Just whose country is this?

Has the time come to give Diaspora Jews a voice in determining Israeli policy?

By
March 10, 2010 05:32
New olim arrive in Israel

New olim arrive in Israel. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The recent commotion in the Knesset over legislation that would allow Israelis abroad to vote in national elections got me thinking. Shouldn’t we be talking about extending the same right to any Jew in the world? After all, this is their country too. Or is it?

For decades we’ve been speaking out of both sides of our mouth in answering that question, and meaning every word we say.

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From the “yes” side: Already within Israel’s Declaration of Independence, its signatories “appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Yisrael... and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream.”

The country’s basic laws – a hodgepodge of legislation that constitute the fundamental precepts of this nation – contain a number of references affirming this relationship. The most familiar is the Law of Return, essentially a preapproval of any Jew’s request for citizenship. Less known is one that expressly prohibits someone from running for Knesset whose platform might be construed as promoting “negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

But then there is the “no” side: The same Declaration of Independence that asserts “the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its national home” also avows that the state “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants... it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex...” This proclamation, furthermore, has found expression in numerous acts of legislation and adjudication, including recent decisions requiring the state to allow non-Jews to settle on and acquire even that land that was purchased by the Jewish National Fund expressly for the Jewish people.

There is also the fact that Israeli law and policy relating to such things as personal status, immigration and burial exclude large numbers of Jews from the same Jewish people for whom the state was supposedly founded.

SO, DOES this country belong to those who live here – Jews and non-Jews alike – or to those in whose name it was established? Do we change the flag and the national anthem, as is seriously proposed every few years, so that they not consist exclusively of Jewish symbols and aspirations? Or perhaps we transfer these insignia to the Zionist movement, and adopt new ones that make sense for a state in which 22 percent (and rising) of the population is not Jewish, many of whom are expected to serve in the army and pledge allegiance to its colors.



Symbols aside, do we provide the opportunity for Jews abroad – in possession of an Israeli passport or not– to influence policy? Before responding, consider that I’ve been living here for 36 years and am still allowed to vote in American elections. I daresay there are many Jews abroad who would exercise their right to participate in Israeli elections with more integrity than I might exercise in voting for the next senator from New York. Don’t tell Uncle Sam, but the last time I marked my ballot in a US presidential contest, it just may be that my concern for Israel carried more weight than my concern for America. And no, these concerns are not always one and the same.

But I don’t believe that’s the point. We’re not talking dual loyalty here, as the question is not one of dubious motivation but of inalienable rights. If this is indeed the “state of the Jewish people,” then it would seem to me the time has come to find a mechanism that would allow world Jewry to contribute not only to filling its coffers but also to shaping its policies.

Wow, does that mean people living on J Street, Haredi Road, Reform Avenue, Conservative Boulevard and Secular Humanist Way would all be given a voice? Scary thought. Almost like letting everyone living within Israel vote.

I don’t think I’m taking an extreme position here. I’ve been careful to refer to affecting policy rather than taking part in elections. What I think we need is a responsible way for Jews abroad to influence those decisions made here that relate directly to the country’s Jewish character, and that affect the Jewish people as a whole. How difficult could it be in a world of Twitter and Facebook to organize a worldwide referendum on matters such as who is a Jew?

The challenge is not in creating the platform, but in deciding who gets to take advantage of it. Perhaps the time has come to reintroduce the Zionist Shekel. Inspired by the biblical levy imposed on the children of Israel that went toward the Tabernacle and later the Temple, Theodor Herzl too sought to involve the masses in the rebuilding of our ancient homeland, and instituted a voluntary tax that gave any Jew who paid it a voice in determining the policies of the Zionist movement – right up until the state came into being. Why not renew that possibility, giving Jews everywhere the opportunity to stake a claim in the well-being of this country, allowing them some sense of ownership along with the ability to make their voices heard on matters  affecting them?

OF COURSE, this may not be a good idea. Maybe we don’t really want this to be “the state of the Jews.” To those abroad we can say: We gave you your chance; you decided to stay where you are. You’re still welcome to join us, but in the meantime, know that this will be a Jewish state only to the extent – and in the manner – that those of us living here see fit. Let’s be clear: Israel belongs only to those residing within its borders. Let’s continue caring about each other, but recognize that we are each going our own way in matters of religion, culture and identity.

This may be a legitimate position, but if it’s the one we take, we should anticipate that one day soon a new generation will remind us that there can be no taxation without representation. Despite having been nurtured on this hallowed hallmark of the American ethos, Jews in the United States have held this commandment of civil religion in abeyance for the better part of a century when it comes to Israel.


And not only them. Jews around the world have given dutifully and generously to the Jewish state – generally with no questions asked and always without a vote. Even the growing demand for a modicum of accountability as to how campaign dollars are spent is still a far cry from insisting on a voice in determining policy. With no-strings-attached contributions on the decline, however, and growing alienation from Israel on the part of the young, perhaps it’s time to tamper with old formulas and restore a sense of belonging, possession and responsibility.

In any case, the time has come to talk about this. The World Zionist Organization will be convening its congress in June, and the right of Jews everywhere to affect matters involving Jewish peoplehood needs to be discussed there, just as the rights of Israelis abroad need to be discussed in the Knesset.

The writer represents worldwide Masorti/Conservative Judaism on the executives of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, where he also serves as head of the Department for Zionist Activities. davidbr@wzo.org.il

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