In the wake of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speeches in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and to the US Congress, the question of whether Israel can and should represent World Jewry is once again high on the public agenda.
Call & Responsa No. 4 takes this issue head-on, with a surprising and nuanced take on the issue by Yehuda Kurtzer , President of SHI-North America, and responses from two rabbis and a leading Jewish community professional.
Yehuda Kurtzer said that many have not yet grasped "the radical and significant ways in which the state of Israel has changed what it means to be a Jew in the world." Before Israel, he said, virtually all issues were by nature local, but the creation of Israel has given the Jewish people a global platform, and the Jewish people want leaders to stand up and represent Israel on the world stage, the Jewish stage, and with other Jews in order to make serious claims of what is now possible for the Jewish people that have previously not been the case.
"Zionism has to challenge us to take seriously that the elected leader of the State of Israel might have the right to make that claim and empirically, that we as Jews in the world have interests in which we want people to speak on our behalf, so it’s both a Jewish interest and an empirical interest," Kurtzer said.
"But I am challenging that even if we allow people to speak in our name, and with our interests in mind, that we have to outline a series of ethical considerations that have to be taken much more seriously – absence of self-interest, a willingness to actually listen and correlate to the needs of the people, a willingness to take moral risks on behalf of the people, and a challenge to do so in a way that is consistent with the needs of the people and not their own self-interest."
In response, Rabbi Marion Lev Cohen of Central Synagogue of New York said, in part, that leaders must always make choices between using their prophetic voice – speaking truth to power – as Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed he was doing both in Paris and to the US Congress – and using their priestly voice, speaking in a more consensual and inclusive fashion, measuring how their words affect and represent all of world Jewry.
"Realistically, given the divisive state of the Jewish community, this delicate task is exceedingly difficult to achieve, yet is required of any Jewish leader – Israeli or otherwise, who lays claim to speaking on behalf of the Jewish people," she said.
Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Greater Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, said that as Zionism and the State of Israel established an elective democratic system for choosing its leaders for part of our people, then those of us not in Israel must continue to cultivate networks where leaders are committed to exercising power with each other.
"If we do that, then we can continue to be an effective and consensual kind of community to take collective action in support of Israel and in support of all of our priorities," he said.
Rabbi Janet Marder said that if the Jews of the world disagree sufficiently with the way the Israeli Prime Minister represents us they cannot vote him out of office, but they can certainly vote themselves out by disengaging from institutional Jewish life – or opting out of Zionism.
"Given that very real danger," she said, "any Israeli Prime Minister ought to exercise his or her legitimate right to speak for the Jews with utmost care. If too wide a gap opens between his views and the views of world Jewry, he will find himself speaking for fewer and fewer constituents."