The Future of Peoplehood: From Nationhood to Neighborhood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Noam Pianko

Does a secular Jew in Berkeley have a shared future and common values with a Haredi Jew in Bnei Brak? As long as concepts of peoplehood make the case for the unity of such diverse Jewish populations, the future of this key word has little potential to inspire Jewish collectivity.

In order to justify this axiomatic assumption, descriptions of peoplehood must find the lowest common denominator unifying criteria. Thus the rationale for Jewish peoplehood rests on abstract and water-down claims about shared “values,” “history,” and “mission.” As the internal forces of fragmentation overtake the external forces unifying the collective, the efficacy of a peoplehood discourse grounded in abstract commonalities that conflict with personal convictions and communal values will dissipate.

Fortunately, peoplehood’s history as a key word in Jewish life illuminates the ways in which today’s primary associations of peoplehood with unity, solidarity, and shared values represents a new innovation shaped by modern nationalism. A better understanding of the term’s relatively recent evolution provides a crucial opportunity to reconsider its future.

The intertwined nature of peoplehood, theories of nationalism, and Zionism is evident in the very construction of what was less than 100 years ago a new term. The suffix “-hood” in both peoplehood and nationhood is not coincidental. In the 1930’s, the use of nationhood as the defining basis for Jewish collectivity became more problematic in the American Jewish context because of its statist associations with the future Jewish state and its accompanying perception that Jews might have dual loyalties. Early adopters of “peoplehood” (a term with almost no precedent in the English language) came to the term as Zionist influenced thinkers seeking a replacement for “nationhood.” Peoplehood provided a blank slate, or even a code word, that could softly preserve Jewish nationalist assumptions about the centrality of the land, language, national history, and culture, without invoking the contentious language (inside and outside of the Jewish community) of Jews as a nation.

Yet, the current discourse about peoplehood and definitions of Jewish collectivity has not fully acknowledged its roots in modern notions of nationhood – and specifically in American Zionists’ innovations and conversations in the 1930s and 1940s. The strong, but rarely acknowledged, historical relationship between peoplehood and Jewish nationhood, with the State and Land of Israel at the center of the story of peoplehood, remains the elephant in the room in plotting a course for how peoplehood will be conceptualized and practiced in the future. This is not to suggest that Israel should not be an integral part of the Jewish collectivity conversation. However, peoplehood’s long association with nationalism has limited the possibilities for thinking differently about what it means to be part of a people.

One of the central goals for a national movement is to justify collective bonds by emphasizing a unified political body with a shared history, mission, and values. The nationalist paradigm of peoplehood prioritizes the ideal of Jewish unity organized around the centripetal force of attachment to Israel and to a collective essence (usually referred to as a “shared mission”). The elevation of these criteria of cohesion marginalizes a significant proportion of the Jewish people whose attachment to the collective does not resonate with themes shaped by modern nationalism.

The sense of a declining interest in peoplehood is not a problem that can be solved by repackaging ideas calibrated to rally American Jews in response to the unprecedented events of the mid twentieth century: the Holocaust and the emergence of the State of Israel. Instead, peoplehood’s limited currency today reflects a concept largely stuck in an outdated paradigm of identity construction. The modern (and novel) focus on the singular unifying concept of peoplehood made sense for a specific historical moment. However, its endurance severely limits the future theoretical possibilities for articulating communal definitions, politics, and practices of peoplehood.

My vision for peoplehood reflects another -hood paradigm – not nationhood, but “neighborhood.” The move from nationhood to neighborhood shifts the programmatic agenda of peoplehood from building unity to promoting diverse and potentially highly disconnected communities. A neighborhood model focuses on local engagement and individual experiences as the building blocks of Jewish peoplehood (where “local”, in the global/digital age, does not necessarily mean geographically close, but particular, specific, and contextual). Peoplehood based on a neighborhood, rather than nationhood, model promotes understanding Jewish collectivity as the sum of divergent processes of Jewish exploration and community building. As the sites of Jewish engagement, local communities should focus their energies on affirming their particular interpretations of Judaism and Jewish life.

“Neighborhoods” broadly construed, either in-person or via focused global networks, create a platform for engagement, meaning creation, and innovation, with Jewish communities looking to develop what the software community calls open-source standards. Open-source software is non-proprietary, open to customization, and readily interchangeable. This paradigm meets the demands of Jews who no longer find specific identity packages (such as denominational logic or the binary distinction between particularist and Universalist) relevant. An open-source model promotes multiple entry- points, recognizes diverse interests, and allows creative self-expression.

A neighborhood paradigm deemphasizes the ideal of unity and promotes disaggregation of Jewish institutions and communities. The breakdown of centralized states and non-state institutions is a reality that, if ignored, will simply offer models of community and collectivity based on outdated assumptions, privileging numbers and power over individual meaning making and grass-roots organization. A neighborhood approach instead promotes local, informal expressions of collectivity, rather than overarching institutional centers. Micro-communities emerge as the creators and perpetuators of the ongoing project of Jewish peoplehood. Divergent and grassroots expressions of Jewish involvement are not signs of the end of Jewish peoplehood, but the basis for its future. Vibrant collective life cannot rely on one center to disseminate the meaning of identity. The legacy of Achad Ha-am’s vision of a cultural center is a vestige of cultural nationalism that has little relevance for either local or global models of collectivity. As Simon Rawidowicz pointed out decades ago, the meaning of Jewish engagement and membership is a highly localized phenomenon that cannot be exported from one context to another.

A sense of connection to a larger entity will be generated most authentically – and thus enduringly – from the bottom-up. Grassroots communities provide open spaces to raise questions about Jewish identity and what, if anything, binds Jews to one another. It is the very act of engaging with these local and personal issues that engages individuals in the meaning of peoplehood. Smaller communities whose mission does not necessarily include promoting peoplehood are not a threat to peoplehood; instead, the emergence of group differentiation around interest, location, or age cohort creates the building blocks of the Jewish people. A foreign center and the abstract claims of shared set of values will only continue to lose their efficacy as rhetoric of unity. Only Judaism itself – and by that I mean the exploration of Jewish tradition and Jewish life in its manifold expressions – can inspire a global sense of interconnectedness.

Noam Pianko is Associate Professor and Samuel N. Stroum Chair of Jewish Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. In addition, he serves as the chair of the University of Washington Jewish Studies program.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.