Peoplehood vs. Zionism
by David Breakstone
Type “peoplehood” into a Microsoft Word document and it’s going to appear as a mistake.
That’s a bit worrisome, given the increasing emphasis being put on the concept within certain circles intent on looking after the Jewish future. My problem, though, is not that Word doesn’t recognize the notion, but that its proponents don’t recognize, a priori, the vital role Israel plays in assuring the continuity to which they are committed.
Put more simply, I am worried that “peoplehood” is being advanced as an alternative to Zionism, undermining the very foundations on which Israel was built. Just when so many of us are battling for the hearts and minds of young Jews subjected to a hostile campaign to delegitimize the idea of Jewish statehood, “friends” are coming along with the message that Israel may not be all that critical to maintaining our identity after all, never mind our physical survival.
A prime example is the recently published report “Jewish Peoplehood Education” – the outcome of a three-year exploration of the subject by a global task force commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York and supported by the NADAV Foundation and The Jewish Agency for Israel. The mandate it was given was “to grapple with how to engage the next generation with the Jewish collective.” Among the guiding principles it advances is that “The centrality of Israel in the formation of a Jewish peoplehood needs to be revisited, reinterpreted and rearticulated.”
While the authors do not assert that this position, when reprocessed, might be rejected, they certainly raise the possibility. Their portrayal of the ideal “Jewish peoplehood educator” includes 13 characteristics, among them a “commitment to tikkun olam as a core value of the Jewish People” and “treasuring… the culture and heritage of the Jewish People,” but not a word about a “commitment to” or “treasuring” anything about Israel. Also telling is that this educator will have an “ability to use peoplehood language” though not any capacity to use the Hebrew language – even ideally.
My concerns are exacerbated by current observations that Jews around the world, particularly the younger generation, are growing ever more distant from Israel. With the Holocaust increasingly perceived as a historical rather than contemporary experience (like the destruction of the Temple or the Spanish Inquisition) and the Six Day War as the “beginning of the occupation” rather than a celebration of the Jewish people’s ability to defend itself, it cannot be assumed that children of Jewish baby boomers understand the necessity for a Jewish state.
Developing an appreciation for the essential role Israel plays in safeguarding the Jewish good needs to be fundamental to any educational initiative aimed at guaranteeing it. The report, however, skirts around this imperative, stating that “the purpose of peoplehood education is to instill a sense of collective belonging based on a shared narrative and consciousness… which leads to a sense of commitment and responsibility to the Jewish people.” That statement is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Tag on the phrase “including the upbuilding of the Jewish state as the ultimate manifestation of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, need for self-expression and capacity for self-reliance” and I’d be quiet.
But those are my words, not the authors.’ Why aren’t they there? Is the report’s disregard of the importance of Jewish statehood for Jewish peoplehood a matter of intent or inattention? The mission statement of the NADAV Foundation suggests the former, dedicated as it is “to creating a vibrant Jewish present and future, in which Jews, wherever they live, feel connected and committed to one another, to their shared history and their common destiny.”
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. Nothing new here.
But where is the recognition that without a Jewish state, our ability to act on that responsibility is severely limited? As I write this, a clip appears on TV marking the 35th anniversary of the raid to free Jewish hostages held in Entebbe. Dan Shomron, later to become IDF chief of General Staff, is prepping the commandos embarking on the mission. Thirty years after the Holocaust, he is telling them that those out to destroy us would again subject us to “selection.”
But, he concludes, no longer are we powerless to resist.
The most profound sense of peoplehood prompted the operation; statehood allowed it to be implemented.
It is one thing to maintain that not all Jews should move to Israel; it is quite another to suggest that a Jewish state is only incidental to Jewish continuity.
Zionism can accommodate to accepting the richness and viability of Diaspora Jewish life; it can’t adjust to accepting that Israel is only another place where Jews happen to live. I am afraid that the “peoplehood” approach may be promoting such a worldview.
In fact, by its own account, the NADAV Foundation has been successful in changing the Jewish conversation, so that “this bold, innovative concept is now becoming a dynamic paradigm shift in Jewish life.” One we can ill afford, and one that stands in direct conflict with our tradition.
Who we are has always been rooted in a particular landscape. However one reads the Bible, God’s promise to Abraham that he would father “a great nation” was predicated on the command that he go “to the land that I will show you.” Indeed, for 2,000 years we managed to survive without national sovereignty, but in large measure because we never ceased longing for its reestablishment.
We prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, broke a glass under the wedding canopy in commemoration of the Temple, asked for rain according to the seasons of Eretz Yisrael, and supported a woman’s right to demand a divorce if she wished to return to our homeland and her husband refused.
Now that we are no longer weeping by the rivers of Babylon but have again taken our destiny into our own hands, we should be rejoicing in the wholeness we have attained: the integration of peoplehood, statehood and tradition. Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
Instead, there are those who would tempt us to build our future on only the first of these pillars, to the near exclusion of the others. They have been wooed by the advent of virtual communities and globalization, which have conspired to create a sense that we might live as a Jewish collective unfettered by the constraints of space and the inconvenience of borders.
This is the fundamental fallacy of the peoplehood approach to Jewish continuity, rooted in a deceptive reductionism of the complexity of Judaism. Indeed, we are a people, but only by virtue of our inexorable connectedness to land and religion. Take away either and we will vanish. The illusion that we could survive as a “social network” might be appealing to those for whom Zionism has become sullied and Israel’s policies a cause for discomfort, but, ironically, it is only the fact of our statehood, with the security it provides and the cultural creativity it has engendered, that allows others to overlook its importance.
What is required, then, is not that we revisit, reinterpret and rearticulate the centrality of Israel to Jewish civilization, but that we reaffirm it. While teaching Jews in Israel that they are part of a people is vital, teaching Jews elsewhere that they are bound inextricably to this country is at least as critical. Zionist education encompasses both objectives. Peoplehood education may not. While Microsoft may be extreme in not recognizing the concept altogether, the software giant’s rejection of the term should serve as a warning to those enamored of the concept that they must proceed with caution.
David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.