The return of Jewish peoplehood?

In recent years however a return to the concept of Jewish peoplehood has appeared, that first felt in the corridors of academia and only now trickling down to the people.

The term "peoplehood" may seem outdated to many. Many younger Western Jews would deem this term archaic, irrelevant to their concept of Judaism. We are constantly bombarded with messages - conscious and subconscious - that being Jewish is just like being Christian, Muslim or of any other religion. To follow a religion, one must adhere. But one who is part of a people can belong. "To belong" sits uncomfortably with the many Western Jews who hold a pantheon of identities in which being Jewish is merely an addendum to more important national, ethical and social ties. In recent years however a return to the concept of Jewish peoplehood has appeared, that first felt in the corridors of academia and only now trickling down to the people. IN 2000, the Nadav Fund commissioned a position paper titled "A Framework for Strategic Thinking about Jewish Peoplehood." The paper opens by remarking that "a small but growing number of Jewish organizations have started using the concept of 'Jewish peoplehood' in their work." The paper provided what was perhaps the first organized modern expression of Jewish peoplehood, codifying the concept and its value to the Jewish organizational structure. But, as the authors admifted in their conclusion, they "did not discuss in detail the translation of the theory of Jewish peoplehood into practice." Many papers and conferences have appeared in the interim, but achieved little success in impressing the concept of peoplehood into the Diaspora communal psyche. In fact, in 2006 noted sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer railed against the lack of interest in Jewish peoplehood among North American Jewish laity. The authors noted that "mounting evidence attests to a weakened identification among American Jews with their fellow Jews abroad, as well as a waning sense of communal responsibility at home. The once-forceful claims of Jewish 'peoplehood' have lost their power to compel." They pointed to the "currents in society at large and within Jewish communities themselves [that] began to erode this structure of world-wide allegiance." Cohen and Wertheimer analyzed how historically Jews from one part of the world would rally in support of Jews from another, culminating famously in the Soviet Jewry protests. These protests, the authors argue, could not take place today because of the waning influence of communal cohesion and of the sense of belonging to a distinctive people. Instead, the new globalist approach seeks to break down any remaining national, ethical and religious boundaries. THE ESSENTIALIST line of the parochial organizational structure has also been lost in this post-modern identity bazaar. One of the largest American Jewish organizations, the United Jewish Communities currently raises funds under the slogan "Live Generously: It Does a World of Good." This vague notion of charitable giving has detached itself from any calls on the community's Jewish character and uniqueness. Many in the Jewish world have tried to reverse these worrying trends by reconnecting Jews to their history, culture and traditions. One of the most successful is Birthright, which introduces the young assimilated and largely non-affiliated Jew to the concept of peoplehood by introducing them to their ancestral home. That a young suburban Jew-only-in-name could connect to a young Israeli, sharing little except a historical and familial bond, helps create a feeling of belonging to something beyond the simplistic artificial structures that have been created for them. However, Birthright is a drop in the ocean. We need to imbue the peoplehood concept onto the consciousness of Jews worldwide. One important new development intends to do just that. The Daniel Elazar Beit Va'ad Roundtable, among other objectives, seeks to galvanize a new approach to the reintroduction of peoplehood into the Jewish mainstream. The initiative features some of the best thinkers and practitioners on contemporary Jewish issues brainstorming about real answers to complex questions. The late Prof. Elazar himself was a leading political scientist and specialist in the study of federalism, political culture, the Jewish political tradition, Israel and the world Jewish community. Elazar, founder and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was one of the first to deal with the shrinking attachment to Jewish peoplehood decades ago. In his essay "The Jewish Political Tradition as the Basis for Jewish Civic Education: Pirkei Avot as an Example," he wrote: It is difficult to overemphasize the problems facing Jewish educators in interpreting Jewish peoplehood to American Jews in light of American view of the Jews as a religious group, first and foremost, and Judaism as a religion in the Protestant sense. Even sophisticated American Jewish scholars in fields other than Jewish studies often lack the sense of Jewish peoplehood which lies at the base of all proper Jewish identity. This initiative seeks to revive the Jewish political tradition and with it the return of Jewish peoplehood. The first discussion, held at the Center last month, was called "Integrating Jewish Peoplehood and Tikkun Olam and sought to amalgamate the seemingly contradictory notions of distinctive peoplehood and the universalistic concept of tikkun olam. The Roundtable is meant not to remain in the realm of the theory but will seek to create a group of Jewish leaders who can disseminate these concepts to the wider Jewish world. Perhaps one day in the future we'll be discussing the return of Jewish peoplehood. The writer is an editor at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for the Middle East Strategic Information project.