by Dr. Misha Galperin
In a recent article Jay Michaelson suggested that peoplehood and support for Israel are at odds: peoplehood is all-encompassing and embracing with “no geographic or ideological center”, whereas support for Israel is purposeful and has ideological parameters. If you strive for one, you cannot have the other. If you support Israel, you necessarily exclude those who are critical of Israel’s politics and policies.
These two notions are not in direct conflict. Jewish Peoplehood is not the notion that “we are all united purely by dint of being members of the Jewish people” as Michaelson defines it. Building on Mordechai Kaplan’s original use of the term, Erica Brown and I defined peoplehood in our recent book, The Case for Jewish Peoplehood, as a sense of belonging to an extended family with a collective purpose. The “purpose” in that definition refers to the Jewish people’s enduring mission to improve the world and to be a “light onto the nations.” Israel’s purpose as a Jewish and democratic state is to be the homeland and the political entity of the Jewish people in pursuit of that very mission. which requires the survival and flourishing of our people and our state.
Peoplehood is the “collective” aspect of Jewish identity rather than the singular way we each express our commitment to Judaism. And, as with any aspect of identity, it is characterized and can be measured by what individuals think, feel and do (what social scientists call the “ABC’s of identity”: Affect, Behavior and Cognition) to express belonging to a collective entity. What individuals know about, how they feel and what they do with respect to Israel are integral to their identity as Jews. Members of a family sometimes disagree – that does not make them any less a family.
The history of our family is filled with disagreements about Israel. Jews struggle with each other and with God. The name of our Land is also the name of our people; Israel means “one who wrestles with God.”
Peoplehood and the centrality and necessity of Israel are the nexus on which the Jewish Agency for Israel stands. We see these two ideas not only as the focal points of our work, but, in the end, as mutually supportive. Israel – people and State – are formed of the same bedrock.
This nexus presents its challenges, to be sure. There is a classic dialectic tension between the particularity of a nation-state and the encompassing notion of peoplehood. On the one hand we need unity, while on the other we strive for diversity and inclusiveness to make the tent as large as possible.
Our history as a people has always underscored the tension of keeping everyone under the tent united. It’s part of being Jewish. When Jews have had sovereign control over the land of Israel – in the ancient past and today – the challenge of exerting authority makes those tensions more pronounced. Even the concepts which define the modern State of Israel – Jewish and democratic – are two distinct notions in tension with each other. The ongoing conflict and the continued frustration of not being able to achieve peace has contributed to mounting ambivalence among many Jews abroad and among many Israelis. When the existence of the State is taken for granted, when memories of the Holocaust are receding as history, when the connectedness among Jews is weakening the unwavering support of Israel of yesteryear also weakens. But there is a difference between questioning policies and undermining the very existence of the State. One is practical and political; the other is existential.
The issues facing Israel today are indeed morally perplexing. But we must take this dilemma and struggle with it, and in so doing become a stronger people. Experience Israel; confront the dilemmas. Form opinions from a place of knowledge and experience. “Hug and wrestle,” is the tagline for our Makom program which introduces Israel engagement to communities around North America.
We are all – still – one family with as powerful a purpose even though Jews in many parts of the Diaspora no longer feel part of that family and many Israelis think that just living in Israel is the only way to be Jewish. We need to act more like a family – a functional family – committed together to a dream larger than ourselves. This is precisely our task today as a people, and the Jewish Agency is at the forefront of this challenge, approaching it as an immense opportunity.
Dr. Misha Galperin is head of External Affairs for the Jewish Agency.