Where Might We Locate a Jewish Peoplehood for the Twenty-First Century?

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

By Deborah Dash Moore

As Noam Pianko has cogently shown in Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation (2015), the term originated in the twentieth century. Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, a spiritual Zionist and founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, proposed the word as an alternative to both nation and nationality. He hoped that peoplehood would bridge debates between those who contended that only Jewish religious ties linked Jews and those who declared that only Jewish national bonds mattered. Peoplehood as an idea also skirted the concept of the nation state. Kaplan argued forcefully and unsuccessfully for transnational or international Jewish forms of political organization to embody Jewish peoplehood. That Jewish Peoplehood now expresses ties of Jews in diaspora with the State of Israel represents an ironic turn of events.

The editors of this collection of essays write: “The creation of the State has been, by any measure, a game changer in Peoplehood history.” They are correct. Peoplehood discussions usually address relations of Israeli Jews with diaspora Jews rather than referring to any alternative to this dichotomy. The change of name of Beit Hatfutsot, or museum of the dispersion, exemplifies this usage. By adding the title, “Museum of the Jewish People – Beit Hatfutsot” the museum defines peoplehood rhetoric in relation to statehood. In this formulation, “the Jewish people” refers to those in dispersion, not Jews living in the State of Israel.

Israeli nationalism has largely supplanted the primacy of Jewish peoplehood for Israeli Jews. Most accurately assume that they no longer need the assistance of diaspora Jews to achieve a prosperous and secure society. Israeli Jews recognize the importance of the United States in providing political and economic support. Increasingly, they also realize that Christian evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Israel generates effective political and economic assistance. This Israeli understanding reduces the political significance of American Jews, the largest group of diaspora Jews.

Yet Israeli Jews and American Jews still consider themselves partners who cooperate on diverse projects. These range widely and reach varied groups of Jews. They include, for example, twinned cities that connect American Jewish communities with Israeli Jewish towns in order to assist the latter and bolster the former. Varied initiatives sponsored by the Jewish Agency similarly bring Israeli Jews and American Jews together. However, these bonds can be considered second-order relationships. American Jews collectively no longer matter to achieve state political goals as they once did throughout much of the twentieth century.

The perspective from North America also looks different in the twenty-first century. Israel appears not as a new nation, struggling to absorb diverse Jewish immigrants, in desperate need of help from Jews throughout the world. Rather, American Jews celebrate Israel’s thriving high-tech economy. Indeed, Israel is so prosperous that it can afford to support a significant population of religious Jews who devote their lives to study of sacred texts. Most American Jews exult in Israel’s military strength. They wholeheartedly support Israel in its many brief wars against varied non-state actors who seek to undermine its security and challenge its legitimacy. These constant wars signal a fundamental Jewish vulnerability to American Jews. Unfortunately, war is an integral feature of the Israeli way of life.

Many American Jews consider Israel a great accomplishment, a credit to the Jewish people. Israel offers them vicarious pride. Over forty percent have visited Israel. However, if the Pew Survey of American Jews is accurate, slightly less than half of American Jews agreed that “caring about Israel” is an essential part of what being Jewish means. (In this matter, “caring about Israel” is running neck and neck – 43% versus 42% – with “having a good sense of humor” as an essential part of what being Jewish means.)

So Jewish peoplehood today translates neither into most American Jews caring about Israel nor most Israeli Jews caring for American Jews. Where, then, might we locate a Jewish peoplehood for the twenty-first century?

One possibility would be to return to an aspect of peoplehood’s original formulation that subsequently was obscured by its political uses. An effort to understand peoplehood as a religious or spiritual concept as well as a national or ethnic one would emphasize its power to unite Jews, women as well as men, across religious differences. Peoplehood would surmount religious rubrics of identity rather than succumbing to them. Jewish legal authority vested in halacha as articulated by state-appointed male rabbis would become subordinate to Jewish moral and spiritual authority vested in the Jewish people. In this way Jewish peoplehood would once again serve to bind together diverse types of Jews: religious and secular, cultural and political, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, fellow-traveling Jews and haredi Jews, straight Jews and LGBTQ Jews.

In pragmatic terms, a program to foster Jewish peoplehood might involve bringing Israeli Jewish teenagers to visit the U.S. in order to experience Jewish religious pluralism and diversity. Such trips could also introduce Israeli Jews to a living Jewish diaspora history not housed in a museum. Jewish teenagers from across the U.S. might then join them on a visit, for example, to New York City. For many years New York’s Jewish population exceeded that of the Yishuv and even the State of Israel in its first decade. It was the largest Jewish city in the world. Such a trip would encourage Israeli Jews and American Jews to contemplate Jewish religious diversity and consider how many different types of Jews live together. It would demonstrate as well religious and political competition among Jews as features of Jewish peoplehood.

In the final section of his book on Jewish Peoplehood, Noam Pianko argues that the logic of peoplehood should shift from “identifying a characteristic essence shared by all members” to “defining the Jewish collective as that which Jews do out of a sense of connection to the Jewish enterprise.” [p 129] This approach foregrounds active participation in the project of Jewish peoplehood instead of assumptions of passive identification. Can Israel create such a project that invites all who want to participate to join together? Or is this a task best left to those who don’t have to contend with a state apparatus?

Deborah Dash Moore is Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and former Director of the the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. An historian of American Jews, she focuses on the 20th century urban experience. Her books regularly garner awards, including G. I. Jews: How World War II Transformed a Generation, which has recently been made into a documentary.