A Peoplehood Perspective

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

From the editors: (Shlomi Ravid and Zack Bodner)

The creation of the State of Israel has been, by any measure, a game changer in Peoplehood history. The need to build and develop a sovereign state for a people who’d been spread throughout the globe for 2000 years, provided the Jews a unique opportunity to galvanize and unite around that cause. This joint agenda shared by Jews throughout the world gave the Jewish people a concrete and meaningful goal and purpose which in turn strengthened their collective identity and unity.

As is often the case, political disagreements were also part of the story. Many Zionists in the State’s formative decades, held the view that all Jews should immigrate to Israel. This approach often came with a negation of the Diaspora. And yet with time and sensibility, some of those perceptions went away. At the same time, Israel’s contribution to the rejuvenation of Jewish Civilization through the revival of the Hebrew language, Israeli culture, literature and the arts has been transformative. Israel became a source of pride for the Jewish People and a place of pilgrimage for Jews engaging with their Judaism and Peoplehood. Israel was embraced by world Jewry as integral to their Judaism and commitment to Peoplehood.

And yet in recent years, we have been seeing a shift in the conversation between Israel and world Jewry, and North American Jewry in particular. It is not just, as many assume, an outcome of specific political disagreement. Significant essential disagreements are rising to the surface. One can’t avoid the sense that Israelis are significantly more focused on their national agenda, and are thinking of world Jewry mostly in instrumental terms. All the while, many American Jews are losing patience and interest in an Israel which they don’t feel represents their values. The real loser here is the Jewish People. The sense of solidarity, shared destiny and mutual commitment, that can drive the Jewish collective future, has been weakened significantly.

This collection aspires to bring to the forefront diverse, thoughtful and thought-provoking articles that will both celebrate the achievements of the last 70 years and address our current challenges. We hope that they will inspire a meaningful conversation about the Jewish collective ethos and enterprise, and the unique relationship between the State of Israel and world Jewry. This opening offers short introductory paragraphs to all of the articles in the order of their appearance. Enjoy the reading.

According to Hanan Alexander “American Jews and Jewish Israelis are heirs to competing ideological responses to the challenges with which modernity confronted premodern Jewish life. The recurring tensions between these communities can in large measure be attributed to the playing out of tensions within and between these ideologies. Addressing these tensions through education requires dialogical pedagogies that can foster ways of living together across deep differences within the Jewish people today.”

Erica Brown senses a Peoplehood fatigue among Jews as part of our never-ending focus on our identity questions. She proposes that “now, at seventy, Israel is well enough established on the world stage, its prosperity a source of Jewish pride across the globe, to limit the constant identity questions. Now it is the time to qvell a little together, and realize that if we stop asking if we should feel like an extended family and start behaving like one, we just might get there after all.”

The analysis of Deborah Dash Moore points to the fact that “Jewish peoplehood today translates neither into most American Jews caring about Israel nor most Israeli Jews caring for American Jews.” The question she poses is: “Where, then, might we locate a Jewish peoplehood for the twenty-first century?” Her proposal is: “Peoplehood would surmount religious rubrics of identity rather than succumbing to them. Jewish legal authority vested in halacha as articulated by state-appointed male rabbis would become subordinate to Jewish moral and spiritual authority vested in the Jewish people. In this way Jewish peoplehood would once again serve to bind together diverse types of Jews: religious and secular, cultural and political, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, fellow-traveling Jews and haredi Jews, straight Jews and LGBTQ Jews.”

Arnold Eisen proposes that we agree “… that 20th century Jews developed two and only two viable options for the existence of Jews and Judaism. One: statehood, protected by its army and its allies. Two: strong diaspora communities, protected by the rights afforded all citizens in a democracy. Neither is entirely secure. Both are threatened. They need one another to survive and thrive.” But he does not stop there: “Could we also agree that Jews have never survived in our long history by trying only to survive, but rather because we served a higher cause, the Highest and Most Holy? That we need to guard our lives and our interest, of course – I called this, in Zionist parlance, Normality – but also must serve Covenant, justice, compassion, the Good?”

Daniel Gordis calls upon us to “first acknowledge that we face a possibly unprecedented crisis, and that unlike with previous instances of this enmity, there is no guarantee that this time, the dust will settle as we wish it to …. For our tenuous but critical relationship to survive, both sides will need to take a step back from the abyss. It is true that we have weathered conflicts between these two communities before, but this instance might be different, simply because of the steady march of history. If that is the case, the Jewish state could become just a state with many Jews, and American Jews could lose their tie to what is without question the most inspiring Jewish development of the last two thousand years.”

Talia Gorodess from Reut frames the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry as a matter of national security:” … the special relationship between Israel and world Jewry has tremendous instrumental value but more importantly – intrinsic value. Together, this relationship provides Israel with a unique form of soft power, which is essentially unmatched in the international arena. More importantly, it upholds the prosperity and security of both the Jewish people and their nation-state. It is time for the Israeli security community to form a new agenda that will reflect the prominence of this relationship.”

For Doron Krakow from the JCC Association, “the conversation about Israel has been disproportionately confined to only two issues: the peace process (geopolitics) and the Kotel (religious politics).” He continues: “We have failed to adequately instill in ourselves a commitment to assuring that the members of our community see Israel in all its breadth and complexity; not just through narrow and altogether too parochial lenses. We’re living in a golden age for the Jewish people. An age defined by the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish homeland. Once we make it possible for more and more of our people to see Israel in ways that bring us together, our very engagement with Israel will become an engine for building and strengthening Jewish community; rather than an issue that divides us.”

Noam Pianko addresses the current tensions between supporting the Israeli government policy and Jewish American democratic values. He concludes: “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.”

Shlomi Ravid seeks a model that can save the Peoplehood conversation from the political grips: “Can we reframe the relationship so it continues to be based on a shared fate and destiny, history, mutual responsibility and familial ties but does not necessarily carry into the policy/political sphere? That’s the Israelis’ prerogative. This would mean that world Jews are not required to embrace every decision made by Israel because they were made by Israel. They can agree or disagree and even try to influence, based on their values. But they are not bound by, nor responsible for Israel’s political decisions by virtue of being members of the Jewish people. Responsible for Israel and its wellbeing? By all means. Involved in shaping the people’s and State’s ethos? With full force. But let’s pull our Peoplehood conversation out of the political mud before it sinks.”

Zohar Raviv writes about the challenge of addressing Zionism in the “generation Z” context: “We should seek and encourage any form of debate about Zionism in our midst – as should be regarding any topic of worth. Yet in order to move beyond the somewhat superficial desire for “free speech” and toward “the honor of being heard,” we should all strive to exercise the humility needed to afford broader context and different – even opposing – viewpoints a seat of honor around the table. Most importantly, however, such important and legitimate debates need not lead toward division and alienation, but rather perceived as opportunities to sharpen our own critical faculties and commit ourselves to a genuine path of inquiry. As is the case with most complex issues, the validity of one argument is not always contingent upon utterly debunking another’s view. Unpacking “Zionism” deserves the integrity, attention and depth that treat the fuller scope of its conceptual, ideological and historical evolution – both as an ancient ideal and as a modern political movement.”

Zachary Schaffer offers a pedagogic practical approach to today’s challenges: “… we must affirm an inclusive framework for a 21st century Zionism that American Jewry – especially younger generations – can get behind. Perhaps we can discuss the story of Zionism in two chapters: (1) Zionism the Dream and (2) Zionism the Reality. Zionism the Dream is an articulation of the original aspirations for the Jewish State, grounded in Jewish civilization and Zionist ideology. It is here where we can create connection and understanding across divides. Then, in the discussion of Zionism the Reality, we can analyze Israel against our shared understanding of the ideological background for its existence. In this way, we can begin to address some of the schisms within the pluralistic American Jewish community and engage in a more responsible exchange between the Diaspora and Israel.”

Andres Spokoiny, in a two-part article, addresses the current challenges and offers a strategic approach. He begins by establishing Peoplehood’s constitutive role in establishing the State: “… it’s eminently fitting to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel with a reflection on peoplehood. Without peoplehood – that is, without defining Judaism as a national identity – there couldn’t be Zionism or Israel.” Yet this understanding of 70 years ago raises some fundamental questions today: “What makes us today a people? Do we have a purpose as a people beyond our mere survival? What does our being a people mean for us Jews, and for the world? How do we navigate the unique complexities of peoplehood and statehood when the overlap between them is not complete? How does our conception of peoplehood impact issues of governance and political power in the State and around the Jewish World?”

In the second part, Spokoiny offers ideas and hypotheses to explore: “… rethinking of our collective ethos is needed now. For that, Jewish leaders and funders need to invest the time, the energy, and the resources in studying the philosophy of nationalism, peoplehood, and Zionism. We need to create a context in which these types of debate are incentivized and curated. We need to encourage, morally and financially, our thinkers and scholars to reflect on the nature of Jewish nationalism. We need to do that both in Israel and the Diaspora and we need to make sure that this debate can be done with equal measures of freedom and respect.”

Josh Weinberg proposes a change in the nature of the Israel-Diaspora relations: “Rather than Israel looking to the US for financial assistance and North Americans looking to Israel for a shot of a quick Jewish identity booster we now have the opportunity to articulate an actual joint and common destiny. To strive together for that national self- elevation, with conscious direction and the strengthening and deepening of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.”

Einat Wilf reminds us of the reality of the Jewish people’s size in the world and the ramifications: “No matter how much actual power Jews in Israel amass, their miniscule size, in the region and otherwise, means that they would be wise to recognize its limits and refrain from pursuing the corrupting territorial and other ambitions that ignore that basic insight. For Jews in America, no matter how comfortable the current reality appears, it would be wise to resist the temptations of moral purity that comes from powerlessness. Power corrupts, but powerlessness corrupts no less. Our survival as a minuscule Jewish people depends on Jews, both in Israel and outside it, heeding both insights of Jewish history, which has very much not come to an end.”

We want to personally thank our contributors whose opinions may differ but who all share a deep love and concern for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We sincerely hope that the above articles will inspire a collective soul searching and reflection – be it at the Zionism 3.0 conference or any other Jewish gathering, or at your organization or chevruta. Please share your thoughts with us at