By Gil Troy
As more and more Jews retreat from the Z-word in this age of postmodernist, anti-Zionist delegitimization, some champion “Peoplehood” as the safer, more popular, politically-correct platform for defining and mobilizing the Jewish people. I am a Peoplehood person. I embrace the Jewish people along with the Jewish religion as one of Judaism’s two fundamental foundation stones. My membership in the Jewish people is one of my most profound commitments – and most meaningful identity building blocks. And, yes, the dance between Peoplehood and Zionism requires some choreographing. But trying to replace Zionism with Peoplehood is a cowardly strategy doomed to fail.
Two engines are driving this proposal. The first, downgrading Israel from the center of the Jewish people to one of many Jewish communities all on par ideologically, betrays millennia-old Torah teachings and modern Zionist thought – especially the vision of Ahad Ha’am. The second, hoping that this makeover might somehow make us acceptable to the bigot, assails Jewish pride, presumes a rationality our enemies lack, defies thousands of years’ worth of evidence, and negates the vision of Ahad Ha’am’s rival Theodor Herzl.
With the exorcism over, looking forward, what affirmative vision might unite us, motivate us, and mobilize us as a people? Why would an intelligent, patriotic Jew today try banking on a battered concept like Zionism, rather than retreating into the safe space of Jewish peoplehood?
My reluctance begins with my Beginite refusal to surrender to an ideological mugging, this systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism. Even deeper, if the Zionist movement could pull off the miracle of creating the State in 1948, we can win today’s ideological war, facing much less sobering historical odds. But most profoundly, if Herzl and company hadn’t done such good work inventing Zionism, we would have to invent something like Zionism today. The Zionist writer Joseph Brenner affirmed “There’s no Other Place” than Israel, our homeland. Similarly, There No Better Way than Zionism, our movement of Jewish nationalism, to put Jewish peoplehood into action while reviving Judaism in the modern world. The best proof comes from examining what has become the world’s largest and fastest growing Jewish community: Israeli Jewry.
Beware category-mistakes. Debating “peoplehood versus Zionism” is like debating the merits of soccer versus HaPoel Yerushalayim. I like soccer because I prefer kicking a ball to throwing or hitting it; I embrace peoplehood because we have a past, present and future. Zionism, like HaPoel, brings the abstractions to life.
There is no chicken-egg here: we start with Peoplehood, there is no Zionism without it. Zionism builds on peoplehood to support nationalism, statehood, and Judaism in all its fullness, including religion. In this unexpected feedback loop rooted in the Bible, peoplehood-power boosts religion because both are so intertwined with land and now state.
Talking peoplehood reinforces Judaism’s uniqueness as an Oreo Cookie. Just as only by fusing the cookie and the cream do you get the world’s most popular cookie, so, too, only by fusing the national and religious dimensions do you get one of the world’s most resilient – and, alas, targeted – civilizations. In founding the modern Zionist movement Theodor Herzl declared “we are a people.” He then launched a movement to save us physically from our enemies, and fulfill our religious and national values, by establishing a Jewish state in our homeland.
Thus, the Holy Trinity of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, reflects three assumptions: the Jews are a people, not just a religion; Jews have ties to a particular land, Eretz Yisrael, which doesn’t preclude others having ties to that land; and like 192 other peoples today, Judaism most fulfills itself by establishing and now perfecting a nation-state in that homeland. Ahad Ha’am failed to appreciate Herzl’s insight – that Judaism needs that political dimension, practically and existentially. But Ahad Ha’am bested Herzl in better understanding how the national reJewvenation of Jewish ideas, commandments, values, dreams, and stories in the Jewish ground zero, the homeland, could spill over and inspire Jews spiritually, culturally, even personally.
If Herzl’s great achievement today is the thriving – and growing – and deeply Jewish democratic State of Israel, Ahad Ha’am’s vindication is what I call Identity Zionism, the many ways Israel inspires Jews everywhere – making us prouder, stronger, freer, wherever we may live.
To shift metaphors, peoplehood is the primer. Zionism, or the different Zionist schools of thought – Political, Cultural, Religious, Socialist, and Revisionist – mixed with elements in the air – historical reality – is the paint that colors the Jewish community today.
I can happily join a Coalition for Jewish Peoplehood in Israel, because I see that too many Israelis take the foundations for granted. By emphasizing peoplehood in schools, youth movements, families, popular culture, we apply that primer in a first step toward re-energizing the Zionist movement. I can also join a Coalition for Jewish Peoplehood in the Diaspora, because the postmodernist, anti-Trumpian sensibility today only defines nationalism in a narrow xenophobic way, negating its expansive liberal-democratic character. This plays into a Christian reading of Judaism as only a religion, an American reading trying to put American Jewry at the center, and a modern reading of Judaism as only about a universalist, ethereal, commitment to Tikun Olam. Both People Coalitions lay down the primer, improving the foundations.
Ultimately, then, peoplehood is the platform, and even part of the aim – strengthening the Jewish people and saving individual Jewish people while also bringing the Jewish religion alive. But Zionism remains by far the single most effective Jewish movement in the modern world, the action plan for building, and now perfecting, today’s greatest Jewish adventure, Israel. And modern Zionism adds a sixth impulse to the previously mentioned five streams: Identity Zionism teaches all Jews, wherever we live, about the power of Jewish peoplehood, the meaning of the Jewish story, and the many possibilities that occur when we embrace the movement of Jewish nationalism, twisting the words of John F. Kennedy, so that you not only ask what you can do for our country – but tap into all that your country can do for you.
Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.
The complete set of essays comprising this edition is in the process of being published individually on eJP.