The Jews are a group, unified mainly, but not exclusively, by religion or faith, that developed a system of ethical values derived from their beliefs. They lost their independent state more than two millennia ago and since then have been dispersed all over the world. There may be different views about the nature of the Jewish people—a religious, ethnic, or cultural group, or a civilization—but beyond a doubt, Jews are a rather coherent, easily identifiable group or community. The judiciary of several countries state that it is not so important to define precisely the nature of a human group; important are the historical ties, the self-perception, and the perception by others of the group—or community—as a group.
Since their dispersion, Jews have maintained diverse forms of relative communal autonomy, with loose ties among themselves. In the twentieth century in the period between the two world wars, some European Jewish communities enjoyed, under the League of Nations, a special system of autonomy protected by international law. During the Holocaust, many of those communities were annihilated by the Nazis and their accomplices. A few years after the end of the war, in 1948, an independent Jewish state, Israel, was established, with the support of the United Nations, more or less on the same territory on which the ancient biblical Jewish state—or, more accurately, two states—had existed.
Even though the State of Israel has enjoyed wide international recognition for almost seven decades, it remains involved in a struggle for its existence. At the time of this writing, about half of the Jews of the world live in the sovereign state—where they constitute about 80 percent of the population—and the other half continue to be dispersed on all but one of the continents, keeping their cohesion through more or less organized communities, under different legal regimes, according to the constitutional framework of the host state.
The Jews living in the Diaspora as well as those who are inhabitants of Israel are conscious, in general, of the fact that they belong to the same unit of humanity—that they are described as the Jewish nation, the Jewish people, or world Jewry, although there are different understandings of what constitute the cohesive factors or the nature and extent of the reciprocal obligations or duties, as well as rights, involved. The legal and sociological dimensions of that relationship are beyond the scope of this article. What seems beyond a doubt is that the relationship exists and demands attention.
An Uneven Bilateral Relationship
It is against this theoretical backdrop that the relationship between the World Jewish Congress and the State of Israel should be considered. It is an uneven relationship between two unequal partners that need each other: an independent, sovereign, modern, relatively powerful state on the one hand, and a loose federation of minority communities based on voluntary affiliation on the other. The WJC, founded in 1936, is the most well-articulated effort to create a political framework or federation involving all the Jews of the world, namely, those who live in the independent State of Israel as well as those living abroad, in the Diaspora.
Already in its founding assembly, the WJC affirmed “that the Jewish people of the whole world, without distinction of groups or party affiliation, are united in their support of the heroic battle of the Yishuv for the maintenance of its right to life and labor, and pledges its full support in the task of safeguarding the right of the Jewish people to the widest opportunities for immigration and construction work in Palestine.” In all its subsequent major assemblies, the WJC reiterated that support emphatically. The third plenary assembly, in 1953, in Geneva, for instance, stressed that the rebirth of the Jewish nation within Israel has given the Jewish people “a new inspiration, a revived dignity and confidence, as well as a new pride, which have transformed them from a diversity of minorities. . . to a people prideful of a restored nation worthy of the respect of the world.”
At the same time, it seemed evident from the moment the State of Israel came into being in 1948, if not before, that the interests and concerns of the State might not always be identical to those of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Nahum Goldmann made precisely this point in his keynote address at the second WJC plenary assembly in Montreux, Switzerland, in June of 1948. The distinction was not lost on Israeli leaders either.
Addressing the fourth WJC plenary assembly in Stockholm in August 1959, the former Israeli prime minister as well as foreign minister Moshe Sharett spoke at length about the respective and distinct priorities of Israel and world Jewry. “Israel’s primary concern,” he said, “must, of course, be its own survival,” and in that context Israel expected the Jews of the Diaspora “unquestioningly to accept its authority in determining its interests and policies.” At the same time, he said:
There is a wide margin of points at issue regarding which the Diaspora as a whole, or certain sections of it in particular cases, are in their turn entitled to expect consideration on Israel’s part for their own interests, viewpoints, and susceptibilities.
Moreover, Sharett continued:
There are functions of Jewish life and items in the program of Jewish public activity which lie outside the plane of Israeli affairs, such as most of the tasks assumed by the World Jewish Congress in defending Jewish rights in the Diaspora and tendering advice and assistance to communities in need thereof. Inasmuch as there are points of contact between the respective spheres of activity of the Israel Government and the World Jewish Congress, coordination is perfectly feasible. What is eminently desirable in this regard is the prevention of unnecessary overlapping. Yet, in any case, the World Jewish Congress remains an independent body, bearing complete and sole responsibility for its work and program.
The Representative Character of the WJC
The WJC is a non-governmental political entity that aspires to represent the totality of world Jewry, including Israeli Jewry. In fact, it never managed to become fully representative of all Jewish communities. There are a number of reasons for this. Certain communities are not organized in a single political—or quasi-political—structure, and as a result, no one entity represents all the Jews of that community. Historically, the organizations that represented a number of Jewish communities did not want to join an international Jewish umbrella organization, perhaps out of a desire not to give up independence by delegating to an international agency any freedom of action. On occasion, the reluctance had ideological components; at other times, the reasons were less clearly defined and had to do with personal motives or just isolationist trends. Thus, it took many years for the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Conseil Représentatif des Juifs de France, better known as CRIF, to formally affiliate with the WJC. The most pronounced absence today, that of an all-embracing voice representing US Jewry, must be seen in light of the lack of a central Jewish organization in the United States that deals with the total spectrum of issues on the communal agenda, such as the one existing in Canada. Jews in the United States have created representative Jewish bodies, but primarily for specific purposes, such as affiliation with a specific stream of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist), fighting anti-Semitism, advocating on behalf of Soviet or Ethiopian Jewry, or political support for Israel. This absence of a single US representative body is obviously reflected within the WJC. Nonetheless, the WJC’s American Section, made up of many diverse American Jewish organizations, successfully represents a substantial cross-section of the US Jewish community.
Who Should Speak for Diaspora Jewish Communities?
The State of Israel does not claim, formally at least, to represent or to speak in the name of Jewish communities abroad. David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister, stated in the early years after independence that Israel would not interfere in Diaspora affairs, and the State for the most part does not pretend to represent Jews who are not citizens of Israel. In its short existence, full of dramatic developments, the State formally kept to this position, but in more than one case acted in a different way, frequently because of a feeling of solidarity and responsibility for the welfare of Jews everywhere across the globe. In practice, therefore, occasional friction and misunderstanding occurred in the relations between the WJC and Israeli officials that implied a departure from the principle.
I served on the staff of the WJC from 1963 to 1984, when I resigned because of my disagreement with organizational decisions affecting my position and work. From 1959 I represented Argentine Jewry on the World Executive of the WJC and was a delegate to the 1959 WJC plenary assembly in Stockholm. From 1963 to 1966, I was employed by the WJC in its New York office, working with one of the heads of its International Affairs Department, Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, and dealing mainly with United Nations and Latin American affairs. Perlzweig, under whose leadership I represented the WJC at the UN, was a British Reform rabbi, an eloquent speaker with great expertise in international relations. He was strongly committed to the WJC and played a central role in the drafting of most of the important documents elaborated in the name of the Congress.
In addition to my responsibilities concerning the UN, my work in New York included close cooperation with the Latin American Jewish Congress. The director of the Buenos Aires office, Mark Turkow, was a colorful international civil servant and leader of Latin American Jewry. He was a member of the Turkow family, well known in the performing arts and in Jewish cultural life in Poland. Turkow integrated into Jewish life in Latin America and was a senior advisor to most, if not all, Jewish communities on the continent. He was efficiently assisted by Dr. Paul Warszawski and by Manuel Tenenbaum, a Uruguayan Jewish scholar and leader who became Turkow’s successor as the director of the Buenos Aires office.
In 1966, I settled in Israel and was appointed director of the WJC’s Israel Branch and office, working with three chairmen: Professor Arieh Tartakower and Members of Knesset Yitzhak Korn and Zalman Abramov. I was, therefore, in a position to follow the ups and downs of the interaction and cooperation, or occasional lack thereof, between the WJC and the Israeli authorities, primarily at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the World Zionist Organization. Those ups and downs were, in some cases, the result of differences of approach to problems affecting Jewish life. In others, they were the consequence of organizational rivalry, the desire by one side to impose views and political attitudes on the other.
It must be pointed out that the WJC presence in Israel has a double character: on the one hand, it is the instrument of contact, consultation, and cooperation between the Israeli Branch, as one of the regional branches of the WJC (similar to the other regional branches, such as those in Europe or in Latin America) with WJC headquarters. On the other hand, it is the instrument through which the central office of the WJC, located in the Diaspora, communicates and consults with Israeli authorities and institutions. The WJC’s Israel branch is also expected to represent Israeli Jewry within the WJC. I discuss the structure of the Israel Branch below.
WJC Support for the State of Israel
Without reservation, since its creation in 1936, the WJC extended full support to the aspirations and program of the Zionist movement although during the horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath, its work was dictated by the needs of rescue and reparation of Jewish life in Europe. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the WJC gave its total support to the Israeli struggle for international recognition, security, and development, as reflected in the declarations and resolutions of its governing bodies. In some areas there was full cooperation. In others, there were occasional differences and disagreements. The WJC played a major role in the advancement of global Jewish interests.
WJC plenary assemblies and executive meetings produced statements and documents voicing full and unreserved support for the State of Israel and its policies. It should be kept in mind that the WJC embraces almost all the political trends and factions in Jewish life, including dissenting groups such as, at certain times, Communist groups or supporters of the Soviet Union and what was left of the Bund, as well as different trends within the Jewish religion. Despite these differences, the WJC always expressed complete solidarity with the Jewish state as such, irrespective of changes in the composition of the Jerusalem government.
The Israel Branch
The Israel Branch, or Section (the nomenclature changed over the years), of the WJC is based on the Israeli political parties that describe themselves as Jewish or mainly Jewish. The composition of the Israeli Executive follows the pattern of distribution of mandates of Jewish or partly Jewish parties in the Knesset, with all the consequent political implications. While I was director of the Branch, the Israeli political parties did not overestimate the importance of the WJC and did not attach too much weight to the role of their representatives on its Israeli Executive. This fact alone had an impact on the overall relationship between the WJC and the State. A stronger and more influential Israel Branch might have produced a more efficient and effective framework for cooperation, but political parties have their priorities. In the same vein, Professor Arieh Tartakower, Chairman of the WJC’s Israel Executive, wrote in 1961:
The organizational strength of the Congress in Israel unfortunately does not reflect the Congress position as regards public opinion in Israel generally. Large sectors of Israel’s population, especially the younger generation, have little knowledge of or interest in Diaspora affairs. They are also preoccupied with grave security problems, relations with their neighbours, the ingathering [of] the Exiles, so that little attention is paid to other matters. Under such circumstances those responsible for Congress work in Israel were faced with the arduous task of influencing public opinion towards a concept of unity of the whole Jewish people, not only in the organizational sphere, but morally and spiritually as well. A satisfactory solution could not be achieved by mere propaganda or by long debates.
Tartakover was aware of the problem. He was much more of a serious scholar than a politician. He was absolutely loyal to the idea of the WJC and to Nahum Goldmann’s leadership. He was also a member of the then-ruling party in Israel, Mapai, and had to find a balance between both loyalties.
Nahum Goldmann’s Leadership
Anyone familiar with Jewish history since the 1930s, and with the development of the young State of Israel and its policies concerning Jewish issues of global significance, cannot ignore the central role played for much of that period by Dr. Nahum Goldmann, who was for years simultaneously the president of the WJC and the first co-chair of the Jewish Agency and then the president of the World Zionist Organization (WZO).
It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze Goldmann’s personality, views and actions, his influence on Jewish life, or his differences with the policies of successive Israeli governments. Still, when one deals with the relationship between the WJC—that is, world Jewry—and the State of Israel, one cannot ignore the impact of Goldmann’s ideas and policies on the entire spectrum of that relationship. His was a unique personality, with a brilliant intellect and an unwillingness to bend to anyone else’s demands, especially when it came to issues of principle. He also exuded a cosmopolitan internationalism that was often at odds with the narrower, necessarily more introverted, views of Israeli government leaders and officials, from David Ben-Gurion down.
By presiding simultaneously over both the WJC and the WZO, Goldmann was able to prevent or sidestep many difficulties. At the same time, however, this double-leadership role proved to be a source of conflicting tensions. Needless to say, officials of the State and the Jewish Agency, on the one hand, and of the WJC, on the other, were frequently led to oppose or support the attitudes of the strong Diaspora leader, whose outspoken, often controversial, ideas could hardly be ignored. In addition, Goldmann’s often personal relations with many major international governmental leaders were the source of conflict with, as well as not infrequently, jealousy on the part of, Israeli leaders—attitudes that often trickled down to the lower echelons of power.
The main points of disagreement with Goldmann were related to the areas of Middle East politics and the modalities and tone of the struggle with the Soviet Union. Broadly speaking, Goldmann was a dove when it came to the Israeli-Arab conflict, especially after the June 1967 Six-Day War, and a strong advocate of quiet diplomacy as opposed to public protest with respect to efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Goldmann’s unwillingness to support—or at least not appear publicly critical of—Israeli government actions and policies got him into trouble on numerous occasions. In 1968, shortly before he announced that he would not seek reelection as president of the WZO, he was denounced by members of the Israeli government for supposedly asking Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to help bring about a resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, a charge Goldmann vigorously denied. Two years later, Prime Minister Golda Meir blocked a possible meeting between Goldmann and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Nothing brought Goldmann’s independent and nonconformist views into focus as much as an article he wrote in the April 1970 issue of Foreign Affairs, in which he called for the “neutralization” of Israel, going so far as to suggest that such neutralization
may even mean that a permanent symbolic international force may have to be stationed in the State of Israel so that any attack on it would imply an attack on all the states guaranteeing Israel’s existence and neutrality and participation in this international force. (To avoid misunderstandings, I would add that this does not signify the demilitarization of Israel and the abolition of its army, as long as there are no proof and experience to show the effectiveness of the international guarantee.)
Small wonder, then, that more than a few Israeli leaders saw Goldmann’s activities as interference in affairs they considered to be exclusively under their jurisdiction. When Goldmann was reelected WJC president in 1975, he had to overcome bitter opposition from the Herut Party as well as from some Labor Party leaders such as Golda Meir. He was, however, supported by an overwhelming majority.
While my assigned topic for this book is the WJC’s relationship with the State of Israel, I would be remiss were I not to reflect on other WJC activities and priorities during my time with the organization, and to recall at least a few of the individuals with whom I had the privilege of working.
Israeli authorities frequently complained that in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, mainly their right to immigrate to Israel, the WJC under Nahum Goldmann followed a softer line than the State of Israel and most Jewish communities of the world. The WJC consistently maintained that world Jewry had to detach itself from involvement in Cold War policies. This caused frequent disagreements concerning some particular steps, but the development of the relationship with the Soviet Union and the changes in its policies finally determined the course of events.
In the first years after the creation of the State of Israel, it was necessary to follow a very cautious policy concerning Jewish life in the Muslim countries of North Africa, particularly with regard to emigration to Israel. It was a very delicate situation, and the Congress displayed a ramified action that could not be expected to be undertaken by the State. The Paris office, directed by Armand Kaplan, and the London office of the WJC’s Department of International Affairs, headed by Alex Easterman, were especially active in this area.
Germany and Reparations
There is no doubt that the WJC, its president, and members of its staff were of central importance to the process that finally led to the agreements between the Federal Republic of Germany, on the one hand, and the State of Israel and a representation of world Jewry under the leadership of Nahum Goldmann, on the other. The agreement with Jewish organizations constituted an important development in the recognition of the international personality of world Jewry and its legal status. The historical significance of the building of a new relationship with Germany and the material importance of the reparations for the wellbeing of Israel and of the hundreds of thousands surviving victims of the Holocaust also is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the WJC’s approach, approved by the Israeli mainstream and the Israeli government, was met with strong opposition in some quarters, sometimes of a violent nature.
In the area of interfaith relations, the WJC also played a role that the State of Israel could not perform. Led by WJC Secretary-General Gerhart M. Riegner, the organization worked for the improvement of interfaith activities and the establishment of a positive relationship between the Jewish people and the Holy See. The new climate and the new Catholic attitude achieved progress, culminating in the agreement on diplomatic ties between the Vatican State and Israel and a positive relationship with the Jewish people. The Congress was also instrumental in the advancement of relations with Protestant denominations and the World Council of Churches.
Riegner was probably the most important personality who dealt with interfaith relations on the Jewish side. He played significant roles in the process that led to Vatican II and in the promotion of a creative relationship between the Jewish people, the Vatican, and the other Christian churches. A jurist and a scholar, he symbolized the best creative trends of German Jewry. He spoke several languages fluently and for many years was seen as the personification of the WJC.
The WJC is one of several Jewish non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that enjoy consultative status with the United Nations. There was close cooperation between the Congress and the State, in which WJC functionaries played a constructive and creative role widely appreciated in international affairs, from the perspective of political action as well as research. The role of the WJC Institute of Jewish Affairs (IJA) should be mentioned especially with regard to the important support it gave the State of Israel. The research and publications of Nehemiah Robinson and other members of the WJC staff are well known, in and outside Jewish circles. Robinson was an outstanding jurist who devoted most of his work to the problems related to the Holocaust, reparations, human rights, and all other major issues that occupied the WJC. I had the privilege of working with him in the same office for about a year before his untimely death. I was also the translator into Spanish for his classic commentary on the Genocide Convention (1960). Nehemiah Robinson provided the Congress with authoritative legal commentaries, appreciated in all international circles. After the IJA was moved to London, it continued to produce a wide variety of research work under the efficient direction of Stephen J. Roth.
Who Speaks for the Jewish Communities?
Frequently, the question has been raised of whether the State of Israel should be at the forefront of the protection of Diaspora interests in international forums, mainly at the UN, or whether it is preferable to leave these interests in the jurisdiction of Jewish NGOs. It is a delicate topic involving issues of principle as well as practical matters. Having been involved in this matter while working for the WJC as well as afterward, I think that non-state entities can serve global Jewish interests in international organizations more efficiently than powers involved in interstate, frequently conflictive, matters can. One condition for that would be to ensure reasonable coordination between Jewish NGOs. The WJC should take a leading role in this respect. Of course, the right and duty of the State of Israel to act in favor of Jewish communities in distress is undeniable. It is fair to mention that the WJC’s work at the UN, as well as in other international bodies, was frequently made more difficult as the result of anti-Israeli bias.
At the present time, the debate surrounding the WJC’s relationship with the State of Israel seems to have become far less contentious and dramatic than in the past. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the State has changed. There have been many sociopolitical changes in the Diaspora; and certain political trends both within the State and within the Jewish communities have resulted in broadening rather than narrowing the gaps between the two. Conflicting views on the signification of the term “Jewish State,” as well as on the meaning of being Jewish in the Diaspora, have resulted in a further emotional and psychological distancing, if not estrangement, between Israel and the Diaspora, with the entire issue of the interaction between the State of Israel and the Jewish religion playing a major role. All of this has organizational implications, but this discussion, too, is beyond the scope of this article, in which I attempted to summarize my own experience.
The author thanks Menachem Rosensaft for his guidance and help in the preparation of this article and acknowledges the documentation pro- vided by WJC archivist Isabella Nespoli.
2. As R. J. Zvi Werblowsky notes, Jews, despite their religious origin, consider themselves a people and a member of the “family of nations.” See his “Religion and Peoplehood,” in The Jerusalem Colloquium on Religion, Peoplehood, Nation and Land (Jerusalem, 1972), p. 17.
12. See, e.g., The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann: SixtyYears of Jewish Life (New York, 1969); Nahum Goldmann, Le Paradoxe juif: Conversations en français avec Leon Abramowicz (Paris, 1976); Où va Israël? (Paris, 1975); and other writings, including numerous articles and speeches.
19. See Nehemiah Robinson, “Spoliation and Remedial Action,” Institute Anniversary Volume; also, Menachem Z. Rosensaft and Joana D. Rosensaft, “The Early History of German- Jewish Reparations,” Symposium, Fordham International Law Journal, vol. 25 (2001): p. S-1.
20. See in this volume, “Gerhart M. Riegner: Pioneer for Jewish–Catholic Relations in the Contemporary World” by Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli; also, e.g., Gerhart M. Riegner, “Nostra Aetate: Twenty Years After,” in Fifteen Years of Catholic Jewish Dialogue, 1970–1985: Selected Papers, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Vatican City, 1988). On the Holy See and Israel, see Chapter 13 of my Religion, Secular Beliefs and Human Rights (Leiden, 2012).