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Vol. 1, No. 4: Should Israel Speak for the Jewish People?

V. 1, N. 4
Featuring Yehuda Kurtzer and responses by rabbis Janet Marder and Marion Lev Cohen, and Jeremy Burton of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council

  1. Watch Yehuda Kurtzer, President of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, discuss whether, how, and why Israel should speak for the Jewish people.
  2. Watch and Read responses to Yehuda Kurtzer’s comments from rabbis Janet Marder and Marion Lev Cohen, and Jeremy Burton of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
  3. Respond: Add your comments to the conversation via email , Facebook, Twitter, or video.

Yehuda 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 that the Jewish people want leaders to stand up and represent Israel on the world stage, the Jewish communal 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.

L: Rabbi Marion Lev Cohen, Central Synagogue, New York
C: Jeremy Burton, Jewish Community Relations Council, Boston
R: Rabbi Janet Marder, Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, CA

Yehuda said that what bothered him about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress last winter was not the right of Israel’s political leader to make the claim that a particular position was in the interest of the Jewish people, but playing American Jews against one another.

"So when we think about this question of who speaks for the Jews, the first set of questions we have to ask is, by what merit does somebody have the right to make that claim," Kurtzer said.

"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," he 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."


Rabbis Marion Lev Cohen of Central Synagogue, New York, Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, Calif., and Jeremy Burton, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, offer commentary that challenges and amplifies Yehuda Kurtzer’s positions.

Marion Lev Cohen
Central Synagogue
New York, NY

Priestly or Prophetic Voice? Jewish World’s Leaders Must Choose

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.

Read On  

Jeremy Burton
Boston, Mass.

Build Power With, not Over, to Speak for Jews

As Zionism and the State of Israel established an elective democratic system for choosing its leaders for part of our people, and the State means that we can take care of ourselves, then for those of us not in the State of Israel, we must continue to cultivate networks – our own voluntary, participatory systems – where leaders are committed to power with, together, 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.

Read On

Janet Marder
Congregation Beth Am
Los Altos Hills, Calif.

Exercise the Right to Speak With Extreme Care

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.

Read On


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