Jewish Peoplehood

Family is a constant in our world as humans, a fact of life that is at times both a tremendous blessing and a tremendous strain (mine is only ever a blessing, of course).  This is true of larger ‘families’ as well — being part of a sports culture includes its highs and lows, as does being a citizen of a given country.  Somehow, though, when it comes to Jewish peoplehood, the picture is more complicated.

Often, when the topic of Jewish peoplehood surfaces, the response is either an automatic ‘I am part of the Jewish people, and proud of it’ or ‘Jewish peoplehood, as a concept, makes me uneasy.’  In part, this is true because Jewish peoplehood, unlike our nationalities or our nuclear families (for the most part), is something that many of us today feel that we can choose to belong to or not — a novel concept in the history of Judaism.  However, the uneasiness about Jewish peoplehood is grounded, in my experience, in a different rationale.  Often it is said that, since we — white, Western Jews of various stripes — are more like other Western people than other Jews (e.g. from the Middle East excluding Israel, or Russia), we do not feel a real sense of Jewish peoplehood.

Since when did being a member of a family construct necessitate having a lot in common with all members of that family?  Do you really share a lot in common with all of your cousins, in-laws, aunts and uncles?  In speaking of the recent heightening of tensions at the Western Wall, Yossi Klein Halevi points to this trend as drifting from the origins of Zionism:

“At its core, Zionism is the ideology of Jewish peoplehood. The genius of classical Zionism was its ability to include almost every variety of Jewish ideology – from Marxist to capitalist, from anti-clericalist to theocratic – under a shared, basic commitment. As modernity fragmented the Jews into rival camps, Zionism insisted that those identities were mere adjectives, and that the unifying noun was “Jew.””

This strikes me as not only being true, but as being a goal towards which we ought to be striving today, especially in light of the infighting that issues like the Western Wall, a space close to the hearts of so many Jews, bring to the surface.  Is there any value, or set of values, that can unite a disparate Jewish family in the 21st century?

While it used to be the case that all Jews shared extensive liturgy, ritual, culture, forms of study, and community organization, is it enough today that we all share at least one of those things with some other Jewish community, or has the web been spun so thin that to speak of one Jewish People is a nonsensical term?


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