There are many ways in which to understand why and how Israel is significant for Jews. Some argue that it is the Promised Land; it is a refuge from persecution; it is the realization of secular Jewish nationalism; it is the hub for Jewish culture and innovation. Each of these approaches reflect a set of assumptions, a way of approaching Jewish history, Jewish texts and even God. The Peoplehood paradigm, in contrast to these approaches, posits a broad re-framing of the relationship of the Jewish People to Israel by relating to the State of Israel as the vision and the venture of the Jewish People. This article gives the background to this approach, and argues that relating to Israel in this primary way is a core necessity for the Jewish People and its continued connection to Israel.
Israel and the Birth of the Nation
In historical terms, the relationship between the people and the land, where its story as a nation began thousands of years ago, is core to the Jewish narrative and ethos. It is the Land of Israel that, according to Biblical tradition, was given to the Jewish People as an inheritance, with instruction to live and express the will of God in it.
Indeed, it is only in the Land of Israel that many halachot (Jewish laws) can find full expression and where the Jews built their Temples, the center of Jewish ritual and spiritual life for generations. Even after the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70CE, when Jewish civilization had to adapt and evolve to a long-term Diaspora reality, Jews never ceased to yearn for Zion, remembering the land of Israel in daily prayers and regular rituals.
Rituals, such as leaving a part of a house unfinished or breaking a glass at a wedding, functioned as concrete expressions of exile. Despite that relatively few Jews were able to fulfill the dream of returning to live in the Land of Israel, it remained in the collective consciousness.
The Vision of Sovereignty
After nearly two thousand years of dispersion, starting in the 19th century and born out of a range of social and political forces, including modern nationalism in Europe, the Jewish People created the Zionist movement that called for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
After envisioning the Jewish State, the Jewish People proceeded to send resources (including people) and support to build the pre-state entity (i.e., the Yishuv). As the Yishuv was built, the Jewish People lobbied the world to recognize the future State and raised funds to help it grow.
In 1947, the United Nations recognized the right of the Jews to their own sovereign State and in 1948 the State of Israel was born. During Israel’s 65 years of independence, the Jewish People have continued an active relationship with the State of Israel, supporting and encouraging the national Jewish enterprise. In the first decades, the main efforts focused on building the infrastructure and absorbing massive waves of North African olim (immigrants).
Later on, priorities shifted to improving the quality of life in the young State, its academic, research and cultural infrastructure, and developing effective lobbies for Israel (e.g., AIPAC) throughout the world. Those years were also marked by the challenge to absorb a massive immigration from the Former Soviet Union as well as aliyah from Ethiopia.
The last thirty years show active involvement among world Jewry to enhance relationships between Israel and Jews worldwide through programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel, Partnership Together, etc., and also to promote certain values, such as pluralism, in Israel.
The Challenge to the Peoplehood Paradigm
The changes in the nature of involvement of world Jewry in Israel reflect the changing needs of Israel. They also point to a potential challenge to the paradigm of Israel as vision and venture of the Jewish People. In the context of Israel’s capability of managing its own affairs and a stable Israeli economy and society, the role and place of world Jewry in influencing Israel and the relationship between the Jewish People and the State, must be revisited.
As time passes and normalcy settles in, Israel is increasingly envisioned as the State of Israelis, both by its citizens and also, for various reasons, by world Jewry. This process of transforming Israel into the State of Israelis rather than the Jewish people questions the role and place of world Jewry in shaping the nature of the State and poses a threat to one of Israel’s unique features – that of being the State of the Jewish People.
It also threatens to change the essence of Jewish Peoplehood in which the State is a central component.
The call to action
We believe that from a Peoplehood perspective, it is time to remove the hyphen from Israel-Diaspora relations. Israel should be viewed by all Jews as the State of the Jewish People. Some members of the people live in Israel and take a more active role in building and shaping the State.
And yet they share a joint commitment with world Jewry to the Jewish People’s sovereign entity. Without a current reinterpretation of the perception that Israel is the vision and venture of the whole collective, the Jewish People face the risk of a growing gap between world Jewry and Israel as well as a further weakening Jewish Peoplehood.
This requires a dialogue of equals between Israelis and world Jews, recognizing both the unique contributions each group brings to the table as well as the unique needs of each group. World Jews will need to re-assume the responsibility of active partners in the Jewish sovereign experiment (i.e., not just behave as passive or indifferent supporters).
The Educational Ramifications
In educational terms, this paradigm leads educators into very clear directions, when it comes to addressing Israel. Firstly, engaging and feeling part of the Jewish People requires an engagement with the Land and State of Israel. In this context, Israel is a unifying force rather than a divisive one; it is a broad topic that welcomes diversity (of people, narratives, cultures), and it is part of a broader story of the Jewish People, rather than a stand-alone topic.
In order to teach Israel from a Peoplehood perspective, we propose beginning the educational journey by highlighting the role the Jewish People played in envisioning and building the State. Introducing the challenges, issues, aspirations and goals of the visionaries of the State provides crucial context for this conversation.
So does the story of the pioneers as Jews who left their old countries in pursuance of a new Jewish future. In addition, the story of millions of Jews throughout the world who focus(ed) their lives and passions on the young State needs to be told. It is the story of Israel as the venture of the Jewish collective.
After establishing that context, there is room for discussion – through text study, Israel visits and mifgashim – of the status of the relationship to Israel today and into the future. Core issues, such as the vision for Israel as the State of the Jewish People and the nature of the partnership between world Jews and Israel, needs to be discussed and addressed.
The critical issue is to ensure that there is mutuality and partnership between Israelis and non-Israeli Jews, as both are equally valuable members of the Jewish People. Once there is dialogue, there is room to discuss commitment. Here again, there is a wide range of options from being an local activist, to spending time in Israel involved in an area close to the individual’s heart.
We believe strongly that Israel as the vision and venture of the Jewish People has the power to unite, inspire and energize students of all ages, and we encourage educators to engage deeply with this paradigm and experiment with it in their learning environments.
This article is adapted from the Jewish Peoplehood Education Toolkit. Check it out for more resources on teaching Israel.