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The Power of Jerusalem: For the Diaspora, It's Limited

December 13, 2007 By:
Calev Ben-David
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Jerusalem's Jewish population has reportedly declined over the past half-century, with some 300,000 Jewish residents leaving, in contrast to slightly more than 100,000 who have arrived.

But that's if you only count the living.

Many of these are newcomers to the city -- Diaspora Jews who lived their long lives abroad, but have chosen to follow a long-standing Jewish custom of spending their even longer after-lives in the City of David. There have been years in which more dead American Jews were coming on aliyah than those with a pulse.

The fashion among Diaspora Jews these days seems to have at least progressed from buying a grave site in Jerusalem to purchasing an apartment; a recent study found that one out of every three apartments sold in central Jerusalem was to foreigners, and many of them sit empty most of the year.

All this is not to suggest, though, that Jerusalem doesn't hold tremendous meaning for Diaspora Jewry. The degree to which this is the case has been amply demonstrated the past few weeks or so by certain elements of the U.S. Jewish leadership.

The cause of their heightened concern is the fact that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be negotiating with the Palestinian Authority in the coming year over the future political status of the capital, and the comments by him and some of his closest associates hint that they might be willing to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over some of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. There has also been distressed speculation that Israeli concessions on the capital could extend into the Old City, and its holy places sacred to Jews and Muslims -- the area on and around the Temple Mount.

Most vocal has been the Orthodox Union, which represents approximately 1,000 synagogues across America.

Last month its leaders, Tzvi Hersh Weinreb and Stephen Savitsky, published an opinion piece in which they addressed the issue head on. They wrote, "As Jews, we are required to defend and rebuild Jerusalem, and if we do not take a stand now, history -- and we believe God Himself -- will judge us poorly."

True enough.

Then again, God might judge even more poorly Jews who choose to defend and rebuild Jerusalem from 6,000 miles away, especially when they live in an age when, for the first time in two millennia, all Jews are free to come reside in the City of David, or the restored Jewish state of which it serves as the capital.

When Olmert was asked about this last month in Washington, he left no doubt about where he stands on the issue.

"Does any Jewish organization have the right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not? This question was decided a long time ago. The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel."

As a point of fact, if not necessarily of principle, the prime minister is correct. The simple truth is that Diaspora Jews don't and won't have much actual say in deciding the future status of Jerusalem. Such territorial issues will, as they must in all democracies, be solely decided by the ballot-casting citizens of the sovereign State of Israel.

Nor will Diaspora Jews have much influence on that decision. I hate to disappoint my friends back in the old country, but the vast majority of taxpaying, army-serving Israelis don't care much what the Diaspora Jewish leadership has to say on this issue -- or, for that matter, on a whole host of others.

Alas, though on Passover we all may end the seder by declaring "Next year in Jerusalem," it's only those Diaspora Jews who have taken those words literally to heart -- moving either to the city itself or elsewhere in the Jewish state -- who get the privilege of deciding its fate.

Well, not quite all. A prominent Jewish figure I know once privately said: "I'd die for Israel, but I'd rather die than live in Israel."

In that sense, those Diaspora Jews who waited until they could make aliyah only to the Mount of Olives cemetery have also lucked out. It may be that in certain wards of old Chicago, the dead did indeed get to cast ballots.

But today, it's only the living citizens of Israel -- those born here or who have linked their fates with sabras -- who will get to cast the votes that will decide the future of Jerusalem, as well as have an effect on so much else that goes on here.

Calev Ben-David is a veteran journalist living in Jerusalem.

 

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