“Together, Tribes of Israel?” ; Part 2

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

Part 2: Building a new relationship for Zionism and Jewish peoplehood
By Andrés Spokoiny

[Part 1 can be found here.]

To keep Zionism and Jewish peoplehood from coming into greater and greater conflict, the Jewish world needs to rethink our old ideas about how Israel and the Jewish world fit together.

That rethinking needs to be steeped both in our particular Jewish experience and in the specific challenges of the 21st century, which are also upending our traditional ideas of states and nations. The ideas of the 19th century forged the ideas of Jewish peoplehood and nationalism. Jews keenly identified the changes in their context and proposed nationalism as a response to them. In the 21st century, however, the idea of the nation-state is undergoing profound transformations; the notion of collective identity is pulled by multi-cultural impulses and by neo-tribalism; a society centered on the individual experience instead of the collective one poses unprecedented challenges to every and any collective project.

So, to begin this process, here are a few ideas and hypotheses:

  1. A collective project. Israel was born as a collective project of the Jewish People. It still is. Both Israeli and Diaspora Jews need to realize this basic fact. What happens in Israel reflects and represents all of us – all Israelis, including non-Jews, but also all Jews, even non-Israelis. Israel isn’t and shouldn’t be just another country, only serving its formal citizens. For good or ill, Israel was born with a mission and with a mandate. The Jewish People everywhere can’t shake its responsibility for Israel and, in the same way, Israel can’t write off the Diaspora. The connection between Israel and the Jewish People is critical for the State’s raison d’etre. The connection can’t be seen only in transactional terms but in essential ones. For Jews – both in Israel and the Diaspora – the stakes are very high: Judaism as we know it is mainly a diasporic invention; the values and practices we cherish, reflect, to a great extent, our experience in exile. We need to prove that they are relevant in a context of national sovereignty. The values of a powerless people need to show their resilience in a context of power.
  2. Mutual responsibility means mutual influence. As a Jewish collective that cannot help having mutual influence on one another’s fate and well-being, Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews can and must try to influence each other’s decisions, and neither side should tell the other to simply back off (as often happens now). Israel needs to consider the opinion of Diaspora Jews regarding issues like the occupation and religious pluralism; Diaspora Jews also need to consider Israeli opinions in relation to how they live their Judaism and their role in the collective Jewish endeavor: intermarriage, Hebrew language, assimilation, and other issues. Neither side owes deference to the other, but we owe each other listening and taking the other’s perspective seriously.
  3. A strong center and a vibrant periphery. Zionism postulated that the Jewish People needed to regain agency over its own history, and only a people with a state — and sovereign power – can truly be free and own its story. That implies, then, that Israel is now the main stage of Jewish history. There Jews are performing a story that, for good and for ill, is truly theirs. Diaspora Jews need to recognize the centrality of that stage – but not its exclusivity. The classic Zionist narrative would say Diaspora Jews are now merely the audience for that stage, supporting the actors with their applause. In fact, the Diaspora remains important in its own right, in ways that don’t negate the centrality of Israel. The Jewish world is less like a single play and more like a theater festival in which many groups mount simultaneous productions. Israel is one and Jews in the Diaspora are others. They, too, are writing important pieces of our collective story. For example, the Jewish role in the U.S. civil rights movement is a key piece of our history as a people; so is the collective effort to free Soviet Jewry. The role of everyone present at the festival – and each person may be an audience member in one play and actor in another – is to connect all the different plays, the major ones and the minor ones, and make sure that they form part of a single narrative.
  4. Nationhood with purpose. Not every people needs to have a mission, but for Jews, the idea of having a purpose beyond our mere existence is anchored in our ideological DNA. From Abraham onwards, we are called to fulfill a mission in the world and bear witness to certain values. The existence of a State and the fact that we have now ‘conventional’ power gives us a unique opportunity to fulfill that purpose and transform it from an ethereal idea to a specific program. We may disagree and fight over it, but Jews always reflected and wondered about their raison d’etre. That reflection is now more important than ever. We will disagree on what that mission needs be but I will suggest a few ideas: a) an articulation of Jewish values of justice, equality, and dignity in a national setting. In other words, making Israel the living proof that our values do create a better and fairer society; b) Model a healthy relationship between modern society and nature, different from the exploitative modern paradigm and from the Luddite fantasies of radical conservationists. c) Take Israel’s technological prowess and Jewish wisdom to articulate an applied ethics of technology; d) in a time of globalization and fear of the other, propose a new relationship between particular identities and universalism.
  5. A model for what nationhood can mean. In the 21st century context, in which the traditional notion of peoplehood is assailed by multicultural assimilationism, consumerist individualism, and neo-tribalism, Jews can and should produce another way: one in which the collective experience is an avenue for personal realization; one in which a strong identity serves as a platform for connecting with others rather than closing ourselves. Zionism was about losing our fear of the world and relating to the family of nations as equals. The goal was never to replace one ghetto with another. The siege mentality of the tribalists among us will not only disconnect more Jews from Israel, but it will betray a key aspect of the Zionist national idea. Those who promote a vision of no countries and no religions, on the other hand, would do well to remember that democracy and human rights have only existed in the context of strong national identities. The excesses of nationalism don’t mean that nationalism as such is treif. One doesn’t completely stop eating when the doctor says that we should watch our weight a little.

Some may think that the challenges I’m outlining are mere philosophical speculations, but what these lines try to prove is that Zionism wasn’t a mere program, an “action plan” to create a state, but a radical reinvention of the notion of Jewishness that took place in the ideological and conceptual realms before moving to drain the swamps of the Jezreel Valley and make the desert green. A similar rethinking of our collective ethos is needed now. For that, Jewish leaders and funders need to invest the time, the energy, and the resources in studying the philosophy of nationalism, peoplehood, and Zionism. We need to create a context in which these types of debate are incentivized and curated. We need to encourage, morally and financially, our thinkers and scholars to reflect on the nature of Jewish nationalism. We need to do that both in Israel and the Diaspora and we need to make sure that this debate can be done with equal measures of freedom and respect.

Israel at 70 is a time to count our blessings; it’s a time for collective pride and rejoicing. Yet, this can’t blind us to the challenges that our collective identity is facing. We don’t want Zionism to be yet another revolution that devoured itself. Israel at 70 presents with the need and the opportunity to reinvent the Jewish collective dimension.

Somebody said that the Jews taught the world the art of being a people. I believe that’s true, but we didn’t inscribe that wisdom on a stone tablet; rather, we looked at it as an ever-evolving adventure guided by love, responsibility and passion.

It is now time to write a new chapter in that adventure.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network. A Jewish communal leader of long standing with a history of leading successful organizational transformations, his previous positions include CEO of Federation CJA in Montreal and Regional Director for Northeast Europe for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).