Type “peoplehood” into a Microsoft Word document and it’s going to appear as a mistake.
That’s a bit worrisome, given the increasing emphasis being put on the concept within certain circles intent on looking after the Jewish future. My problem, though, is not that Word doesn’t recognize the notion, but that its proponents don’t recognize, a priori, the vital role Israel plays in assuring the continuity to which they are committed.
Put more simply, I am worried that “peoplehood” is being advanced as an alternative to Zionism, undermining the very foundations on which Israel was built. Just when so many of us are battling for the hearts and minds of young Jews subjected to a hostile campaign to delegitimize the idea of Jewish statehood, “friends” are coming along with the message that Israel may not be all that critical to maintaining our identity after all, never mind our physical survival.
A prime example is the recently published report “Jewish Peoplehood Education” – the outcome of a three-year exploration of the subject by a global task force commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York and supported by the NADAV Foundation and The Jewish Agency for Israel. The mandate it was given was “to grapple with how to engage the next generation with the Jewish collective.” Among the guiding principles it advances is that “The centrality of Israel in the formation of a Jewish peoplehood needs to be revisited, reinterpreted and rearticulated.”
While the authors do not assert that this position, when reprocessed,
might be rejected, they certainly raise the possibility. Their portrayal
of the ideal “Jewish peoplehood educator” includes 13 characteristics,
among them a “commitment to tikkun olam as a core value of the Jewish
People” and “treasuring… the culture and heritage of the Jewish People,”
but not a word about a “commitment to” or “treasuring” anything about
Israel. Also telling is that this educator will have an “ability to use
peoplehood language” though not any capacity to use the Hebrew language –
My concerns are exacerbated by current observations that Jews around the
world, particularly the younger generation, are growing ever more
distant from Israel. With the Holocaust increasingly perceived as a
historical rather than contemporary experience (like the destruction of
the Temple or the Spanish Inquisition) and the Six Day War as the
“beginning of the occupation” rather than a celebration of the Jewish
people’s ability to defend itself, it cannot be assumed that children of
Jewish baby boomers understand the necessity for a Jewish state.
Developing an appreciation for the essential role Israel plays in
safeguarding the Jewish good needs to be fundamental to any educational
initiative aimed at guaranteeing it. The report, however, skirts around
this imperative, stating that “the purpose of peoplehood education is to
instill a sense of collective belonging based on a shared narrative and
consciousness… which leads to a sense of commitment and responsibility
to the Jewish people.” That statement is fine as far as it goes, but it
doesn’t go far enough. Tag on the phrase “including the upbuilding of
the Jewish state as the ultimate manifestation of the Jewish people’s
right to self-determination, need for self-expression and capacity for
self-reliance” and I’d be quiet.
But those are my words, not the authors.’ Why aren’t they there? Is the
report’s disregard of the importance of Jewish statehood for Jewish
peoplehood a matter of intent or inattention? The mission statement of
the NADAV Foundation suggests the former, dedicated as it is “to
creating a vibrant Jewish present and future, in which Jews, wherever
they live, feel connected and committed to one another, to their shared
history and their common destiny.”Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh
. All Jews are responsible for one another. Nothing new here.
But where is the recognition that without a Jewish state, our ability to
act on that responsibility is severely limited? As I write this, a clip
appears on TV marking the 35th anniversary of the raid to free Jewish
hostages held in Entebbe. Dan Shomron, later to become IDF chief of
General Staff, is prepping the commandos embarking on the mission.
Thirty years after the Holocaust, he is telling them that those out to
destroy us would again subject us to “selection.”
But, he concludes, no longer are we powerless to resist.
The most profound sense of peoplehood prompted the operation; statehood allowed it to be implemented.
It is one thing to maintain that not all Jews should move to Israel; it
is quite another to suggest that a Jewish state is only incidental to
Zionism can accommodate to accepting the richness and viability of
Diaspora Jewish life; it can’t adjust to accepting that Israel is only
another place where Jews happen to live. I am afraid that the
“peoplehood” approach may be promoting such a worldview.
In fact, by its own account, the NADAV Foundation has been successful in
changing the Jewish conversation, so that “this bold, innovative
concept is now becoming a dynamic paradigm shift in Jewish life.” One we
can ill afford, and one that stands in direct conflict with our
Who we are has always been rooted in a particular landscape. However one
reads the Bible, God’s promise to Abraham that he would father “a great
nation” was predicated on the command that he go “to the land that I
will show you.” Indeed, for 2,000 years we managed to survive without
national sovereignty, but in large measure because we never ceased
longing for its reestablishment.
We prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, broke a glass under the wedding
canopy in commemoration of the Temple, asked for rain according to the
seasons of Eretz Yisrael, and supported a woman’s right to demand a
divorce if she wished to return to our homeland and her husband refused.
Now that we are no longer weeping by the rivers of Babylon but have
again taken our destiny into our own hands, we should be rejoicing in
the wholeness we have attained: the integration of peoplehood, statehood
and tradition. Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
Instead, there are those who would tempt us to build our future on only
the first of these pillars, to the near exclusion of the others. They
have been wooed by the advent of virtual communities and globalization,
which have conspired to create a sense that we might live as a Jewish
collective unfettered by the constraints of space and the inconvenience
This is the fundamental fallacy of the peoplehood approach to Jewish
continuity, rooted in a deceptive reductionism of the complexity of
Judaism. Indeed, we are a people, but only by virtue of our inexorable
connectedness to land and religion. Take away either and we will vanish.
The illusion that we could survive as a “social network” might be
appealing to those for whom Zionism has become sullied and Israel’s
policies a cause for discomfort, but, ironically, it is only the fact of
our statehood, with the security it provides and the cultural
creativity it has engendered, that allows others to overlook its
What is required, then, is not that we revisit, reinterpret and
rearticulate the centrality of Israel to Jewish civilization, but that
we reaffirm it. While teaching Jews in Israel that they are part of a
people is vital, teaching Jews elsewhere that they are bound
inextricably to this country is at least as critical. Zionist education
encompasses both objectives. Peoplehood education may not. While
Microsoft may be extreme in not recognizing the concept altogether, the
software giant’s rejection of the term should serve as a warning to
those enamored of the concept that they must proceed with caution.
The writer is vice chairman of the
World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive.
The opinions expressed in this column are his own.