Friday, November 28, 2008

"Jewish Peoplehood" - a significant historical concept

While “the Jewish People” is an ancient idea, the term “Jewish Peoplehood” as it is currently used, is very new.  The first significant use of the Peoplehood concept that we are aware of was by Mordechai Kaplan (1959)*.  However, after Kaplan there was no other significant use of the Peoplehood concept in the United States or Israel until after 2000.   Among both organizations and intellectuals the situation has changed.  See a paper I wrote on this subject:  "A Framework for Strategic Thinking about Jewish Peoplehood".  

The concept of "Jewish Peoplehood" is a significant historical concept.  The sudden rise in popularity of the term since 2000 speaks a historical shift in the way that Jewish community and society is organized, which is as significant as other major shifts in Jewish history.  The term is on par with other major concepts that Jews have developed in order to grapple with changes taking place in their lives.  Here are some examples.   

Denominations - "Conservative," "Orthodox" and "Reform"
When Modechai Kaplan proposed the concep of Jewish Peoplehood, he was searching for a term to grapple with the historic shifts taking place around him at the time.  Jews were moving from ethnic city neighborhoods to suburbs in post WWII America.  However, instead of "Jewish Peoplehood" other new terms caught on to describe that nature of Jewish belonging, most prominent of which are denominational labels - Conservative, Orthodox and Reform. 

Prior to WWII most American Jews used similar identity labels to their fellows who lived in Pre-State Palestine (see below), identifying themselves using socialist and Zionist identity labels.  In the ethnic neighborhoods Jews did not need to join an institution to identify themselves as Jewish.  Life in the neighborhood was enough.   Synagogues were small institutions, to which Jews went on the high holidays and for special occasions.   In suburbia, synagogues replaced the ethnic neigbhorhood as the physcial local where  where Jews could go to be with other Jews.   The ideological affilition of the synagogue a Jew joined became the term he or she used to describe his or her Jewish identity. 

"Religion" or "Religious"
If one goes back to the late 18th century, prior to the emancipation of European Jewry, there were no "religious Jews".  There were Jews who were more or less pious.  There were Litvak and Galiciana and many other labels, many of them having to do with place of residence.  Jews only began to describe one another as "religious" when they were granted citizenship rights.  Citizenship gave individual Jews the ability to live a different life-style from that dictated by the organized Jewish community (kehilla), which lead both to secularization and liberalization of the religious tradition on one side and and increased piety on the other.  Jews who chose to reject the secularizing and liberalizing trends became known as "religious" and at a latter point in time, "Orthodox".

Today, Israeli Jews tend to divide themselves between those who are "secular," "traditional" and "religious."  However, up until the late 1960s, Israeli social surveys did not include the term "secular" as one of the options someone could choose to describe his or her Jewish identity.  Up until that time non-religious Israelis tended to describe their Jewish identity in terms of the socio-political movement to which they belonged.  There were Mapainikim, Socialists, Revisionists and a generic term of "free thinkers" to describe people who were not religious.   

What happened?   In the decades after the founding of the state of Israel, the political movements which supported the socio-political based identity labels, collapsed.  The most prominent example is in education. After the founding of the State, the government created the "Mamlachti (state) school system" which replaced the educational systems that were previously maintained by the different secular Zionist political movements.  Whereas, previously parents chose to send their children to schools associated with an ideological movement, afterwards parents simply sent their children to "secular" schools - meaning schools that were not religious. Within this reality was born the concept of the "secular Israeli Jew".

Each of the above examples, is evidence of the connection between the words we use to describe Jewish belonging and identity and the society in which we live.   My goal in this Peoplehood blog is to explore the nature of Jewish life in Israel and the United States, with a focus on Jewish institutions.   I will use the Peoplehood concept as a window into analyzing the practices of Jewish organizations in areas such as culture, education, politics and the media.   

*Kaplan, Mordechai. 1959.  A New Zionism. New York: The Herzl Press & The Jewish Reconstructionist Press.

1 comment:

Macrocompassion said...

The term Peoplehood is a translation from the Hebrew "ammamut". It should be compared to Nationhood, but it refers to the attitude of a member of the particular nation, to his community as a whole, where participation is less formal and more human.

The term Peoplehood was first used in Israel within the Diaspora Museum (or Beit HaTfutzot) of Jewish dispersion. This museum is 31 years old. It refers there to an emotional attitude of the dispersed individual to belonging to an international community that has in common either its religion or its race (or both). Due to the emotional influence within the presentations of this museum, it becomes difficult to exactly define the word although from a feelings attitude, it is a practical expression of togetherness whilst being outside of the more formal nationalistic context.