The justification for the modern State of Israel is Jewish history – both glorious and grim – and there has long been a compact between the Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Israeli Jews were on the front lines and Diaspora Jewry was a vital source of economic and political strength. The Jews of Israel bore the lion’s share of the pain, but also reaped the bulk of the benefits.
There have been rifts: Often in Israel’s history, Jews of one stripe or another have taken issue with a government’s policies, and vulnerable Diaspora communities have at times become front-line victims of terror or violence perpetrated by Israel’s enemies.
But our bond withstood all because Israel’s leaders ensured that it remained a Jewish state. Perhaps nothing embodied this commitment more than the dedication to preserving Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, the 3,000-year-old capital of the Jewish people reunified in 1967.
In recent months, however, there have been rumblings from Israeli government ministers about negotiations with the Palestinians on the potential re-division of Jerusalem. On the eve of the Annapolis conference, in response to objections from U.S. Jewish groups about this alarming trend, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bluntly declared: “The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel.”
In that, of course, he wasn’t wrong; but his formulation missed a corollary truth that no Israeli government has the unilateral or unfettered right to negotiate anything on behalf of the Jews when it comes to the eternal Jewish verities or heritage, such as our capital.
As such, Olmert’s statements were not merely disappointing to Jewish sensibilities, they were dangerous to Jewish interests.
As Israeli prime minister of the moment, Olmert can try to negotiate anything he wants with Palestinians – including whether Jerusalem is a re-divided war zone, and even whether Israel itself remains a Jewish state or is transformed into a “democratic state of all its citizens.” He just has no right to expect or demand that Jews acquiesce.
Nor do Jews in America – the country whose influence is most strongly felt in Israel and which also holds the largest and most powerful Diaspora community – require Olmert’s permission to exercise our political clout in accordance with our best moral, religious and political assessments.
Jerusalem unites Jews across religious and ideological lines as well as across geographical ones. This is not a struggle of Diaspora Jewry vs. Israeli Jewry; it is a struggle that unites Jewry.
Jerusalem’s mayor is opposed to dividing the city and is working with American Jews. Most Knesset members oppose negotiating Jerusalem, and they also are working with American Jews. Dozens of Israeli organizations are working with American Jews.
Contrary to those who characterize this as a “right-wing religious” or an “anti-peace” bloc, the groups in the United States and in Israel range all along the religious and secular spectrum, and are fully committed to peace and security. They simply are mindful of the deadly consequences of previous “peace processes” and current realities, like the unending barrage of rockets from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. Jerusalem’s mayor reports that the talk of ceding control of parts of the city has already begun to stir radicalization and unrest among the city’s Arab population.
In short, as Olmert has himself done many times and is doing even now, Israeli citizens and leaders are working together with Diaspora Jews for that which affects us all.
It surely must be awkward for Olmert to be on the other side of an issue that so unites Jews and to find such tepid support for his own position, but it is important that he not let his frustration erode core principles on which Israel’s existence always hinges.
We recall Olmert’s own adjuration that every Jew is obligated to speak out regarding Jerusalem’s fate because “Jerusalem is not only the city of those who live in Jerusalem, it’s not only the city of those who live in the State of Israel – it is the city of every Jewish person no matter where he lives.”
In uttering those words, Olmert ratified personally that which every Israeli prime minister has declared and which Jews have believed since long before the State of Israel came into being.