Who speaks for the Jews?

Dave SchechterA lot has been said about this lately, prompted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”

Does the prime minister of Israel represent the entirety of the Jewish people?

For that matter, does anyone have the authority, even implicit, to speak for the entirety of the Jewish people?

Netanyahu plans to address Congress about an Iranian nuclear program that he views as “life-threatening to the state of Israel.”

Does the prime minister — whoever holds that position, regardless of political affiliation — speak not only for Israelis, including the 25 percent who are not Jewish, but for every Jew not a citizen of Israel?

There was much wrangling in Israel’s early days over how the new nation should relate to the Jewish diaspora. Eventually, an understanding was reached.

“In the first statement which the representative of Israel made before the United Nations after her admission to that international organization, he clearly stated, without any reservation, that the state of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country,” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said Aug. 23, 1950, to a visiting group sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

If an Israeli prime minister claims to represent Jews in the diaspora, does that make it easier for anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic critics to question the loyalty of American Jews to the United States?

“The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment, and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel,” Ben-Gurion said.

The degree to which Ben-Gurion’s statements remain in effect is open to debate, along with the degree to which Israel and American Jewry each are responsible for any change.

Israelis nonetheless can be prickly about diaspora Jews offering advice. You don’t live here, you don’t pay taxes here, you don’t wear the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, so do not presume to tell us what we should do. That message makes a certain amount of sense at face value.

However, if Israel wants American Jews to fundraise and lobby their congressmen to support Israel (including the allocation of taxpayer dollars for military aid and other purposes), does that not give American Jews the right (and perhaps an obligation) to speak up?

So, who speaks for the Jews?

The prime minister of Israel is an elected leader, conferring upon that office legitimacy when speaking on behalf of that nation.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations makes pronouncements in the name of “organized American Jewry.” Do these organizational leaders speak for the diversity of American Jewish opinion?

When a rabbi makes disparaging remarks about another faith or suggests how a business should treat its employees or speaks about Israel, does that rabbi speak for his/her congregants?

Who speaks for the Jewish people?

A prime minister of Israel does not speak for me. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations does not speak for me. My rabbi does not speak for me. As it pertains to my Jewish identity and all that it encompasses (including Israel), I speak for me. The same should be true for all of us.