The Real Peoplehood Problem

Debating a Trendy Solution to a Well-Known Conundrum

By Daniel Septimus

Published July 15, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a July 15 Forward op-ed, the Jewish Agency’s Misha Galperin sounded an urgent call for funding what he calls “the peoplehood agenda.” This agenda is meant to counter a perceived problem with the younger generation of American Jews.

“Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance,” Galperin wrote, “Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving…. In plain terms, we used to have a people without a state, and now we are in danger of having a state without a people.”

The fervency of Galperin’s outcry might make one think he were calling attention to some novel concern. He presents peoplehood as a marginal agenda that’s not, in his words, “sexy.” But it’s difficult to imagine how Galperin came to see things this way. The Jewish community has been obsessed with peoplehood for several years now. It’s been the focus of countless conferences and philanthropic initiatives.

Even more surprising, however, is Galperin’s solution, which is shockingly listless.

“I believe,” writes Galperin, “it is time to get the major institutions and philanthropists who work on the peoplehood agenda in a room for several days of creative brainstorming on how we can make this work together.”

Peoplehood Promoter: As head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky has focused on promoting Jewish identity.
Getty Images
Peoplehood Promoter: As head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky has focused on promoting Jewish identity.

Seriously?

The Jewish Agency for Israel — Galperin’s organization —receives 75% of the federation system’s overseas funding, made a big splash last year announcing a strategy that deviates from its historic mission of aliyah, stressing that it would now focus on peoplehood and “Jewish identity,” and Galperin’s solution is brainstorming!

But the faux-novelty of Galperin’s fundraising pitch and his proposed solution are actually indicative of a larger problem. Galperin’s peoplehood agenda is an emperor without clothes — not because the agenda is limited to brainstorming, but because there is no essential substance to “peoplehood.”

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.

The irony, of course, is that the bonds that Galperin wants to strengthen might actually emerge if the substance of Jewish life were prioritized and Jews were able to experience them together. This may be what he means when he writes about the need to provide people “with immersive, meaningful experiences.” But instead of speaking openly about the content of these experiences, he offers hazy notions of a “peoplehood pay-it-forward” approach.

To be fair, many of those leading the peoplehood push — Galperin, Natan Sharansky, Leonid Nevzlin — are from the former Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, Jewish peoplehood did have existential weight independent of Jewish practices and values because Jewishness was noted and persecuted by the outside world. But importing that model of peoplehood to the United States is as absurd as importing communism.

Clal Yisrael, the Jewish people, is an important idea in our tradition, but it is not the only important idea. The world is sustained by three things, the Mishna tells us: Torah, avodah (worship/ritual) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness). This panoply of ethical, spiritual and intellectual outlets — not a single-minded ethno-privileging — is our inheritance.

While it may not be apparent from my exasperation here, I have much respect for Misha Galperin and all the work he’s done for the Jewish community. I even suspect he would agree with many of my sentiments. But there’s a laziness to this peoplehood rhetoric that is, ultimately, damaging. Its vagueness is vulgar.

And so, to all those who have grabbed onto Jewish peoplehood as the next, great messianic hope, I beg you: If you are serious about growing the bonds between Jews, stop taking refuge in the safe secularity of peoplehood. Forget about brainstorming and, instead, find ways to encourage Jewish values, practices, rituals and learning. These are what give the Jewish people its purpose.

Galperin is correct. Many young American Jews do not feel a special connection with the Jewish people. But we haven’t given them any reason to, and if we can’t articulate the purpose and mission of the Jewish people — the ends we hope it will help achieve for the world — we will continue to find ourselves lost in the desert we are wandering in today.

Daniel Septimus is the CEO of MyJewishLearning, Inc., publisher of MyJewishLearning.com and Kveller.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.