Who Speaks for the Jews?

I have sung the song “David Melech Yisrael” thousands of times. It’s easy to learn and fun to sing with hand motions. The song voices the hopes of the Jewish people; exiled, dispersed, powerless and persecuted, we have longed for the “good old days” of the strong, unified and powerful kingdom of King David. Some three thousand years later, we haven’t stopped wishing for a return to the Davidic monarchy. It is our messianic yearning, fueling optimism and collective hope.

Optimism is one of the Jewish values that most animates our spiritual worldview. But recent events have prompted me to revisit the content of this narrative. The wish for a monarch who rules over a united Jewish nation, even the whole Jewish people, looks different now.

It is time to replace “David Melech Yisrael” with a different trope. We do not have a King of Israel, and we shouldn’t. That was then, and this is now.

In 70 CE, when we lost the last grasp on our Jewish nation, our people dispersed. During that time of dramatic change, our leaders took to the study halls. Their leadership was built on learning, interpreting, and vigorous debate over all aspects of life. The record of those holy disagreements became the Talmud, the sourcebook for rabbinic Judaism. The Jewish ideas that inform our lives today flow from those pages. “When there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” the joke goes. But it’s true. The Jewish people thrive on diverse opinions freely shared.

Today, during another time of great change, the yearning for King David has a new voice. As if “David Melech” once again lives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed the mantle of power for all Jews. The Prime Minister recently asserted that he is the representative of the “entire Jewish people.” Netanyahu argues that the Jewish people are endangered, and only a strong state of Israel can protect all of us. Together with his invitation to French (and other European Jews) to make aliyah – move to Israel – the Prime Minister has stirred an anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.

We’ve been down this road before. In 1950, the head of the American Jewish Committee negotiated a pact with founding Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement with Israel asserted “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.”

I support policies and politicians who make the world safer for Jews, and make Israel strong. But we will best accomplish this goal by vigorous debate and respectful divergence of views. My prayer for a safe, strong Israel includes a vision of a just, democratic nation. The voices of all its inhabitants, and all Jews, form the chorus to the song of Israel. No one representative, no king or absolute ruler, can achieve that. Only we can do that together.

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