Peoplehood Vs Israel: The Split at the Heart of Jewish Identity
by Jay Michaelson
Peoplehood and support of Israel are two major values of the American Jewish community. But they are in direct conflict, both in principle and in practice.
In principle, the values of peoplehood and Israel are on a natural collision course. Peoplehood – the notion that we are all united purely by dint of being members of the Jewish people – does not have a geographic or ideological center. It does not have a particular end in mind, except more peoplehood and more continuity. And it has very little actual content. This, as I’ve explored in these pages, is both its great strength, as it unites everybody, and its potential great weakness, since it is low on direction and inspiration.
Support for Israel, in contrast, has a geographic and ideological center. It does have a particular purpose. And it has a great deal of actual content, which we argue about all the time: How Jewish should the Jewish state be? How democratic? How secure? How just? We can argue about it because there is something there to argue about.
As such, the trajectories of peoplehood and support for Israel often diverge. And as we have seen lately, in practice, this divergence is actual, not theoretical.
One of the values of peoplehood is inclusion: creating a Jewish community where participation is open to people of different generations, different sexualities and gender orientations, different nationalities, different levels of education and so forth. But if we want a community that stands for something – for example, support for the existence of the State of Israel – then we are by definition excluding those who do not share that value.
This may be the right decision, but let’s be clear that it is a decision. There are hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of Jews who say that the State of Israel should not exist as a Jewish state in its current form. Does the Jewish community (as represented by its federations, funders, synagogues and other establishment institutions) want to include them? Or does the community want to say that their opinions are too far beyond the pale of where we are as a community? These are two different, valid and competing values: inclusion on the one hand, support for Israel on the other.
Of course, this principled conflict begs the question of who calls the shots – that is, who the “we” is. Who determines what the “Jewish community” stands for? We don’t actually take a vote of everyone who identifies as Jewish, right? In practice, we heavily weight the votes of those who affiliate more, organize more and, of course, write big checks. This, too, may be the right decision: Without those big checks, our Jewish institutions would not exist, and so it makes perfect sense to care more about what philanthropists think than about what some vaguely disaffected average Jew on the street thinks. But let’s be clear that this prioritization is also a de facto decision.
Once again, this makes plenty of sense. Consider the funders who, in the San Francisco Bay Area, said that they would not give any money to programs that promote an anti-Israel agenda. They didn’t say that such views should not be expressed – only that they wouldn’t pay for them. When it’s put that way, who can argue?
And it’s not that those same funders required a Lieberman-esque loyalty oath or a statement in support of the settlements. Rather, in the words of the controversial San Francisco federation funding policy, a funded program simply may not “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure, independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”
None of these decisions is ipso facto unreasonable. Yes, some have noted that “secure” is what lawyers call a weasel word, since it could exclude just about anyone from consideration, depending on how it’s interpreted. (Then again, “democratic” might exclude Yisrael Beiteinu.) And yes, it’s unclear why all forms of the BDS movement are so treyf as to be excluded even from participating in federation events. But surely those who donate money are entitled to determine how it is spent.
The point, however, is not that such decisions are right or wrong, entitled or not – only that they are diametrically opposed to the promotion of Jewish peoplehood. They choose the value of supporting Israel over the value of including all Jews in participation in the organized Jewish community.
Though this may seem obvious, it clearly isn’t, judging by the way this intra-communal conflict has played out on the ground. For example, I recently participated in a panel in the Bay Area called “Queer Perspectives on Zionism: Talking About Israel in the LGBT Community.” The idea was to provide a space to address two kinds of alienation: that felt by critics of Israel who feel unsafe expressing their views in the Jewish community, and the one experienced by supporters of Israel who feel unsafe expressing their views in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, which tends to tilt leftward on these issues. (Full disclosure: My organization, Nehirim, receives funding from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, and the panel was produced by the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco.)
In helping to assemble a diverse panel, I ran into problems. I spoke with tenured professors afraid to express their critical-of-Israel views in public. I spoke to rabbinical students who said that they didn’t wrestle with Israeli politics because they didn’t care about Israel in the first place. I had several people refuse to be on the panel because they feared for their jobs. And yet, of my eventual co-panelists, three out of four supported the federation policy, and many attendees said it was just no big deal.
Well, whether the federation policy is right or wrong, it clearly is a big deal, because it’s got people running scared in a way that I’ve never experienced in 10 years of Jewish professional life.
In a way, the choice between inclusion of all Jewish people and shared communal values is a very old one. Long ago, our community leaders decided that Jewish Christians (and before them, Israelite pagans) did not have a place at the Jewish communal table. Since then, Jewish institutions have banned rationalist philosophers, nationalist zealots, messianists, communists, proselytizers and heretics. As long as there have been synagogues, there have been doors and locks put on them. And, of course, there have always been donor walls, too.
But there are new elements, as well. As I’ve learned since publishing an essay about ambivalence toward Israel here in the Forward (an essay that has won me awards, garnered hate mail, generated speaking engagements like the panel in San Francisco, and led to two follow-up articles explaining that ambivalence does not mean antipathy), there is indeed a shifting of climate within and beyond the Jewish world. Outside, once radical views are now commonplace: One friend of mine in London told me yesterday that most of his friends think Israel should not even exist as a state – and many of them are Jewish. And inside the Jewish community, we’ve seen both the rise of moderate groups such as J Street and a hardening of conservative positions among the Jewish “establishment.” This has led to some curious results: As my colleague J.J. Goldberg wrote recently, it’s no big deal to be pro-Israel and anti-settlement in Israel – but to express such views openly in America might get you fired. So there is much that is old, and much that is new, in our historical moment.
The stakes should be clear. If “we” as a community are committed to support for Israel, then it seems right that those opposed to Israel’s very existence should not receive “our” financial support. But that commitment comes at the expense of another commitment to peoplehood and inclusion.
Finally, there is one other value in play: continuity. Surely it should be clear that the increasing black-or-white, with-us-or-against-us nature of American Jewish life is going to be a loser for the Jewish people, even if it is a winner for Israel. If we present younger, less-affiliated college students with a black-or-white choice, either for us or against us, they’re going to choose against us, no matter how many Matisyahu records you play at the Hillel. Yes, some percentage will eat falafel and wave Israeli flags. But my bet is that more of those who find themselves on the fence, if we build that fence higher, will topple over to the other side.
If that is true, then the “for us or against us” crowd is harming Israel’s interests in the long run, too. Because while the Jewish community may be tighter, more unified and more supportive of Israel as a result of excluding those whose views are too treyf, one thing is for sure: It will definitely be smaller.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.