Dec. 17, 2004
7 Days: Who speaks for the Jews?

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When President Moshe Katsav sat down this week with some diaspora Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians to discuss his proposal for the establishment in Israel of a parliament of sorts for diaspora Jewry, the Americans responded tepidly, at best.

It's not that Katsav's intentions aren't noble. Certainly, Israel should not be alone in deciding issues of great significance to Jews worldwide, such as the question of who is a Jew or how to fight anti-Semitism.

It's just that, practically, the creation and constitution of such a legislative house-Katsav said it could serve as a consultative body to the Knesset-would be impossible to formalize and might create dangerous problems for Jews in their home countries.

"There are so many difficulties, so many complications, that I'm not sure it's worth it to formalize this, to institutionalize this," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League.

One might fairly ask why Foxman's opinion matters. After all, he's just one Jew who has been successful at raising hundreds of millions of dollars to build up an organization aimed at fighting anti-Semitism. Nobody elected him, and the ADL does not represent American Jewry.

Therein lies the crux of the problem: Who speaks for the Jews?

Reporters routinely call up the same small cast of characters in a quest to solicit the opinions of "Jewish leaders," but the people they turn to actually are no more than self-appointed leaders-Jews who've succeeded at raising lots of money and building sizeable institutions, or professionals who have been installed at the heads of those institutions. Some of them are elected, but the voters may be no more than a few dozen representatives of Jewish organizations nobody elected in the first place.

So, how does one elect a Jewish parliament?

And that's just the beginning of the problem. If there were some way to enable diaspora Jews to vote for such a legislative body according to the formula of "one Jew, one vote," then who would decide who is a Jew? The Israeli government may have decided that issue, but nobody else seems to count Jews the same way.

In America, there are those who count Jews by choice (people who, regardless of Jewish lineage or conversion status, have chosen to be Jewish), Jews by matrilineal descent (people with Jewish mothers) and Jews by patrilineal descent (people with at least one Jewish parent)-to name just three major methods of counting.

Perhaps an even bigger problem would be the dual-loyalty issues that would be raised by the practice of Jewish citizens of diaspora countries voting for a legislative body in a foreign country.

"These are people who are citizens of other countries, and in some of those countries it could be exploited for dual loyalty or other charges," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein is another so-called Jewish leader, but he is a professional, not an elected representative, and the conference itself is merely an assembly of some of US Jewry's largest organizations that excludes far more groups than it includes.

Foxman agreed with Hoenlein. "Even in America people believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States," Foxman said. "What will people say in other countries? I don't think it's worth the price and the risk."

Furthermore, many diaspora Jews would be uninterested in voting for such a parliament. Though many Israeli government officials may sometimes forget it, most diaspora Jews seem quite happy to stay in their home countries. Many consider themselves first and foremost Americans or Britons or Australians-and only then Jews. Some have never visited Israel and have no interest in doing so.

Of course, there's another reason leaders of diaspora Jewish groups may not be keen to have such a parliament: Establishing an alternate voice for diaspora Jewry would weaken their own power and influence in their home communities.

Hoenlein, Foxman and Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress, all spoke against the idea of an Israeli institution setting the agenda for diaspora Jews-something that might be attributed to Israeli hubris when it to setting the agenda for Jews worldwide.

"As much as we respect Israel's role, we have to respect the roles of Jews in their own countries," Rosen said. "They have a say in the institutions that they support in their own communities. It's much too simplistic to argue that you can create a component of the Israeli parliament that would set an agenda for Jews all over the world."

The Israelis at the meeting this week with Katsav may have been right about the need for "fresh blood" when it comes to diaspora leadership, as the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies' Reuven Merhav put it.

But that change likely will have to come from the diaspora, not Israel.