Peoplehood Fatigue?

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

By Erica Brown

As Israel celebrates its seventy years of existence, some of the language we’ve used for decades to discuss Jewish identity begins, like the country, to get old. It desiccates and ceases to have the meaning and substance it once had. We become impatient with hackneyed phrases or the repeated attempts at a linguistic identity bridge between the diaspora and Israel that feels tired. Organizational expressions of solidarity are used so often that they become caricatures of themselves. Surely, in the past ten years the word “peoplehood” is one such term. We want to believe that despite geographic distance and a chasm-wide gap when it comes to Jewish self-understanding, we as a people share indelible psychic bonds and that one word can capture it. Yet one word alone, a word that is hard to define despite many, many attempts, will never be able to capture the complexity inherent in what we mean when we say “peoplehood.”

Even were we to arrive at some consensus of meaning about these strong, emotional and tribal bonds, it may not matter. We may be suffering from identity fatigue, the dulling sense of despair when we continue to talk about who we are instead of simply existing. The meta-conversations themselves can cause their own small tremor. For example, imagine a married couple who have cycled in and out of intimacy ask themselves every day if they should stay married. Without answering the question, the very asking of it assumes that there is a question to be asked. There is a problem. The question itself begins to undermine the relationship.

Perhaps this has been happening for some years, a low-simmering crisis that we have been unable to name that only now, as Israel reaches a fulcrum of national maturity, can we finally stop asking. We are a people, across the globe and with all of our differences.

Now what?

One of the most enervating descriptions of this identify fatigue appears in A.B. Yehoshua’s novel, Friendly Fire. The title alone suggests the maddening phenomenon that any fire is friendly; killing one of our own is still killing. The novel’s main character, Yirmiyahu, loses a wife to cancer and a son to friendly fire in the West Bank as a soldier in the IDF and wants nothing more than to relieve himself of Jewish identity.

Subsequently, Yirmiyahu moves to an obscure location in Tanzania, the heart of Africa. His sister-in-law, Daniela, wanting to find out more about her sister’s death, travels to Africa to see Yirmiyahu. Visiting during the holiday season, she brings him a box of Hanukah candles and a stack of Israeli newspapers. Yirmiyahu quickly throws the presents, both ancient and living signs of Israeli identity, into the fire. He is not interested, even remotely, in anything to do with Judaism or Israel. Only late in the novel does Yirmiyahu explain his mysterious behavior to Daniela and why he will not be returning to Israel:

Here there are no ancient graves and no floor tiles from a destroyed synagogue; no museum with a fragment of a burnt Torah; no testimonies about pogroms and the Holocaust. There’s no exile here, no Diaspora. There was no Golden Age here, no community that contributed to global culture. They don’t fuss about assimilation or extinction, self-hatred or pride, uniqueness or chosenness; no old grandmas pop up suddenly aware of their identity. There’s no orthodoxy here or secularism or self-indulgent religiosity, and most of all no nostalgia for anything at all. There’s no struggle between tradition and revolution. No rebellion against the forefathers and no new interpretations. No one feels compelled to decide is he a Jew or an Israeli or maybe a Caananite, or if the state is more democratic or more Jewish, if there’s hope for it or if it’s done for. The people around me are free and clear of that whole exhausting and confusing tangle. But life goes on. I am seventy years old, Daniela, and I am permitted to let go.

It’s exhausting to read this passage, let alone to have lived it. Yirmiyahu claims that he wants to be in a place free of identity questions, yet Africa is certainly not free of tribalism or questions of newness versus traditionalism. But Yirmiyahu is free, liberated from those identity questions because they are not his identity questions. At seventy, he concludes that decades of debate has not enriched him. He has paid a severe price for his identity and wishes to escape the “exhausting and confusing tangle.”

Maybe, like Yirmiyahu, it is time to let go of asking so many questions about Jewish living so that we may live. The strangulating effect of question after question creates an existential quicksand that brooks no emotional freedom. It shackles.

Even as we read Yehoshua’s fictional account, bearing in mind his own incendiary views on a compromised Jewish identity in the Diaspora, we wonder if Yirmiyahu can sustain this ruse. After all, wishing one’s identity away does not make it so. To be biblical, Jonah boarded a ship to Nineveh to escape God and then was captured by a fish sent by God. We can run, but we cannot hide. Jonah spent agonizing days captive, pondering his purpose, reclaiming his destiny. But Yirmiyahu was a different prophet. The prophet of doom in the Bible, as opposed to the Yirmiyahu of Yehoshua’s fiction, actually did tell Jews how to live in exile without an identity crisis. “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” [Jeremiah 29:5-7]. On other words, live. Simply live.

It is the last line of Jeremiah’s advice that rings the most. In Israel’s prosperity, we shall prosper. 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.

Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at The George Washington University and associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at their Graduate School for Education and Human Development. She is the author of twelve books.