Does Netanyahu represent “the entire Jewish people”? An attempt at having a dispassionate discussion

February 16, 2015

Two weeks ago, I attempted to have a dispassionate discussion about Netanyahu's decision to go to Congress. This is not an easy task when the public discourse is saturated deep in political biases and manipulated by spin masters of all sides. Today I am going to once again try to have such a discussion about a secondary question – but one that is, in fact, much more interesting: does Netanyahu speak for the Jews, or just for Israel?

The reason for having such a discussion is a quote by Netanyahu, made famous by his objectors: “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel, but as a representative of the entire Jewish people. Just as I went to Paris, so I will go anyplace I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us”. In other words: Netanyahu believes that his attendance at the protest rally in Paris, following the terrorist killing spree that targeted artists and Jews, was not merely as a representative of the Israeli government. He also believes that when he speaks to Congress next month he will not do it merely as a representative of Israel. He will do it as a “representative of the entire Jewish people”.


There are two possible reasons for Jews to object to Netanyahu's claim of representation:

1. Netanyahu's policies and statements are disagreeable to people and do not represent the policies and statements that they would like to hear from someone that represents them.

2. The idea that the Prime Minister of Israel can claim to represent all the Jews in the world is disagreeable to people.  

Let's begin with reason number one. When J Street, an organization that fiercely disagrees with Netanyahu on policy issues, launched a campaign under the headline “no, Mr. Netanyahu. You do not speak for me”, one could reasonably suspect that the organization had political motivation – namely, that it objects to Netanyahu because of the policies he represents. Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation League, who (rightly) called this J Street campaign “inflammatory and repugnant”, was still not much different in his reason for objecting to the campaign: “Let’s remember what is at stake: preventing extremist Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon that could threaten Israel’s very existence. In that goal, Mr. Netanyahu surely does represent not only Israelis, but American Jews as well”. So, J street cannot let Netanyahu speak for “all Jews” because of Netanyahu's policies. Foxman would let him speak for “all Jews” because all Jews – or a vast majority of them – support Netanyahu's goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Simply put, the claims made by J Street and Foxman can easily be put to the test. These are factual claims: If most Jews, as Foxman says, want to prevent Iran from getting the weapon, and want Israel to exist – then Netanyahu speaks for at least the majority of Jews. The fact that he does not speak for the 20 thousand signatories of J Street doesn't make much difference. In the US – and in Israel – there is clearly a minority that would not agree with Netanyahu even on the issue of Iran. That minority is entitled to speak up in protest of Netanyahu's policies, but it would still be reasonable for Netanyahu under such circumstances to state that on Iran he speaks for the Jewish people.

That is – if the question is one of agreeable policies. But really, that isn’t the interesting question. The much more profound question is the one of Israel-diaspora relations. Can Israel – the Jewish State – claim to represent non-Israeli Jews? And in what way?


Once again, there are facts to be considered when pondering this question, and there are views.

Let's begin with the easier part – the facts.

Fact 1: Legally and officially, Israel cannot claim to represent Jews that are not Israeli. Israel did not get such a mandate from anyone (there is no one who can give it such a mandate). And in fact, in the famous Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement of 1950 Israel admitted “without any reservation, that the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country”.

Fact 2: For many non-Jews in the US and in other countries, the question is not even a question: they see it as obvious that Israel and the Jews are in some ways one entity. Surely, many Jews do not like to be associated with Israel – yet they are, by their non-Jewish neighbor. Changing this perception is going to be tough – and costly.

Fact 3: Netanyahu, as Anshel Pfeffer wrote, “has one major advantage over all other Jewish leaders. He is the elected representative of the largest number of Jews collectively voting in one election. No other elected Jewish leader represents a major Jewish community”.

Fact 4: Whether Jews like it or not, Netanyahu, and former Israeli PM's, have repeatedly claimed to be the representatives of world Jewry.  

Where does this leave us? In a state of debate about the meaning of “representation”. If “representation” means having an official representative role, then Netanyahu clearly does not have such a role. If “representation” refers to perception, then many non-Jews – possibly a majority of them – and many Jews – surely a fair number of Israeli Jews –  do see Netanyahu as the most representative leader of the Jewish world. If “representation” refers to the views of Jews – then Netanyahu can claim representation on some issues and can't claim representation on other issues.


Why is it even important to discuss the degree to which Netanyahu represents all Jews? Why was his statement so inflammatory to some Jews? Again, there is more than one answer to this question.

1. Personal offense: people dislike Netanyahu and\or his policies and do not like to be associated with him\his policies.

2. Ideological offense: Shaul Magid (among others) made this case: “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”.

3. Practical offence. Here, again, there is more than one option to consider.

3a. Hurting Israel-diaspora relations. Daniel Gordis argues that in making the representation claim Netanyahu alienates the American Jewish community whose support Israel needs. “Netanyahu appears to have forgotten that while in his own mind he may represent all Jews, in the minds of most, he is simply the prime minister of a state the size of New Jersey with the population of Los Angeles”.

3b. Hurting the battle against Iran. A Forward editorial made the case that “by claiming to represent all Jews in his plea to a GOP Congress to defy a Democratic president, Netanyahu risks the “Israelization” or even the “Judaization” of the debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons”.

3c. Putting Jews under greater risk. Evidence shows that the more Jews are associated with Israel, the more they might suffer from antagonism towards Israel and pay a price for it. So making such a claim endangers Diaspora Jews.


I know – there is a need for a bottom line.

Netanyahu does represent all Jews because he is the man in charge of a cause of critical importance to most Jews – making Israel stronger and safer.  

Netanyahu does not represent all Jews – because no one represents all Jews. The Jewish people are a nation, but one without an agreed upon leader. Not since the end of King Solomon's Kingdom.

I think my bottom line would be: it would be great for as many Jews as possible to consider an Israeli Prime Minister as their representative without having to do so.

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