Forward Thinking

What We Talk About When We Talk About Peoplehood

By Gal Beckerman

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I’ve received some interesting responses to an op-ed we ran recently in the paper. The piece was written by Misha Galperin, a top official at the Jewish Agency, who has overseen that quasi-governmental body’s shift from focusing on immigration to Israel, which was its mission for many decades, to something called “peoplehood” promotion.

Galperin will be the first to acknowledge that this new goal might strike some as a little vague and fuzzy. But that’s precisely what his op-ed was about. He was making a case for directing communal funds towards a cause that would seem at first glance, as he put it, not “sexy” but that he believes is existentially important.

He doesn’t exactly define “peoplehood” in his op-ed but the concept has been bandied about the Jewish world long enough that we know it means Jewish identity and connection, the ethnic and cultural bonds that make Jews feel a responsibility to other Jews.

His more critical omission was not being more explicit about what it would take to make “peoplehood” proliferate.

Thus the response.

First I heard from Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Services, who wanted to make sure that “peoplehood” meant more than just Jews caring about other Jews. Her understanding of Jewish identity includes social justice work and activism to improve the world. As she put it in a letter to the editor:

But what’s missing from this piece is a more expansive, values-based understanding of how Jewish peoplehood is expressed. Immersive Jewish service-learning programs are powerful instruments for repairing our world’s brokenness. As important, they enable American Jews to authentically connect with core tenets of Jewish tradition and Jewish experience. Look no further than “Care for the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Our community’s enduring struggle with our own oppression and marginality has instilled a communal ethic of righteousness and justice.

An even sharper critique came from Daniel Septimus, who runs MyJewishLearning.com and took issue with the vagueness of “peoplehood.” We are running his response as an op-ed. And it’s well worth reading in full.

Septimus doesn’t think “peoplehood” is a particularly new idea and he also believes that it is “lazy” and even “vulgar” to discuss the concept as the perfect antidote to all the community’s woes without defining what makes up this identity, without identifying the substance of “peoplehood.” Here’s part of the piece:

What is the content of Galperin’s “bond of peoplehood”? What is this bonded people supposed to do? What values do they cherish and share? What mission do they work to achieve?

The Jewish community’s inability to articulate answers to these questions, while at the same time fetishizing “peoplehood” to the brink of idolatry, is exactly the reason the younger generation has drifted away. Peoplehood should not be an end in itself, and if it is, its decline is not worth crying about.

If you must cry, cry about the fact that most American Jews have never experienced the intellectual rush of deep Torah study. Cry about the fact that they don’t regularly receive the physical, spiritual and social sustenance of a Shabbat meal with friends. Cry about the fact that they have never sung a great niggun or danced a spontaneous hora at a klezmer concert. Cry about the fact that they haven’t experienced the mystique of Jerusalem, that they haven’t felt the support of a community committed to hesed, that they haven’t read our writers’ magisterial works of literature

What do you think?

We’d be curious to hear whether you believe “peoplehood” should become the focus of the Jewish community’s fundraising efforts, as Galperin insists? And if so, what does the concept mean to you, practically speaking and what can be done to promote it? Put your ideas in the comments section and I’ll post up some of the better responses.


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