A Peoplehood Based Zionism – Towards a 21st Century Zionist Destiny

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 25 – “Towards a Peoplehood Based 21st Century Zionism” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Shlomi Ravid

It is important to begin by acknowledging that 21st century Zionism seems to have come full circle. Zionism started as the national movement of the Jewish people, created by the people and for the people. In the decades that followed the means became the end and the State became the focus of the movement, sometimes at the cost of neglecting and downgrading (shlilat hagola – the negation of the diaspora) the people it was meant to serve. In recent years however, there is a new shift towards a Peoplehood-based Zionism. Some of the principles articulated at the Z3 and Z21 gathering last December, are a case in point:

Peoplehood is the binding formative ideal of World Jewry and Israel.

  • Israel and World Jewry are two centers equal in their significance for the Jewish destiny.
  • A vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative. This development is indeed a positive step towards a stronger and healthier relationship between Israelis and world Jews. And yet it needs to account also for the changes in the meaning of Peoplehood as we interpret it today. If Peoplehood is “the formative ideal of World Jewry and Israel,” what do we mean by it and how does it influence our understanding of Zionism? In his famous Midrash “Kol Dodi Dofek“[1] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik introduced two defining Jewish covenants: “The covenant of fate – The oppressive sense of fate undergoes a positive transformation when individual-personal existences blend together to form a new unit – a people. The obligation to love one another stems from the consciousness of this people of fate, this lonely people that inquires into the meaning of its own uniqueness. It is this obligation of love that stands at the very heart of the covenant made in Egypt.

The covenant of destiny – What is the nature of the covenant of destiny? Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical being… The people is embedded in its destiny as a result of its longing for a refined, substantive, and purposeful existence.”

Soloveitchik further explain the difference between the two states of minds:

“In order to explain the difference between a People of Fate and a Nation of Destiny it is appropriate to deal with a different contrast – that between an Encampment and a Congregation…”

“Encampment and Congregation constitute two different sociological experiences, two separate groups that have nothing in common and do not support one another. An Encampment is created out of a desire for self-defense and thrives on fear. Congregation is fashioned out of longing for the realization of an exalted moral idea and thrives on love. In the Encampment, fate’s rule is unlimited, whereas destiny rules the Congregation. The Encampment represents a phase in the development of the nation’s history. The continued survival of a people is identified with the existence of the Congregation.”

In the 21st century the Jewish people began shifting towards a covenantal Peoplehood. During the second half of the 20th Century – the post Holocaust decades, the emphasis was on the re-building of the Jewish world and the State of the Jewish people. The covenant of fate was dominant and the need to prioritize the state building cause seemed both just and practical. Zionism provided the historical response to thousands of years of Jewish lack of homeland and the Jewish people galvanized around the Zionist project.

But 70 years later, when Israel is a fact of life – a given if you will, and as questions of Jewish destiny are taking center stage, Jewish Peoplehood is changing. For most Israelis Peoplehood is still a covenant of fate, and from that consciousness, as Soloveitchik points out, stems their obligation to love their people. In the United States however, the “longing for a refined, substantive, and purposeful existence” results in the search for destiny. If at the second half of the 20th century the two somehow converged, in the reality of the 21st century they often conflict.

How do those changes impact 21st Century Zionism? The most important thing to understand is that just like Peoplehood has been shifting from issues of connectivity, joint responsibility and solidarity, towards the exploration of purpose, meaning and vision, so should Zionism. Questions of the meaning and purpose of Zionism in the 21st century need to be addressed if it is to remain vital and continue to thrive. Exploring what should be its current ethos and what should be the unique values and features of the State of the Jewish people, are the order of the day. Those questions need to become an integral part of the 21st century joint conversation of Israelis and world Jews.

This conversation will by no means be an easy one. Partly because it opens a larger question regarding the Jewish people today, namely: Do we share the same destiny? The answer is far from obvious. As indicated by the last elections in Israel, among other polls, the majority of Israelis seem to prioritize what is “good for the Jews” over Jewish-ethical and social considerations. This is reflected in policies towards the occupied territories, asylum seekers, Israeli Arabs, non-Orthodox Jews, Israel’s poor, etc. For American Jews, and especially the young ones, many of whom perceive the Jews as a privileged group already, the above are difficult to accept. They conflict with the notion of a Jewish destiny.

But it is precisely because the issues are so problematic that we need to address them collectively. If Israel is to remain central to the Jewish enterprise, 21st Century Zionism needs to be reinterpreted and its destiny rearticulated. Or in the spirit of the current holidays and in Soloveitchik’s words: “A Congregation is a holy nation that does not fear fate and does not live against its will. It believes in its destiny and of its free will sanctifies itself for its realization. The Covenant of Egypt was made with a people that was born in the Encampment, the Covenant of Sinai was concluded with a holy people.” It is time to articulate the Zionist destiny of the 21st century together.

[1] “Kol Dodi Dofek,” Joseph B. Soloveitchik, translated by David Z. Gordon,2006

Shlomi Ravid is the founding Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.