Zionism and Peoplehood: Toward a Historical Synthesis

by Gidi Grinstein

Pesach is an intellectual feast for those of us that are engaged with Jewish identity. As we read the Haggadah and go through the Seder, we leisurely engage the three anchors of our identity – religion, nationalism and peoplehood – and have an annual opportunity to revisit the center of gravity of our identity.

For more than 22 centuries, at least since the days of the Hashmonaim, the collective identity of our people has three distinct poles: our religion that  emphasizes belief and ritual; our nationalism that calls for sovereignty over and self-determination in Eretz Yisrael, and peoplehood that focuses on the shared memories, fate, and destiny that bond us. For most of this period, since the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century, it was religion that  overshadowed nationalism and peoplehood.

The rise of Zionism dramatically altered this equilibrium by challenging every community and many individuals to re-anchor their values, priorities, and patterns of behavior around Jewish nationalism. It often diminished the importance of tradition, texts or rituals; negated the Diaspora and systematically attempted to dismantle it through Aliyah; placed community-building and later state-building in Erez Yisrael as the top priority of the entire Jewish people; pledged to build a model society that would make world Jews ‘proud’, as well as provide them with a ‘safe haven’; and used the objective hardships in the promised land to legitimize a rich uncle-poor nephew mindset and to demand not only political and financial support but also immigrants, olim.

This narrative of Zionism dominated the discourse of our people since the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Millions answered its call by immigrating to Israel or supporting it wholeheartedly, and most others were pushed to root their identity deeper in religion or peoplehood. Furthermore, many institutions framed their mission around it, primarily the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren HaYesod or United Jewish Appeal Federations of North America.

Yet the tectonic shifts of our history relentlessly undermine the dominance of classical Zionism and the institutions that are based on it. For example, not only that many Jews no longer view Israel as the main effort of the Jewish people, emphasizing service of humanity for Tikkun Olam and shared responsibility for Jewish communities around the world in stead, but also there is increasing disinterest in, ignorance of and even alienation from Israel.

At the same time, Israeli society has been transforming as well: Israel has become relatively secure and prosperous, yet facing moral and practical issues that distance it from representing a model society in the eyes of many; religious factions, and even ultra-orthodox groups, undertake a growing role in building  and protecting the state while grappling with its mundane issues; community life in Israel is surging, and more Israelis are engaging with their Jewish heritage; and a permanent Israeli Diaspora seems to be a growing reality when many Israelis relocate overseas for education or work.

Hence, classical Zionism is forced to evolve into what may be referred to as new 21st century Zionism, which no longer views religion and peoplehood as contradictory to Jewish nationalism, but rather complementary. Negation of the  Diaspora is being replaced by the understanding that a vibrant Diaspora is  an imperative for long-term survival of the Jewish people. A strong call for ‘aliyah’ has morphed into encouraging lifecycles of commitment to Israel and movement among Israel and the Jewish world. As Israel ascends to first-world prosperity while world Jewry seeks its unique voice in Israeli society, the rich  uncle-poor nephew mindset is no longer an appealing framework for the relationship, when both sides increasingly seek synergy, mutuality and partnership among equals.

Furthermore, the narrative of state-building and mamlachtiyut (‘statism’) has been replaced by a focus on community-building and diversity. As Israelis embrace their Jewish heritage and Israel’s public sphere is filled with spiritual innovation, Israel will soon be enriching world Jewry with its progressive cultural and substantive creativity.

These are not just big-picture trends but a tangible reality. On the level of individuals, many of us synthesize in our personal, professional and communal life a never-been-seen-before blend of nationalism, peoplehood and religion, facilitated in part by globalization. On the institutional level, organizations that were designed to serve classical Zionism face the excruciating pains of adaptation. Or, recently, Members of Knesset were called to debate absentee voting of Israelis who are abroad.

Yet the emerging synthesis between nationalism and peoplehood requires a new agenda that captures the hearts and minds of millions both in Israel and around the Jewish world and is based on mutuality and synergetic partnership. We must work together to strengthen our world wide network of prosperous and resilient communities; serve the value of tikkun olam and make a distinctly Jewish and Israeli service at the frontiers of humanity; continue to build a secure, prosperous and democratic Israel that offers a unique Jewish experience; teach and speak Hebrew not only as a tool for global communication among  Jews but also for engaging the richness of our history and culture; or to preserve, develop and share the collective wisdom of Jewish culture, rituals and traditions through text study, art, literature or poetry and in a way that enriches Jewish and non-Jewish individuals, households and communities.

This synthesis seems to be inevitable in the coming years, and perhaps decades. Its advantages are many. Yet, most importantly, it not only legitimizes a more relevant relationship between Israel and the Jewish world that will bring significant value to both, but will also improve the prospect for sustaining our contribution to humanity.

Gidi Grinstein is the President and Founder of the Reut Institute, an Israeli policy and strategy group.

This article originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, vol.5, Jewish Peoplehood and Zionism. Reprinted with permission.