enter a new millennium. The British Government recently apologized to Holocaust victims who lost assets seized in Britain during World War II, and agreed to allocate fund payments and publish the names of 25,000 seized accounts.
The recent Vatican document with its call for repentance for centuries of anti-Semitism, and John Paul II's cover letter, with its phrase "never again" reflects this new attitude within the Church. Although some critics have suggested that the document could have gone further -- as did the French and German bishops' apology for their indifference and inaction during the Holocaust -- it represents an historic redefinition of Jewish-Church relations. The Vatican has also established diplomatic relations with Israel, and the Pope has visited synagogues and described Jews as the elder brothers of Catholics.
Germany, which has long since come to terms with its past and has paid over $60 billion to Holocaust survivors who live in Israel and the West, will create by the end of this year a new fund of over $100 million to provide pensions to eastern European survivors whom they never paid during the communist era.
New Challenge -- International
So as we move from the end of a century marked with supreme tragedy into a new millennium with renewed hope for humanity and for the Jewish people, we face a new series of challenges. These are each the product of the very successes we have enjoyed -- but different challenges than we have traditionally faced, for they are not from our traditional external foes but internal to the Jewish people.
The first are serious internal divisions -- in Israel between the secular and parts of the orthodox community; between segments of the diaspora and the religious establishment in Israel; and within the United States between different denominations. You can help create mutual respect. You can be bridge builders here and in Israel. We, who have borne the brunt of unspeakable intolerance in this century, dare not be intolerant of each other.
Another challenge is the sharp political division within Israel about the nature of the Jewish state's relationship to its Palestinian neighbors and about its final borders. Only when this is resolved -- and I believe it will be -- will Israel enjoy genuine peace to go with its hard-earned security.
And last is the mortal internal threat of assimilation posed to Jews throughout most of the diaspora. Our very success has permitted us to vanish into the comfort of America. We would do far more for our religion and our country by maintaining our traditions and our heritage, thereby contributing to America's rich mosaic. Soaring intermarriage rates and plunging birth rates have combined to reduce our number to under 5 million. We are the only major identifiable community in the U.S. declining in absolute numbers.
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.