Re-Focusing Jewish Peoplehood

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

By Shlomi Ravid

The Jewish people experienced one of its greatest revolutions at the end of the 19th Century. Out of a globally spread religious ethnicity with communal frameworks linked through a rather thin network, emerged what scholar of nationalism Rogers Brubaker defines, “… a bounded collectivity with a sense of solidarity, corporate identity and capacity for concerted action” (Brubaker, 2015). This Jewish revolution while being part of the broader process of nationalism that framed modern world history, had its unique challenges. Not only the need to develop a “bounded collectivity” but also to enable the co-existence and synergy of the global people and that of the nation state, which by design are different.

The initial decades tell a truly ideal story. While not happening overnight the idea of the creation of a State for the Jews by the Jews, and one recognized by the family of nations, won the heart of world Jewry. It also cemented the notion of “corporate identity and capacity for concerted action.” Or in the words of the poet Amir Gilboa who captured the spirit of the time: “All of a sudden a man gets up in the morning and he feels he is a people and he begins to walk.” The State became the embodiment of the Jewish People’s “general will.” In its first decades world Jewry was mobilized to support and implement the Zionist project as an expression of both mutual responsibility and collective hope and pride. The State, in return, built the home land, bloomed the desert, gathered the Jews from throughout the globe, revived the Hebrew language, created fresh and cutting-edge Hebrew culture as well as significant achievements in science, high tech and the arts.

Despite potential differences in vision and focus, for most of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the State and the People were acting in symbiosis. The need to rebuild the Jewish people after the Holocaust and ensure its existence and growth overshadowed whatever differences in vision and agenda existed, and led to a harmonious synergy. The State provided the missing component for the Jewish people as a national entity and in the process also contributed to Jewish self-esteem, sense of security, identity and pride. For the Israeli pioneering generations their endeavor was seen as writing the next chapter in Jewish history and fulfilling the dreams of their forefathers.

But this ideal picture could not last forever. Jewish collective identity is comprised of a set of broad general values and beliefs that are meant to jointly constitute an ethos or collective destiny. Israeli collective identity needs to constitute a system for creating policy and legislation for a State. Jewish peoplehood is about developing a meaningful, inspiring and engaging collective destiny for the Jews. Israel needs to create concrete policy to operate both internally and internationally. By design the two are bound to conflict at one point or another.

In recent years growing differences have emerged in particular between North American Jews and Israel. For North American Jews seeking a meaningful Jewish destiny, values such as pursuing social justice, pluralism and Tikkun Olam have been prioritized over Jewish particularistic goals. Israelis on the other hand, prioritize the wellbeing of Jews and are ready to compromise the above values for pragmatic or alternative value considerations. It is very telling that even the recent National Law that was meant to write in stone the fact that Israel is the Nation State of the Jewish people included some serious issues of contention between the State and significant groups in the Jewish people.

The writing on the wall is that the current framing that treats the two entities, i.e. Israel and World Jewry, as one national entity, is not conducive to Jewish unity and actually endangers the Jewish future. The current “bed of Sodom” alienates world Jewry from Israel and Israelis from world Jewry. Can an alternative framing be considered? Can we maintain our sense of Peoplehood while replacing a monolithic global collective ideology with a more open and pluralistic model?

One way of approaching this topic is to explore if we can take the policy-political layer out of the Peoplehood conversation. Peoplehood focuses on our collective destiny and ethos – our “general will” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau called it. It explores the essence, meaning and purpose of Judaism as a collective enterprise. Policy on the other hand, is part of the “will of all” and decided by majority vote of the citizenship body, etc. The mixing of the two is problematic. Maybe it is time, for the sake of all concerned, to acknowledge that the sovereign in Israel, for policy related questions, is the Israeli people? Yes, they may feel a special bond, sense of solidarity and responsibility for the Jewish people at large, but when they formulate policy they exercise their citizenship rights as Israelis.

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.

This framing is proposed as a means of freeing the Peoplehood conversation. It has been occupied by the current political bonds. In recent decades the Jewish people has been busy trying to artificially extend the 20th century Peoplehood paradigm, that converged Peoplehood and Statehood. Not only does it not really work anymore but it has become damaging. Take the approach to Jewish pluralism as an example. Israel’s decision of handing the monopoly on religion to the Orthodoxy, is in obvious contrast to the way most North American Jews view the issue. We could continue to treat each new ruling through the Peoplehood prism and continue damaging our collective unity. We could alternatively see it as Israeli political decisions that should be treated as such (BTW, this is how Israelis view it). In practical terms, efforts to change it can and should continue just as before, but should be kept apart of the Peoplehood conversation.

The Jewish creative forces should be mobilized to develop new and fresh visions of Judaism as a collective enterprise. To expand the Jewish horizon so as to make it meaningful and relevant in the 21st Century. To carve the Jewish future. World Jewry needs it as well as Israel. We can continue agreeing or criticizing Israel’s policy, but let’s move that to another room. One based on love and responsibility but one designed to discuss Israel’s national policies. Let’s keep the Peoplehood conversation focused on the future of the Jewish people.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the founding director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and founding editor of the Peoplehood Papers. He is a research fellow at the Center for Jewish Education at Haifa University