A response to Ronald Lauder

Who constitutes 'the Jewish people as a whole,' and what does Israeli sovereignty really mean?

a crowd of Israelis (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
a crowd of Israelis
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Dear Mr. Lauder, I am responding to your open letter to Prime Minister Olmert on the issue of Jerusalem, in which you expressed the concern of Jews everywhere about the future of Israel's capital. This is obvious and self-evident. But the thrust of your letter lay in the suggestion that while you recognize Israel's inherent prerogative as a sovereign state, "it is inconceivable" that any changes in the status of Jerusalem "will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in this decision." This is a highly problematic position. If taken seriously, it undermines - your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding - Israel's sovereignty. Two issues are involved here, one normative, the other seemingly technical. The normative issue is very simple: Why should "the Jewish people as a whole" have a voice only in this decision regarding the future of Israel? Why shouldn't "the Jewish people as a whole" also have a voice in deciding issues of state and religion in Israel, the question of "Who is a Jew?," the status of the Arab minority in Israel - in short, why shouldn't it participate in every controversy which may affect the life, status and feeling of Jews outside of Israel? MOREOVER, all of Jerusalem is now under Israeli rule as the consequence of the Six Day War. Should "the Jewish people as a whole" have been consulted before Israel decided to go to war, and should this be the case in future? Obviously you do not maintain that the World Jewish Congress - or any Jewish organization - should "have a voice" in whether Israel goes to war; and if so, what gives you the moral right to participate in the decision about the ultimate outcome of war? Power without responsibility is immoral and unconscionable. The voice of Diaspora Jews should be heard and seriously considered by Israel. But it is the essence of the revolution which the establishment of Israel brought about in Jewish life that in Israel Jews now have sovereign power. This power resides only in those who live here, share the burden of citizenship by paying taxes and serving in the army, and will have to live with the consequences of their sovereign decisions. Those of you in the Diaspora who feel so strongly about these issues have always been free to join us here, in the free land of the Jews. I respect your choice not to live in Israel; but this choice entails you to realize that you are not part of the sovereignty of the Jewish people as incarnated in Israel. You can't have it both ways. THE TECHNICAL issues are equally formidable. Who is "the Jewish people as a whole" who should have a voice in the decision on Jerusalem's status? There is no universally recognized public body that can speak authoritatively and legitimately for "the Jewish people as a whole." With all due respect, I am sure you do not presume that it is the Jewish World Congress: after all, prestigious as it may be, it is just one body among a plethora of Jewish organizations. How would such a voice "of the Jewish people as a whole" be constituted? Who would decide on the distribution of seats among the hundreds of organizations involved? Some organizations might decide not to participate in the effort, would you count them in, or out? And if the views of the Israeli majority were different from those of "the Jewish people as a whole," whose voice would prevail? Last and not least: Is there an authoritative consensus on who should be included? Can you offer a definition of who is, and who is not, a member of "the Jewish people as a whole"? Should people living in mixed marriages be included - or not? Their children and grandchildren? What about Reform converts, who may not be recognized as such by Orthodox groups? Obviously you are not aware of the kind of Pandora's Box you are opening here. ALL OF US in Israel welcome the serious and deep concern Jews all over the world have for the Jewish state. We recognize how meaningful it is for the future of all Jews. Your voice should be heard; but the ultimate decisions - whether to go to war or make peace, whether to pay the price, for war as well as peace - are for the sovereign body of the country's citizens to make. Without engaging in any simplistic Zionist "negation of the Diaspora," this is, after all, the difference between living in the Jewish state and deciding to live, well, somewhere else. Each Jew can change his or her status any minute, and he or she will be more than welcome, regardless of their views or political commitments. Come, join us in the front seat. The writer is the author of The Making of Modern Zionism.