WASHINGTON, February 14, 2015 – The controversy over the planned speech before a joint session of Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March continues to divide Republicans and Democrats.
What has been largely overlooked is Mr. Netanyahu’s exaggerated claims to speak not only for his own country, but for Jews throughout the world who are citizens of other countries, including American Jews. This, needless to say, he has no mandate to do.
Early in February, Mr. Netanyahu said he was not just the prime minister of Israel but also “a representative of the entire Jewish people.” It is unprecedented for the leader of one country to claim to speak in the name of millions of men and women who are citizens of other countries simply because of their religious faith.
The reaction to his hubris has been widespread. Many American Jewish leaders have urged Mr. Netanyahu not to come, among them Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.J Street, a liberal pro-Israel lobbying group which opposes the occupation of the West Bank and seeks a negotiated two-state solution, declared: “Israel’s Prime Minister said he would be representing all Jews when he addresses Congress…He said he’s coming to Washington ‘not just as the Prime Minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.’
Netanyahy is in the middle of a tough election campaign, battling along with other party leaders for the right to represent Israelis, but he certainly can’t claim to speak for Jews in the United States. Benjamin Netanyahu has his own constituents. Coming to the United States to undermine a president who was elected with the votes of 69 per cent of American Jews, while having the audacity to claim he represents us, is real chutzpah.”
Editorially, the Jewish newspaper THE FORWARD (Feb. 11, 2015) asked the question: “Who Speaks for the Jews?” It declared: “By rushing to Paris to march, lecture and promote immigration to Israel after the terrorist attacks in January, Netanyahu rankled many of the Jews he ostensibly was there to help, turning what should have essentially been a shiva (mourning) call to comfort the grieving into an uncomfortable political exercise. And by claiming to represent all Jews in his plea to a GOP Congress to defy a Democratic president, Netanyahu risks the ‘Israelization’ even the ‘Judaization’ of the debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons.”
According to THE FORWARD, “We have survived into modern times because we haven’t relied on one leader—a king or prelate or pope—and instead embraced the fact that we are diverse in more ways than we can count…We’ve learned to find vitality and sustenance in a dynamic pluralism that resists centralization…Not all our lives are consumed with terror and hate. Not all our lives revolve around Israel. Editors at THE FORWARD have been penning editorials for more than a century, but we wouldn’t presume to speak for all Jews. Neither should anyone else.”
In Israel, there is a similar effort to claim to represent those beyond its borders. In November, a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People” passed by a vote of 14-6. For the bill to become law it must be approved by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
This legislation would make Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, 20 per cent of the population, less than equal. Beyond this, the claim that Israel is the “nation-state” of “the Jewish people” is on its face fanciful and bears little relationship to reality.
The “nation-state” of American Jews is the United States, not Israel, just as the “nation-state” of British Jews is the United Kingdom and the “nation-state” of French Jews is France, etc.The Zionist notion that Israel is the Jewish “homeland,” and that all Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile” is an ideological construct. The overwhelming majority of American Jews, for example, have always believed that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality, and that rather than being in “exile” in America, they are fully at home. They are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Catholic, Protestant or Muslim.
Sadly, the Israeli government seems not to recognize that Jewish Americans are not “Israelis in exile.” Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly called upon American Jews to make a “mass aliyah” (immigration) to Israel.
No other foreign government argues that millions of Americans, because of their religion, are in “exile” in the United States and that their real “homeland”or “nation-state” is that foreign country. Israel should be content to be the nation of its own citizens, whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
Discussing the proposed Nationality Law, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan argues that, “Saying Israel is a ‘Jewish’ state in the sense of race would be analogous to insisting that the U.S. is a ‘white’ state and defining Latinos as ‘brown.’ And saying it is a Jewish state in the sense of observant believers would be like asserting that the U.S. is a Christian state even though about 22 per cent of the population does not identify as Christian (roughly the same proportion as non-Jews in Israel)…Netanyahu’s demand is either racist or fundamentalist and is objectionable from an American point of view on human rights grounds either way.”
While Israel claims to speak for all Jews, the fact is that it is a theocracy, with Orthodox Judaism, in effect, as the state religion. The majority of American Jews are not Orthodox. Reform and Conservative rabbis have no right in Israel to perform weddings, funerals or conversions.
Israel, when it comes to genuine religious freedom, is more similar to Saudi Arabia and Iran than to Denmark or France. In what sense, then, can it claim to represent all Jews, when most Jews would be denied genuine religious freedom within its borders?
Zionism and Judaism are radically different. In 1929, Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was “a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.” He wrote: “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which can be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a ‘nationality’ in the sense of modern nationalism…No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit…it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as the Scripture said of Torah, ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.'”
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, agreed that Israel can speak only on behalf of its own citizens “and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of other countries.” That was 1950. Now, in 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu somehow thinks he is in a position to speak in the name of all Jews, whatever their nationality, citizenship or point of view. He needs to abandon his grandiose and delusionary view of his role. Whether or not he even speaks for the majority of his own citizens is less than clear. In the last Israeli election, his party received less than 30 per cent of the vote.
One thing which we can be confident in saying is that Netanyahu certainly does not speak for all American Jews.
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