Why Israel's Prime Minister Will Never Be King of the Jews

Too many Israeli politicians believe the role of the Jewish Diaspora is to serve the Jewish state. The opposite is true: Israel exists to serve the Jewish People.

Gidi Grinstein
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Before departing to Washington to deliver his speeches to AIPAC and Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he feels like “the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish people.” With these words, he invoked a great paradox of Zionism: While no one represents all Jews, Zionism does claim to serve the entire Jewish People, and while the prime minister of Israel has no authority over Diaspora Jews, he or she, by virtue of being the leader of the nation-state of the Jewish People, should certainly act as if they are in power to serve them all.

The simple fact is that no one is in charge of the Jewish People. Jews have no president, prime minister or king. They are organized as a decentralized network of communities that has multiple centers of power, which compete over leadership and influence.

This architecture – a worldwide network of communities – is crucial for Jewish resilience. Simply put, a people without a head cannot be beheaded, and a people spread out cannot be captured. This formation also underlies the astounding adaptability of the Jewish People and its ability to resurrect from calamities such as the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion from Spain, and the Holocaust. In our time, having strong Diaspora communities provides an insurance policy to the Jewish People against the possible decline of the State of Israel – especially when, as Netanyahu and some of his predecessors have claimed, Israel may face existential threats – and ensures that Jews will be around as far as we can see into the human future.

Being the nation-state of the Jewish People requires an inclusive approach toward Diaspora Jews. Israel is obliged to serve non-Zionist and even anti-Zionist Jews just as much as the Zionists, J Street as much as AIPAC, the New Israel Fund as much as Im Tirtzu. It also means that Israel’s rabbinate must serve all Jews and respect all Jewish outlooks, not just Orthodox, and that the heads of Israel’s National Security Council should feel as comfortable walking the corridors of the UJA-Federation of New York as they are walking the deserts and streets of the Middle East.

From this perspective, Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens and its ongoing control over the Palestinian population are not domestic issues, but rather matters of profound significance for all Diaspora Jews, as they affect their stature and their communities. Furthermore, questing a model society should not be a luxury, but rather central to Israel’s mission, for it stems directly from the ancient Jewish mission of being a light unto the nations.

Far too many Israeli politicians act as though the State of Israel were the ultimate goal of the Jewish People and not a means with which to serve it. They expect all Jews to extend Israel unconditional and unlimited financial and political support until the Diaspora eventually disintegrates and immigrates to Israel. Clearly and paradoxically, considering the origins of Zionism, this outlook is deeply post-Zionist, as it contradicts the founding logic of Zionism.

Modern Zionism sought to serve the entire Jewish people. It originally focused on addressing the poverty, vulnerability and lack of freedom and sovereignty of Jews in Europe. While the first Zionists were few in number, their mission was grand, framed in the broader context of Jewish history and society. Without the authority to do so, they sought to alter their course through mass-relocation and repatriation to Zion. This mission later shaped the visions of Theodor Herzl in the very early 20th century, of David Ben-Gurion between the 1930s and the 1950s, and was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, after European Jewry was decimated.

Now, like then, the centerpiece of Zionism, and the central mission of the Israeli prime minister, should be a true commitment to serving the resilience, prosperity and leadership of the Jewish People. In the 21st century, a vibrant Diaspora is not a Zionist comprise; it’s a Zionist imperative. And the prime minister of Israel is not the king of the Jews, but rather their servant.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Institute, and author of the recently published "Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability and the Challenge and Opportunity Facing Israel."