Is Benjamin Netanyahu King of the Jews?
There has been much discussion about PM Netanyahu’s comment that he is coming to Washington to speak representing “the Jewish people” about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. This discussion is appropriate as it raises some interesting issues about Israel-Diaspora relations that require periodic re-thinking. Below I address some of them.
One claim that has been made is that if one agrees with the Law of Return, essentially that all Jews in the Diaspora are virtual Israeli citizens, the elected Prime Minister of Israel indeed represents, and can thus speak for, the entire Jewish People. If believing in the Law of Return means that every Jew in the Diaspora is required to see the elected PM of Israel as representing them, then I do not believe in the Law of Return. The Law of Return was instituted so that Israel can be a safe-haven for Jews under persecution and that I agree with. But I do not think it should be used as a tool to advantage Jews in the Diaspora while creating, or perpetuating, disadvantages to those already living in Israel (Jew or non-Jew).
Another argument cites sources from TANAKH that the King of Israel represented all Israelites/Jews. First, this is likely not true. I do not think the inhabitants of the Northern Israelite Kingdom believed the King of Judah represented them, and vice versa. In terms of the rabbinic sources about the centrality of Erez Yisrael, they are principally about the land and not its (Jewish) polity (which in rabbinic times did not exist). (Perhaps still the most comprehensive work on Erez Yisrael in classical sources is R. Yoel Teitelbaum’s “Ma’amar ‘al Erez Yisrael’ in his Vayoel Moshe. Regrettably, Zionists do not read this because they disagree with its conclusions.)
Practically speaking, I find Rav Moshe Feinstein’s adjudication on this issue to my liking. That is, living in Erez Yisrael is a mitzvah m’kayemet, that is, there is no obligation to live in Erez Yisrael but if one lives there he/she is fulfilling a mitzvah (he brings zizit as an example, there is no obligation to wear a four-cornered garment but if you wear one you have to put zizit on the corners and thus fulfill a mitzvah). This of course has nothing to do with the state (Feinstein was not a Zionist). The mitzvah of living in Erez Yisrael would be as true if one lived in the Ottoman Empire, or the State of Palestine, as much as the State of Israel. I think that the conflation made between state and land that has influenced this debate comes from R. Zvi Yehudah Kook, who conflated the medinah with the religious obligations of the land. Adapting his father’s dialectical thinking, for R. Zvi Yehudah, the state contained the sanctity that is contained in the land, which is one reason why for him abandoning any part of the land, even in a peace treaty, is prohibited.
I personally do not think there is any religious significance to the state and thus none of the “obligations” that apply to Erez Yisrael apply to the state. Here I agree with Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I do believe there is religious significance to the land. These two things need remain separate in my view if we don’t want to move in a direction of hyper-nationalism and even, in an extreme case, fascism. Therein lies the danger of granting the state, any state, supernal or even religious significance. Hence, the Jewish citizen of the state should have no more rights than the non-Jewish citizen in my view (even in a “Jewish State”). In this case, the elected prime minister of the nation-state of Israel has no religious significance for the Diaspora Jew nor the Israeli Jew. He has no political authority over the Diaspora Jew but does have political authority over the Israeli Jew. He speaks for the citizens of Israel alone, as that is his elected mandate. David Ben Gurion made that quite clear early on that as prime minister he represented the Israeli electorate. If the elected Prime Minister of Israel has no religious authority nor political authority over the Diaspora Jew, what is the basis of his claim to “represent the Jewish people”? Netanyahu’s claim is an interesting secularization of R. Zvi Yehuda’s granting religious status to the state such that the state itself is a body that represents all Jews.
This question dovetails into another equally important one: what is the relationship between Jewishness, Judaism, and Zionism today. On the question of Jewishness, I am in agreement with Hannah Arendt when she said that her Jewishness is simply a fact that cannot be contested. There is not much more to say. The Judaism I live is the one I feel makes the most sense to me (and this is true of most people, from haredi to secular, I suppose). In terms of Zionism I have no particular investment in it one way or the other. Whether I am or am not a Zionist all depends on how one defines the term. I can live with Zionism only if it acknowledges the legitimacy of other forms of Jewish identity. Zionism used to be one of many forms of Jewish identity (even though Zionists early on made the claim that they were the ones who were truly representing Jewishness). At some point – sometime in the early 70s when the impact of the Six-Day war began to be felt – Zionists appointed themselves hegemons over Jewish identity as if to say that not being a Zionist somehow diminished one’s allegiance to the Jewish community.” In the early 70s Norman Podhoretz wrote in Commentary Magazine, “We are all Zionists now!” This attitude is, in my view, unhealthy for the Jewish people, almost half of whom choose to live outside of Israel (and will likely continue to do so). So accusations made by some that our progressive positions mean that we are not Zionist has no impact either on my Jewishness nor to my practice of Judaism, nor, in fact, on my relationship with Zionism. This is because I reject Zionist hegemony both in principle and in practice.
In sum, as far as I can tell, there is no sustainable argument to support the Prime Minister’s claim that the elected head of the Israeli state, whoever he or she may be, represents all Jews. My argument is founded on three principles: (1) The rejection of Zionist hegemony that suggests that Zionism is the only legitimate form of Jewish identity; (2) The rejection of the notion that the state of Israel has religious significance for Jews; and (3) that the elected head of the state of Israel only has political authority over the citizens of the state of Israel. His authority does not extend beyond the limits of the country in which he was elected. Diaspora Jews can support the Prime Minister and even rally behind his policies, but his authority; religiously, and politically, does not extend beyond the citizenry of his country.