Israeli President Unveils Plan For ‘World Knesset’

Published December 17, 2004, issue of December 17, 2004.
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JERUSALEM — Israel’s government took its first public step last week toward the formal creation of an international Jewish “parliament,” whose purpose would be to represent Diaspora Jews in the formation of Israeli government policies that have potential impact on Jewish life in other countries.

The initiative was unveiled at a special Monday meeting of the Knesset’s committee for immigration and absorption, which has responsibility for Diaspora affairs. The meeting was held at the official residence of Israel’s figurehead president, in an apparent effort to emphasize the ceremonial significance of the initiative, and was formally introduced by the president himself, Moshe Katzav.

The proposal for a world Jewish consultative “parliament” was initially raised last July in a strategic policy report submitted to Prime Minister Sharon by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s legally designated liaison to the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The 50-page report, an executive summary of a 600-page document due out this month, reviewed security, political, religious, cultural and economic conditions in Jewish communities on every continent and made a host of recommendations ranging from Internet use to summer camp staffing. Among the key proposals was the formation of an international representative body to consult with the Israeli government on decisions that may affect Jewish security or culture in other countries.

The report was prepared by a newly-formed Jewish Agency think tank for global Jewish policy, chaired by the former American diplomat Dennis Ross.

After lengthy Cabinet debate, the report was approved in July and handed by Sharon to a top aide, Yisrael Maimon, for interministerial implementation. This week’s Knesset hearing appears to be the first formal step.

Katzav, in introducing the proposal, suggested that it be seen as a “second house of the Knesset,” to be composed of Israeli and Diaspora Jews. The goal, he said, would be to breach the conceptual, philosophical and experiential gaps between the two.

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, the principal drafter of the Jewish Agency report, told the committee that the new institution might be modeled on other non-binding world councils, such as the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie, an assembly of French-speaking nations that includes former French colonies, or the Consiglio Generale degli Italiani all’Estero, which represents persons of Italian extraction living around the world. A primary aim of the council, he said, would be to foster feelings of fellowship among Jews around the world who may share ethnic origins but little else.

Katzav, however, in a clear allusion to the Jewish Agency report, said the council would have policy goals along with cultural ones. “We in Israel do not have the right to make decisions on our own that affect world Jewry,” he said. “Even if, God willing, 60% of Jews on earth live in Israel, we still have to consult. That is why it is important that this house shall arise.”

DellaPergola testified to the committee that some 40% of the world’s Jewish population currently resides in Israel and another 40% in the United States.

The Knesset immigration committee normally meets in the Knesset chambers and deals mainly with immigration matters. It is chaired by Labor lawmaker Colette Avital, a former diplomat.

Several speakers at the hearing, notably Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky and Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri, spoke in sharply cautionary tones about the new body. Both argued that such an institution might be drawn into matters properly left to Israel’s sovereign institutions, such as drafting foreign policy or delineating national borders. Both pointed to an implicit danger in the very use of terms such as “parliament” or “Knesset” in the title.

The original Jewish Agency report, jointly authored by DellaPergola and retired Brigadier General Amos Gilboa, a former deputy chief of military intelligence, appeared to advocate precisely such a policy role, however. The report suggested that Israeli security policies can have the unintended effect of arousing hostility toward Jewish communities among émigré Arab populations in places such as Europe and Latin America, with occasionally violent results. It urged that Jerusalem institute a formal, ongoing structure for consulting with Diaspora communities.

The report also urged that the proposed body be involved in Israeli decisions on matters such as conversion and Jewish education.

Speaking to the Forward afterward, Sharansky made clear that the new body’s structure and duties are far from settled. He endorsed Katzav’s “parliament” image, even suggesting that Diaspora Jews be inducted directly into Israel’s Knesset, but at the same time he warned against Diaspora Jewish interference in Israeli security policy.

The urgency with which Israel sees the issue was driven home by the staff director of the Jewish Agency think tank, Avinoam Bar Yosef, who told the Forward that his staff had been given three months by the president to work through the issues and present a working legislative draft.

In all, 17 speakers were invited to testify before the committee on Monday. Nearly all lamented a sense of disconnection between Israelis and their Diaspora cousins, and voiced hope that a sense of common Jewish purpose could be fostered.

Retired Major General Uzi Dayan, former chief of Israel’s National Security Council and currently president of the Zionist Council in Israel, laid out a vision whereby “Judaism is seen as more than religion or a nationality, but as a civilization. The State of Israel has as a duty to preserve Judaism wherever it may be, as a higher priority even than [fostering] immigration.”

Dayan’s Zionist council is the Israeli wing of the World Zionist Organization, which largely controls the Jewish Agency in partnership with Diaspora Jewish philanthropies. Dayan himself is a nephew of the late Israeli leader Moshe Dayan.

Advocating a greater bond between Israel and Jewish communities in other countries, Dayan said: “We have more to learn from them than we know. We can’t keep looking at them as if they are OK but somehow missing something. And you know, they also see us as not Jewish enough.”

Echoing other participants, Dayan called for the participation of young people, “aged 30 and 40,” in any future dialogue on the topic.

Former justice minister Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Yahad-Meretz party, recommended to the committee that the new body be called an asefah or “assembly,” rather than a “parliament,” to avoid any risk of compromising the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. “It should be left undefined,” Beilin said, “and meet twice a year to discuss issues connected to the Jewish people.”

Beilin was one of the first Israelis to propose such a world assembly of Jewish communities, recommending in the mid-1990s the formation of a body he tentatively called Bet Yisrael or “the House of Israel.” His proposal was never acted on, in part because it was seen as potentially competing with established bodies such as the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency itself. It was not made clear how the current proposal would avert those potential conflicts.

Bar Yosef, the think tank director, indicated that the complexities of sovereignty had been discussed at length in preparing the report. “Jews’ loyalty in every place is to the state in which they live, but the Jewish people have to have an influence on matters of transcendent importance to the State of Israel,” he told the Forward.

“We recommended that Israeli decision-makers take all the Jewish people into account when they make decisions on matters relating to anything from the division of Jerusalem through pluralism and ‘who is a Jew’ and even to targeted killings in Gaza. They don’t have to be consulted, but they do have to be listened to.”

The complexities of structuring such a representative body were clearly if inadvertently on display at the Monday hearings. Of the 17 invited speakers, few appeared to be under 60 and none was unaffiliated to a major Jewish or Israeli institution.

More striking, only one woman addressed the committee — Laura Kam Issacharoff, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office — and her role was limited to reading a prepared statement authored by ADL director Abraham Foxman.

Avital, the Knesset committee chair, ended the session on a light note, taking account of the oceanic sense of perplexity sometimes felt by Jews from different parts of the world. “At a time of great immigration,” she said, “two ships cross at sea, one carrying Jews to the Land of Israel, and one away. Each looks at the other across the waves and asks, ‘Have you lost your mind?’”

— Noga Tarnopolsky contributed to this report from Jerusalem.






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