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Exercise the Right to Speak With Extreme Care

It might not even be desirable for the Jewish people to speak with one voice, because Jewish tradition values debate over consensus and uniformity

What does it mean to “speak for” another? Several things. First, it can mean, “to express the views of another.” Clearly, the Prime Minister of Israel does not express the views of all Jews. Given our diverse and fractious nature as a people, that would be impossible for any individual — or organization, for that matter.
It might not even be desirable for the Jewish people to speak with one voice, because Jewish tradition values debate over consensus and uniformity. And on a descriptive level, it’s simply untrue: the 2013 Pew study shows, for instance, that a majority of American Jews disagree with the current Israeli government’s position on the settlements.
“Speaking for” another can also mean “to act as the authorized representative of another.” If I hire an attorney to act as my agent in a negotiation, she takes only the positions I authorize her to take. In a democracy, our elected officials are our authorized representatives, and they may act even in ways that do not reflect our personal views.
The concept of popular sovereignty grounds the moral and legal authority of government in the will of the people. Governments, says the U.S. Declaration of Independence, derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The President of the United States signs laws I must obey, acts in my name and speaks for me, whether or not I voted for him, because he is the democratically elected leader of the nation to which I belong. By virtue of my citizenship, he acts as my representative. If enough of us disagree with the way our president represents us, we can vote him out of office.
The Jewish people did not elect Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the authority of the Prime Minister to speak on behalf of the Jews is, in one sense, grounded in popular sovereignty. That is, his authority rests on the consent of his constituency. And who are his constituents? If Israel is truly the state of the Jewish people, and presents itself as such on the world stage, then the prime minister’s constituents are not merely the citizens of Israel but the Jewish people as a whole.
How did we give our consent to being represented by Israel’s Prime Minister? Today being Jewish is a voluntary association. Those who freely choose to identify as members of the Jewish people, and regard Israel as the Jewish State and the homeland of the Jewish people give their implicit consent to Israel’s democratically elected leader to speak in their name. To pretend otherwise is to want all the benefits of Zionism, while refusing to compromise our autonomy.
“Speaking for” another can also mean “to testify or argue in behalf of another” – that is, for another’s benefit or interest. In this sense, I think an Israeli Prime Minister can indeed speak for the Jewish people. If we acknowledge Israel as the only nation committed to the defense and protection of Jews everywhere – witnessed, for example, in the airlift of Ethiopian Jews – it is the duty of Israel’s leader to speak out whenever the Jewish people face significant danger.
Belonging to any community with an authority structure requires surrendering some freedom – including the freedom to be represented by myself alone. If I’m a member of a Reform synagogue, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism will issue statements purporting to speak for me. If I disagree profoundly enough with those positions, and my pride in belonging to the Reform movement does not outweigh my dismay, I’m free to go elsewhere. If the Jews of the world disagree sufficiently with the way the Israeli Prime Minister represents us, we can’t vote him out of office, but we can certainly vote ourselves out, disengaging from institutional Jewish life – or opting out of Zionism.
Given that very real danger, 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.
Janet Marder is rabbi of Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills, California, and a Hartman Senior Rabbinic Fellow

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