By Noam Pianko
Earlier this spring, a group of young Jewish activists associated with the organization If Not Now petitioned the National Ramah Commission (the coordinating body overseeing over a dozen summer camps, which many of them had attended as campers), to integrate “honest” Israel education, including discussions of the Israeli occupation from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, into the camps’ Israel curriculum. The National Ramah Commission responded that “a variety of positions supporting Israel can be voiced and discussed… we do not however permit the sharing of anti-Israel educational messages at camp.” With this response, Ramah joined many other national and local Jewish organizations which have developed clear guidelines over the last few years about what Jews within their organizations can, and cannot, say about Israel.
What does the trend toward Israel guidelines and communal red-lines have to do with Jewish peoplehood? Perhaps more than any other criteria, strongly enforced boundaries influence and shape communal conceptions of collective identity. As many other boundary markers of Jewish peoplehood have become blurry, one has emerged as the most visible, and perhaps only, broadly-voiced and institutionally-enforced marker of Jewish peoplehood. This is the commitment to Israel advocacy, which has come to largely mean “defending” Israel from biased criticism (whether it comes from non-Jews or from Jews). In other words, one primary contribution of the State of Israel to the sense of Jewish peoplehood is to provide a litmus test to differentiate American Jewish members in “good standing” from marginal and threatening, voices. This paradigm of peoplehood implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) expects American Jews to circle the wagons to protect Israel, rather than encourage open debate about how divergent visions of Jewish values, national priorities, and moral aspirations might shape Israel’s relationship to peoplehood.
This marks a significant shift from historical visions of Israel’s contribution to Jewish peoplehood. Since the emergence of the term “peoplehood” in the early decades of the twentieth century, cultural Zionism has shaped American Jewish notions of the concept.
Cultural Zionists, including early progenitors of the notion of Jewish peoplehood such as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, believed that the Jewish homeland would serve as the foundation of a global national renaissance of the Jewish people. However, peoplehood in its initial formulation also challenged key aspects of Zionism—especially the emphasis on the state itself, rather than the development of an exportable and globally-applicable Jewish national culture, as the ultimate expression of Jewish nationalism.
American Jewish leaders thus turned to peoplehood to argue that the Jewish homeland could best accomplish the goals of Zionism by developing and exemplifying an ethical nationalism that recognized minority rights and separated the idea of cultivating Jewish national life from the project of building a sovereign state. Following from this peoplehood paradigm, the role that Israel could play in American Jewish life and, more broadly, for the Jewish people, would depend on finding shared ground on political, cultural, and religious/ethical questions with American Jews.
Indeed, in the early years of the State, even the leader of the Zionist Organization of America, Joseph Sternstein, articulated the need for Israel’s policies to reflect American Jewish concerns. In 1956, Sternstein wrote “We [meaning: American Zionists] will decide, and, if necessary, we shall have to tell them [meaning: the Israelis] where they are wrong and where they are right.” Sternstein recognized, and could publicly insist, that the State of Israel could serve as an engine of Jewish peoplehood only if American Jews demanded that the Jewish state act according to the democratic values held by the majority of American Jews. American Jewish opinions – including voices critical of Israel’s policies – were once considered crucial for the success of Zionism and the future of Jewish peoplehood.
A new paradigm defining Israel’s place in American Jewish peoplehood emerged in the 1970s. Israel’s place in American Jewish life shifted from co-equal partner for invigorating Jewish life around the globe to a unifying object of shared concern for the Jewish people. A number of historical factors – including the Yom Kippur War, the perception that the American radical-left had turned against Israel, and the U.N.’s criticism of “Zionism as racism” – buttressed the perception that American Jews needed to support the State of Israel against efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state by singling it out from among other countries for its actions. Therefore, protecting Israel – rather than demanding that Israel align itself with American Jewish values – emerged as an increasingly important criterion for determining one’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Because of this paradigm shift, Jewish community leaders today would likely debate whether or not statements like the ones made by the leader of the Zionist Organization of America in 1956 would place him outside “the tent” of the “pro-Israel” Jewish community in 2018, together with the If Not Now activists.
A viable and meaningful conception of Jewish peoplehood today requires us to reassess the role Israel plays in defining the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood. The de facto emphasis on Israel advocacy and defense as the key criteria for Jewish peoplehood faces an unprecedented set of challenges. In the current political climate, Israel politics have emerged as an increasingly divisive wedge issue in American politics. If definitions of Jewish peoplehood continue in their current direction, Jewish peoplehood will become a politicized issue and further fragment American Jews along party lines. Whereas once, the American Jewish community was segmented based on religious and denominational affiliation, this new fragmentation based on Israel politics represents a major departure. Unlike the denominational differences, the political divides run the risk of creating far deeper ruptures, with less possibility for meaningful dialogue about Jewish peoplehood across the “boundary” lines of American politics.
The current situation in Israel/Palestine exacerbates the threat of using political support of Israel as the basis for inclusion in the category of Jewish peoplehood. The historical American Jewish consensus on a “pro-Israel” position largely rests on the possibility of a two-state solution, which envisions an Israel which is both “Jewish and Democratic.” However, with the failure of the Oslo peace process, a two-state solution seems increasingly unlikely today. Instead, increased Israeli settlement in occupied territories, and now the possibility of Israel annexing of parts of the West Bank without granting citizenship for West Bank Palestinians, will increasingly challenge the claim that Israel is both a “Jewish and Democratic.” American Jews will find themselves grappling with how to reconcile their commitment to democracy in the U.S. with an undemocratic reality in Israel/Palestine.
It would be hard to imagine any conception of Jewish peoplehood that did not recognize the important roles that Israel could play in global Jewry. However, Jewish peoplehood reduced to a “pro-Israel-ism” or “Israel-hood” will fragment the world-wide Jewish community. Sustainable models of Jewish peoplehood should encourage divergent and dissenting political views that reflect the viewpoints of the Jewish people and the multiplicity of historical modes of Jewish collective identification. A peoplehood oriented toward defending Israel by drawing political boundaries within the Jewish community deprives the Jewish people of precisely the diverse access points necessary to nourish global collective ties grounded in interpretations of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish values.
Noam Pianko is the Samuel N. Stroum Professor of Jewish studies at the University of Washington and the Director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. His book, Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation (Rutgers University Press 2018) won the American Jewish Historical Society’s Saul Weiner book prize.