What We Talk About When We Talk About Peoplehood

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:

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 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.

Written by

Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “ When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, ” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Peoplehood

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