In his recent article “The Jewish Marketplace: Introducing the New American Jew”, Steven Windmueller offers an enlightening analysis of the changing characteristics of American Jewry, including the attributes or characteristics of Jewish communal behavior that contribute to the shaping of the New American Jew. While I agree with most of his analysis I would like to challenge one of his assertions, namely that “We are residing in a post-peoplehood condition”.
I define Peoplehood as Jewish collective consciousness. The consciousness that constitutes our collective being, our ever-evolving civilization, our aspiration to improve the world and our sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility. Rogers Brubaker, one of the lead scholars on nationalism and ethnicity, offers the following definition for a group such as ours:”… a mutually interacting, mutually recognizing, mutually oriented, effectively communicating, bounded collectivity with a sense of solidarity, corporate identity and capacity for concerted action”. While, as Windmueller clearly shows, every component of the above definition has undergone considerable change in recent years, my claim is that the overall framing still provides the organizing framework and language for our collective conversation.
What may clarify the alternative analysis I offer is the differentiation between Peoplehood as Jewish collective consciousness and specific interpretations or paradigms of Peoplehood. There is no question, as Windmueller analysis shows, that American Jews are phasing out of the Peoplehood paradigm that dominated the post WW2 and Six Day War era. And yet concepts and categories of Peoplehood still frame the conversation regarding Jewish collective ethos, meaning and destiny. In that respect, we still live very much in a Peoplehood condition. One whose essence is still being envisioned and content being figured out, but should last as long as Jews wrestle with the meaning of Judaism.
This is not just a function of ideology. Brubaker when discussing ethnic cognition asserts in a distinctive post-modern non-essentialist fashion, the following:
Ethnicity, race and nationhood exist only in and through our perceptions,
interpretations, representations, categorizations and identifications.
They are not things in the world, but perspectives on the world. These include ethnicized ways of seeing (and ignoring), of construing (and misconstruing), of inferring (and misinferring), of remembering (and forgetting).
What this means, between others, is that concepts such as Peoplehood provide us with the conceptual framework and context that enable our collective conversation. It is the context that makes assertions such as: “Millennials are opting for alternative models of Jewish social expression” (Windmueller above, with my emphasis) sensible. Their models, I claim, may be very “alternative”, but they reside, by definition, in the “Peoplehood world”.
Why is all this important? Because it is about the Jewish future and how we address our challenges. Peoplehood is much more than a certain ideological perception of our collective agenda. It has been a constitutive value of Judaism since its inception and throughout Jewish history. The challenge is therefore how to re-envisioning and re-interpret our “corporate identity” vis a vis the cultural and sociological changes. It is about mobilizing innovation, creativity and fresh thinking to figure out what a postethnic Peoplehood can look like. It is about articulating a vision that will reinvigorate the Jewish enterprise going forward.
The good news on this front come from the far West. Over the last year the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, has been in conversation with San Francisco Bay Area organizations on what can Peoplehood 2.0 look like. Our approach has been to unpack the core values of the current paradigm and explore what can make them relevant in today’s and tomorrow’s Jewish reality. What needs to change, be added or omitted in order to capture the minds and hearts of Bay Area Jews today. The process has revealed deep pockets of openness, creativity and resourcefulness in wrestling with the challenges. The conversations have been rich, honest, deep, creative, innovative and constructive. All the ingredients necessary for wrestling with the next chapter in the life of the Jewish people.
Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the editor of the Peoplehood Papers