Well, obviously it is a real thing, but what that thing is depends on who you talk to. Almost any meaning can be attributed to the concept and so many diverse agendas can be fit into it that it’s rather difficult to discern an actual meaning. But discern we must as peoplehood has become the latest and greatest buzzword in the organized Jewish community, both in Israel and in the diaspora. For instance, the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose mission since before 1948 has been to encourage and facilitate aliyah to Israel, has now been tasked with a new mission – the advancement of Jewish peoplehood. Some might say that this comes at a good time for the Jewish Agency and its army of unionized bureaucrats who have been handed a new lease on life now that pretty much every large Jewish population in the world that wants to make aliyah has made aliyah. But more than just the Jewish Agency, you hear about Jewish peoplehood in every nook and cranny in the Jewish communal world – a world that loves buzzwords like a fat kid loves cake.
What then is Jewish peoplehood? Well, in essence Jewish peoplehood is that ephemeral thing that unites a diverse range of Jews. Think of say, a Haredi Jew in Bnei Brak who spends his days studying Torah and who lives in a closed and rigidly traditional religious community. Now think of say a totally secular Jew in Los Angeles who considers himself an atheist, never attends religious services, is not involved in Jewish communal activities and has a parent who isn’t Jewish. Our Haredi friend’s Judaism is very much based on religion while our friend in LA’s Jewish identity may be based on a name, a vague heritage, the consumption of bagels – anything but religion. Yet both are part of the Jewish people – even though one may consider the other totally foreign – practically from another planet!
The questions that then arise are what ought be included in a proper formulation of Jewish identity? Some wish to construe it narrowly and base it solely on religious criteria, thus perhaps excluding non-traditional formulations of Judaism. Others wish to construe it broadly and include anyone and everyone, thus possibly watering down what it means to be a Jew and rendering the concept almost meaningless. Others still debate the centrality of Israel and Zionism in any conception of Jewish peoplehood while others cannot conceive of Jewish peoplehood without Israel.
These and other issues will be discussed in depth on Wednesday, May 22 in Jerusalem when AJC Access presents “Jewish People in Da ‘Hood” a panel discussion featuring myself, Rebecca “Becky” Caspi, Senior Vice President for global operations of The Jewish Federations of North America, as well as the director general of JFNA’s Israel office and Benjamin Rutland, Foreign and English Language Media Spokesperson at the Jewish Agency. This will promise to be a very interesting event – I’ll try to be diplomatic and polite, but I won’t overdo it either. If you’re in or near Jerusalem tomorrow evening then by all means come on down for a nice chat and some good shmoozing.
For more information visit the Facebook event page. See ya there!