Israel's Responsibility for and Policy Towards Diaspora Jewry

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Israel's Responsibility for and Policy Towards Diaspora Jewry

Book excerpt

By: Geula Cohen and Yitzhak Rabin

Date: November 26, 1975

Source: Cohen, Geula, and Yitzhak Rabin. Major Knesset Debates. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992.

About the Authors: Geula Cohen (b. 1925), an Israel politician, served in the Israeli Knesset from 1973 to 1992. In 2001 she was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement. Following twenty-seven years with the Israeli Defense Force, Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) joined the Likud party and served as Prime Minister from 1974 to 1977 and from 1992 to 1994. Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, along with Yassar Arafat and Shimon Peres for their steps toward peace in the Middle East through the Oslo Accords. Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv after attending a rally in 1995.


Anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century throughout Europe became the catalyst for the movement to create of a Jewish homeland. This movement became referred to as Zionism. The most famous case of anti-Semitism occurred in France with the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army captain was convicted of treason based on forged evidence, highlighting the institutionalized anti-Semitism in France. The Dreyfus affair influenced Jewish writers such as Leon Pinsker (1821–1891) and Theodore Herzl (1860–1904), who began to write about the Jewish experience of discrimination in Europe. In 1896, Herzl published Der Judenstaat, or the State of the Jews, which declared that the condition of the Diaspora, or Jews residing throughout the world, would continue to deteriorate. Under Herzl's leadership, the first Zionist Congress met in August of 1897 in Basle and established the goal of Zionism as the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. The Zionist movement established itself as an international organization with a structure and institutions, including the Zionist General Council and the Zionist Executive. The Third Congress passed the first constitution for the organization in 1899.

Palestine at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) that ruled over much of the Middle East. The Ottomans were ethnically Turkish, while the people residing in Palestine were primarily Arabs, with some Jews as well. The Ottomans were opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Western nations, at this time, viewed Palestine as a region that lacked a national identity. During World War I (1914–1918), the Ottoman Empire fought on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Central Powers) against Great Britain, France, Russia and the other nations known as the Allied Powers. Britain negotiated with both Arabs and the Jews who resided in the Middle East in an effort to win their support against their Ottoman rulers. The British stated sympathy for Zionist goals in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, which announced British intent to sponsor a national home for the Jews in Palestine after the war.

The Allied powers were victorious in World War I, and after the war British troops occupied Palestine and several other regions in the Middle East, becoming the dominant colonial power in the region. In an agreement reached at the San Remo Conference, which was drafted in 1920 and adopted by the League of Nations in 1922, the Principle Allied Powers divided the Middle East using self-interest to determine their individual country's mandates. As a provision under the Mandate for Palestine granted to Britain, an agency was created to represent the Jewish people and aid in the establishment of a Jewish homeland. The Zionist Organization established by Herzl was initially tasked as this agency. In 1929, the Jewish Agency for Palestine was created under the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine as an element of the World Zionist Organization in building a homeland for Jews.

While the Western powers carved up the region, Jews began to immigrate in larger numbers to Palestine. From 1919 to 1931 the Jewish population increased from 8 to 17 percent of the total population as their numbers increased from 60,000 to 175,000. Arabs became increasingly resistant to the increase in Jewish immigrants to Palestine during the period preceding World War II (1939–1945). After a series of violent conflicts, the British government published the White Paper of 1939 that established a new policy for Britain toward Zionism. The white paper announced British intention to seek an independent Palestinian state, governed by Jews and Arabs who shared authority. Zionists viewed the paper as a betrayal on the part of British policy makers and began to pursue support from the United States. where many Jews resided. As World War II came to an end and the details of the Holocaust became widely known, Zionists gained popular support for the creation of a Jewish homeland. On the geopolitical stage, Britain and the U.S. recognized that the oil-rich Middle East would play an important role in the imminent Cold War with the Soviet Union. By 1948, the United Nations Resolution 181 terminated the Mandate for Palestine, under which the British had administered the region. The Jewish inhabitants of the region responded by declaring their independence and the statehood of Israel. Arab nations rejected the state of Israel while western powers acknowledged the new country.


Introduction The relationship between Israel and Jews living abroad and, by the same token, the implications of Israel's character as a Jewish state have been fundamental issues echoed in many debates in the Knesset. They have, however, only seldom constituted the focus of a special debate. A motion for the agenda on the subject was presented by MK Geula Cohen on 26 November 1975, and was followed later on by a full-scale debate.

Sitting 231 of the Eighth Knesset

                      26 November 1975 (22 Kislev 5736)

G. Cohen (Likud): Distinguished Knesset, despite the Knesset's low labor morals … I hope things have not reached such a pass that I have to ask for House to forgive me for raising a purely Zionist issue … and asking whether we are still a Zionist state….

In effect, what happened yesterday, when Jews who sought to settle in Judea and Samaria were removed, is sufficient indication … its ultimate implication being the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank … and the condemnation of Zionism not only about our enemies. But today I will discuss Zionism from a different angle … that of the Jewish people, and ask to what extent the Government of Israel, as a Zionist government, is responsible for the fate of the entire Jewish people and is prepared to accept whatever derives from that and, accordingly, to appoint a Minister whose sole responsibility will be the Jewish people.

The only Jewish community … which cannot concern itself with the welfare of the Jewish people is the Jewish community in the State of Israel. In Israel's Knesset, which represents Israel's citizens, there is no possibility today of seriously discussing a topic connected with the Jews of the diaspora, whether it be immigration or Jewish education, assimilation or anti-Semitism, because there is no Minister in the Government who deals with the subject….

That is no mere chance. The subject of the Jewish people does not appear on the agenda of the Knesset because it does not appear on the agenda of the State of Israel. The phenomenon I am referring to has its roots in a fundamental error … committed in the early years of the state's existence, when it decided not to take upon itself the responsibility for the Jewish people … today, it cannot do so even if it wants to … although the state has accepted a situation of coexistence with the exile … (I am using the term deliberately), emptying of content all its statements about immigration and thereby relinquishing its role as a Zionist state….

May I remind the House … that the Zionist state was established in order to solve the problem of the Jewish people, and that its responsibility should extend beyond its territorial sovereignty to the place where the furthest-flung Jew resides…. Because if the Jews of the world may have a problem of dual loyalty, the Government of Zionist Israel can have only one loyalty, i.e., to every member of the Jewish people, wherever he or she may be.

The moral question as to what extent the Jewish people has empowered the Government of Israel to interfere in its affairs … was settled when Zionism—whose consequence is the state—came into being…. There may be no precedent in international law for one country's interference in the affairs of the citizens of another, but the Jewish people and its problems are so abnormal that they cannot be based on precedents. Such questions as in what ways to do it and whether we should intervene only when Jewish lives are threatened … can be asked only after the basic question of whether the Government of Israel regards itself as being responsible for the entire Jewish people has been answered….

I expect to receive an answer to that question from the Prime Minister today, because if I had to answer it in the light of the behavior of all Israel's governments to date I would say that they hesitate to accept this responsibility, and that this has serious implications for the situation of the Jews of the exile as well as for the State of Israel. Officially, the Government has not divested itself of that responsibility … by transferring it to the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Organization, except in the spheres of financial and political aid for Israel's defense … this arrangement being anchored in an agreement signed in 1952, with coordinating committee between the Government and the Zionist Organization…. But that agreement is one which purportedly deals with the Jewish people and its problems, on the one hand, and the State of Israel and its problems, on the other … irrespective of the extent to which the Zionist organization is in fact Zionist and representative of diaspora Jewry….

The inescapable fact is that the coordinating body cannot coordinate because it does not meet. Its chairman is the Prime Minister, and he is too busy with the problems of the State of Israel to convene it. Although it should meet at least once a month, it has not met more than twice or three times in the last two years … for the real question is not whether the Prime Minister has time for the problems of the Jewish people, but whether he is interested in them…. I assume he is interested … as was indicated by his admirable remarks in the debate arising from the U.N. resolutions on Zionism…. That was the first time I heard a Prime Minister speak in a truly Zionist spirit in this House … though the circumstances in which his warning to the Jews of the diaspora and his call to them to immigrate to Israel were issued were regrettable….

Be that as it may … why shouldn't a special Minister, someone who is genuinely concerned about and identifies with the Jewish people, take the Prime Minister's place as chairman of that committee …? The State of Israel, as a Zionist state, should not, from the very outset, have divested itself of responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people. This is even more so today, when the Jews of the exile will not make a move without Israel's approval and when Israel's fate determines the physical condition of the Jews of the diaspora…. Without a doubt, Israel does act on behalf of the Jews of the diaspora in various roundabout ways, but it must do so openly and officially….

There are also several contradictions in Israel's policy on this subject. On the one hand we hear the Foreign Minister declare, in Kissinger's wake, that the subject of Soviet Jewry is the internal concern of the Soviet authorities, while on the other the State of Israel sends Israeli citizenship documents to immigration activists in Russia…. Israel's responsibility for the diaspora is particularly necessary now … when assimilation and mixed marriage is rife, Jewish education is declining, anti-Semitism is increasing and immigration to Israel has become an infinitesimal trickle….

In the 1950s Ben-Gurion made a weak attempt to alter the situation and criticized the Zionist Organization … but his sole concern was immigration…. His approach was to turn his back and display pique, which is hardly a rational, useful or Zionist approach….

I am not unaware of the problems involved in our accepting this responsibility, particularly after having shrugged it off for twenty-seven years…. I live in this country and have also fought for it and know how much wars and struggles can distract a nation's attention from the more general problem of the Jewish people…. But we are all aware of the dreadful experience of the Holocaust and know now that it could be fatal to defer dealing with problems … for the enemies of the Jews are in a hurry to solve the problems of the Jewish people in their own way….

By neglecting to deal with the problem of the Jewish people we are also harming the State of Israel … cutting ourselves off from the historical process of redemption and the vision of the ingathering of the exiles and raising a barrier between Israelis and Jews…. All those things have caused a diminution in every sphere of our life: withdrawal from parts of the land of Israel, negative immigration and retreats in the fields of culture, economics and morals…. A country which was created to be Zionist and does not act accordingly is not only non-Zionist, it is abnormal. The attempt to evade the Zionist mission and establish a normal country here is not succeeding. One might understand the desire to be normal, to be a country like any other, though when I look around at the normal countries I am not so very impressed. But even if we want to achieve that, we will not.

At any rate, in its declaration of intent, the state decided that it was Zionist. The only Zionist law which distinguishes this country is the Law of Return. This is the only country in the world most of whose potential inhabitants live outside it. Even in order to attain peace Israel will not abrogate the Law of Return…. But that law alone cannot bring immigrants to Israel … and what the country needs is a Zionist policy. I therefore propose that the Knesset hold an urgent debate on revising the state's responsibility for and policy towards the Jewish people, with all that that implies regarding the coordinating committee of the Zionist Organization, as well as on establishing a parallel Knesset committee to deal with the issue….

The Prime Minister, Y. Rabin: Mr. Speaker … the subject raised is without doubt an important one and concerns the basis of Israel's existence…. I will not repeat what is contained in the Government's guidelines regarding Israel and the diaspora. I am convinced that we are all united in realizing that the Jewish State is based on our firm and close link with our brethren abroad. Israel was established and exists for the entire Jewish nation, to ensure our national survival and continue Jewish history, not solely for its own inhabitants. That is no empty phrase, because it is reflected in our daily activities in every sphere…. I will not say that what we do is sufficient and that more could not be done to combat assimilation, heighten Jewish consciousness, encourage immigration and strengthen the bond between the State of Israel and the diaspora.

These obligations are of particular importance at this time, in view of the great and urgent challenges now on the agenda of the Jewish people … No one will dispute that the subject currently under discussion has to be given greater attention … but it cannot be said that nothing is being done…. I would like to remind the House of the law passed by the Knesset regarding the status of the Zionist Organization in 1952 and the agreement between the Government and the Zionist Executive in 1954…. Those documents embody both the basic ideology and the practical measures of and authority for its implementation … and considerable activity is being undertaken within those frameworks….

The Government, in conjunction with the Zionist Executive, is inviting Jewish leaders representing the major Jewish organizations of the free world to Jerusalem next week for the Jerusalem Conference for Jewish Solidarity, to express the solidarity of the Jewish people with Zionism and Israel and prepare a practical and detailed plan of action for 1976. There is a widespread awakening in Jewish communities all over the world…. The committee coordinating the work of the Government and the Zionist Organization met yesterday and the final details of the conference were worked out…. We hope that the conference will express the unity of the Jewish people in Israel and abroad, a unity which has grown stronger in the face of the attacks upon Zionism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel…. I support MK Cohen's proposal that the subject be discussed, which the Government will bring before the House.

(The proposal to place the subject on the agenda is adopted.)


In 1952, the Knesset, the Israeli legislative body, adopted the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Law. This legislation tasked the World Zionist Organization (WZO) with the development and settlement of the nascent state of Israel. Other aspects of the WZO mandate were the promotion of immigration to Israel and the absorption of immigrants from the Diaspora into the Israeli state. In 1954, the Israeli government and the Zionist executives met at the Jerusalem Conference for Jewish Solidarity. As a provision of the covenant that emerged from the conference, the WZO and the Jewish Agency were identified as the official representatives of Jews, whether residing in Israel or abroad. The WZO was given the task of focusing on the political and organization matters regarding Zionism, to include Jewish education in the Diaspora and the supervision of the Jewish National Fund. The Jewish Agency was tasked with the financial and economic activities regarding Zionism. As a result, the two organizations played a major role in the consolidation of the nascent Israeli state by absorbing and settling immigrants and gaining financial and moral support from the Diaspora.

Following the six-day war in 1967, the WZO and the Jewish Agency sought to strengthen ties between the Israeli state and the Diaspora. The WZO's primary concern was the development of the Diaspora through Jewish education, Zionist organizational work, and information and cultural programs. The Jewish Agency was tasked with fundraising to finance the resettlement issues of the immigrants, to include housing, social welfare, education and land settlement.



Brenner, Michael. Zionism: A Brief History. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Weiner Publishers, 2003.

Sacher, Howard M. A History of Israel. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979.


Bennis, Phyllis. "The United Nations and Palestine: Partition and its Aftermath." Arab Studies Quarterly 19 (June 22, 1997).

Ovendale, Ritchie. "The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict." Historian, January 1, 2002.

Web site

Library of Congress. "Israel Country Study." 〈〉 (accessed June 15, 2006).

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Israel's Responsibility for and Policy Towards Diaspora Jewry

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