Jewish Peoplehood – The Missing Foundation of Israeli Civil Society

by Shlomi Ravid

One of my favored poems for teaching Jewish Peoplehood is Amir Gilboa’s “Shir Baboker Baboker”. In one sentence Gilboa captured the essence of this Peoplehood that “swept” the Jews throughout the world after the creation of the Jewish state: “all of a sudden a man gets up in the morning and he feels he is a people and he begins to walk”. It is interesting to note that nearly 60 years later at the recent social protest in Israel this song (popularized by Shlomo Artzi) became one of the symbols of the protest. There was one difference however: Those singing it in 2011 were referring to the Israeli people.

Over the last decade world Jews have been investing in the development of Israeli civil society, reflecting increasing concern about the “character” of the state. This is indeed a positive development from the investment in bricks and mortars, securing the “physical nature” of the state that was typical for the earlier decades. And yet, if we are not careful in investing in an Israeli civil society with Peoplehood at its heart we risk the creation of a shallow, particularistic and insular system. An Israeli civil society without Jewish Peoplehood at its core will be no different than any other nation state with its own particularistic civic society. Israel would be the state of the Israelis, not the state of the Jews.

Peoplehood constitutes Jewish collective life. It introduces into the social framework the values of Jewish collective responsibility, both in its local and global manifestations, the pursuance of justice, Jewish inclusivity, kindness, diversity and more. We seem to forget that sometimes and treat Peoplehood as extra-curricular to building Israeli civil society. There couldn’t be a bigger mistake.

In conceptual terms the above framing needs to be followed by an agreement and an understanding that Israeli civic society is part of Jewish civilization. It is the Jewish community in the land of Israel, part of the global Jewish People. This understanding defines the basic values and norms of conduct both internally and externally towards local Jews and non-Jews, as well as towards those throughout the world. It defines the goals of the society in the Jewish collective spirit, and derives from them the social institutions as well as the expectations from the individual members of the society. Put shortly, although Israel has its unique nature, Israeli society is part of the global Jewish collective enterprise.

Speaking of bringing about change, a word about the process is warranted. World Jews are the descendants of a people that developed civic society into an art form. The book about developing communal institutions and on adapting them to changing circumstances and needs should definitely have been written by the Jews. While individual Jewish communities adjusted to their own local conditions and needs of their members, Jewish Peoplehood remained at their core. (By the way, Israelis carry the same genes but have been handicapped by the attempt to create the “perfect state” that would make civic society obsolete). The point is that world Jews should become actively involved in the project of building Israeli civic society. Their contribution could be priceless. Furthermore, actively engaging world Jews in this process can open new channels for them to influence the way we shape the Jewish State and ensure its Jewish and democratic nature. It would also strengthen global Peoplehood.

The important thing is to frame Israeli society building in the Jewish Peoplehood context. Currently the topic of Peoplehood is missing from the Israeli civil society discourse. Furthermore, most Israelis are very focused on the local agenda and their interest in Peoplehood is rather marginal. That can be changed through an educational and leadership development processes, but those are long term solutions.

We can’t really afford to wait.

If our intent is to develop a society that will strengthen Israel’s democracy, Jewishness, human and social sensitivity we have to act now. Putting Jewish Peoplehood at the heart of the Israeli civil society development efforts is essential so as we wake up in the future and begin to walk we will feel like a (Jewish) people.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and editor of the Peoplehood Papers