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Behind the Headlines: Beilin Insists His Aim in Relations with Americans is Not Destructive

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Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin insists that he wants Jewish fund raising for Israel to be reformed and not destroyed, and that he seeks a new, more honest Israel-Diaspora relationship.

He says those who characterize his campaign otherwise are distorting it out of self-interest or fear of changing the status quo.

At the same time, however, he acknowledges that changes will be painful.

Beilin unleashed a fury last month when he told an international Zionist women’s group that Israel was a relatively wealthy country and should not continue asking for Diaspora “charity.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin subsequently gave a speech in which he became so angry about Beilin’s remarks that he knocked one of the microphones off the podium.

Rabin since has tried to contain the damage he clearly believes Beilin has done. In speeches to visiting Diaspora groups, and in a letter-writing campaign to U.S. Jewish leaders, Rabin has gone out of his way to reaffirm the importance Israel attaches to Diaspora philanthropy.

Last week, in a speech to Hadassah leaders, he said to disregard such “noises” by “youngsters” who do not represent the position of the government of Israel.

Indeed, Rabin is making a point of calling on Jewish communities in developed countries to intensify their efforts to help finance the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and would-be immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Rabin, Jewish Agency officials and others have angrily protested that Beilin does not have the faintest understanding of the critical role of Diaspora fund raising.

They say its value goes far beyond the checks written and the programs sponsored. They point to the American-Israeli partnership it offers in the building of the Jewish state, which provides a vital component of Jewish identity.

Yehiel Leket, head of the Jewish Agency’s department of youth aliyah, argued heatedly with Beilin on the question of Diaspora fund raising during a recent Knesset committee meeting.

“I told him that he may understand Palestinians, but he definitely has no understanding of Jews,” said Leket.

Rabin, Leket and others also claim that relieving American Jews of their responsibility to contribute to Israel threatens the $3 billion in aid provided annually by the U.S. government.

By and large, Beilin has been dismissing the explosion over his remarks in part as a result of media distortions that claimed he was out to abolish the Jewish Agency and its international appeals.

Leket said that is disingenuous. He and others claimed Beilin has repeatedly argued that the Jewish Agency should be dismantled and then backed down when the heat turned up.

Beilin was concerned enough about the brouhaha to call a few members of the Jewish media to his Knesset office last week to clarify his position before meeting with Jewish leaders this week in the United States.

The remarks to the Women’s International Zionist Organization were made, Beilin explained, because “I felt it was necessary to deliver the message that Israel is (no longer) this poor country which needs charity.”

“We do not need charity, we need partnership,” he said.

Continuing to portray Israel in a dismal light as a fund-raising tactic may hurt prospective immigration, he added.

But interpreting his remarks as a call to abolish the United Jewish Appeal is “really nonsense,” he said.

Beilin explained that he wants to “restructure” the Israel-Diaspora relationship, against the background of the peace process and Israel’s growing economic and strategic strength, and the crisis of Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.

The combined phenomena mean “we have to change the agenda of our relationship with the Diaspora,” he said. “That’s why I raised the issue.”

But, he added, “suggesting changes is met with a kind of criticism which paints you as somebody who would like to destroy rather than reform.” That, in turn, serves to protect institutions from change, he said.

“Of course, I’m not speaking about destruction,” he said. “I speak about changing priorities in the Jewish appeal and the structure of Jewish organizations.”

‘THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE’

Beilin envisions an international organization based on the Jewish Agency, but performing “some functions not met today (and) cancelling some functions which are performed.”

Existing appeals, he said, should address themselves to “the most important issue” — the threat to Jewish continuity in the Diaspora — and Israelis should be involved in the discussion, since “it is in the national interest of Israel to preserve Jewish continuity.”

The money from the appeals can and should help pay for immigration and absorption, he said, but the bulk of it should be funneled to Diaspora Jewish education and visits to Israel for young people.

The other issues currently addressed by Diaspora philanthropy, such as agriculture and Israeli children in distress, are “mainly for Israel to deal with,” he said.

“I believe we have to restructure the United Jewish Appeal and the other organizations accordingly,” Beilin said.

While reiterating that he is not an expert on the issue of Jewish continuity, Beilin said it seems self-evident that Jewish education is a critical antidote to demographic disaster in an “open, liberal and democratic society” such as the United States.

“It seems to me very difficult to preserve Jewish continuity, if it is not in the context of a state like Israel, where Jewish culture and a Jewish majority make it natural,” he said.

At the same time, Israel’s changing political circumstances will enable it to play, for the first time, the role envisioned by its founders — that of a safe and “normal” haven for world Jewry.

In Israel’s endless wars and conflicts with its Arab neighbors, he said, “we distanced ourselves from the original Zionist dream of being a shelter to the Jewish world.”

But when peace prevails, “I believe we are going to become now what was planned by people like (Theodor) Herzl and (Chaim) Weizmann 100 years ago.”

Beilin anticipated resistance to such change by those invested in the status quo and in the idea of Israel under siege.

“This kind of normalization process will be very difficult to go through because we are so used to the abnormal situation” and because, “psychologically it is so difficult to adapt to a new situation,” said Beilin.

But the Diaspora link with Israel should not be based on a myth, Beilin said with conviction. “It should be a reality. If it is a myth, then it is very fragile.”

In the same vein, giving money should not be the only means of identification with Israel, he said. “I’m sure we can enrich each other by (real) dialogue. And a dialogue in which they write checks to me is not a dialogue, in my eyes.”

A CRITICAL DIFFERENCE

Most of Beilin’s arguments are not new. The prime minister has been calling for a redefinition of the Israel-Diaspora relationship that recognizes Israel’s increased strength and that addresses Jewish continuity in the Diaspora through a stepped-up emphasis on Jewish education.

But there is a critical difference, said Gad Ben-Ari, Rabin’s spokesman. While the prime minister believes “it’s important and legitimate to debate” how much money should be allocated to Israel, and that fund-raising approaches should be discussed, Rabin also believes the only way to contribute to Jewish continuity is to strengthen ties to Israel within the existing structures.

Beilin’s model, Ben-Ari said, reflects a misunderstanding of “the importance of the dynamic of fund raising, not only for Israel but for the entire structure of the Jewish community in the Diaspora.”

Any attempt to stop the current fund raising for Israel “would create grave damage to the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel” and “take the oxygen away” from fund raising for local Jewish needs, he said.

Israel is “the essence and center of Jewish life,” said Ben-Ari. “It is a joint venture” in which Israel and the Diaspora are partners, and of which “fund raising is an important element.”

“The prime minister wants a new agenda,” the spokesman said, “not to dismantle what has been built.”

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