It’s not clear why. Some words just get picked up and bandied around in little proportion to their meaning. Take one from the mid 1990s, ‘stake holder society’. Coined by Will Hutton, it was supposed to be the Blairite big idea. Once the New Labourites got down to the business of governing it turned out to be surplus to requirements. Or take the Clintonian ‘triangulation’. Having now been revealed as signifying nothing other than the midpoint between whatever the political poles are at any one moment, its now been dropped from the lexicon.
A current buzzword amongst Jewish professionals is ‘peoplehood’. A strange word this, one absent from most dictionaries, and one seemingly invented by Jews, for Jews. A recent proponent of the term argued that the fact that it appears in no other cultures or languages (including Hebrew) ‘shows just how counter-cultural we are’. Or it just shows we’ve made up a stupid word.
So why is this word doing quite so well at the moment? Unsurprisingly, money has a lot to do with it. The Nadav foundation (‘advancing understanding of Jewish Peoplehood and a strengthening of the individual’s pride in being part of the Jewish Collective’) is giving substantial grants to organisations that run Jewish peoplehood themed programmes, whatever that entails
This explains the inclusion of a ‘new peoplehood track’ in the programme of the recently held Limmud UK conference. A whole host of events, panels, discussions etc, were slotted into the programme at very short notice when a grant became forthcoming. Participants could spot these by a cutesy logo of a Jewish family silhouette with a Star of David above their heads. Bless.
The sessions in said track showed the mix of quality one expects from Limmud, with some very interesting and some leading your head to sink deeper and deeper into your lap. But none could disguise the intellectual vacuity of the concept, and its utter shallowness was clearly evident. The nadir came in a supposedly high profile panel, in which David Saperstein, the respected head of the RAC (Reform Action Center) in America came up with the mind boggling statement ‘I have a dream’ (delusions of MLK here)’ that every Jewish child will go to sleep having listened to a Jewish song and played a Jewish video game’.
Sorry? What kind of Yiddisher Stepford wives/ totalitarian dystopia is this? Is this what a few millennia of Judaism has come to? Frantic use of technology to try and guilt trip assimilated secular Jews into marrying in? One might imagine Moses standing at the back of a Jewish Peoplehood classroom, struggling to understand how it has anything meaningful to do with Judaism, before being told by some (probably UJIA accredited) educator that, to maintain tribal loyalty above all else is the true meaning of the revelation at Sinai.
For this is the essence of Peoplehood theory, discarding all meaningful religious, linguistic, cultural, and philosophical elements, lest they offend anyone, Jewishness is reduced to a big ethnic love-in. Love your fellow Jew, the only mitzvah that remains. This is secular Judaism at is most extreme, devoid of the elements, such as the Yiddish language, or shared religious reference points, which 100 years ago made secular Judaism viable and dynamic. Jewish Peoplehood theorists take as their starting point the notion that the Jews are, in some mythic way, one people, despite the many linguistic, cultural and social barriers that separate us. From then they consider which elements can unite us, given this diversity. Religion is obviously out, given the vast gulf between the haredi and the ardently secular. Language fails to unite either, with Yiddish increasingly restricted to the Ultra-orthodox, and Hebrew hardly well spoken in the diaspora. Any gathering of European Jews immediately demonstrates the degree of linguistic separation. Culture? Jews have always had multiple cultures, dependent on geography, and this has only been disguised in modernity by the aggressive dominance of Ashkenazi culture, and the unwillingness of the state of Israel to allow the culture of its Sephardi immigrants to perpetuate judaeo-arabic culture. What about social justice/socialism, which motivated so many Jews at the turn of the last century, and was taken by liberal Jewish movements as the essence of Judaism? To the extent that this agenda has survived the embourgouisment of Western Jewry, this is now a diaspora phenomenon. In Israel, proud to be engage in realpolitik, viewing Jewish utopianism as deriving from the ‘ghetto mentality’, the tradition of centring Judaism around the ethics of the political left is virtually extinct. Social Justice Judaism is now an essentially American movement, and when its proponents turn their focus onto Israel, for example with ‘J Street’, the result shows the division rather than unity of the ‘Jewish people’. So what remains? Ultimately, we’re left with race, a (almost certainly illusory) common ethnic descent. Because to discuss race is somewhat unfashionable in polite company, terms like family (often the folksy mispocha) , common heritage or nation are used as synonyms. But make no mistake, in the absence of a genuine shared culture, religion, language, geography or philosophy, we are talking about a unity based on ethnicity, a community of race.
Despite claiming to be able to speak to the current Jewish reality, Peoplehood theory is intrinsically prescriptive rather than descriptive. It aims to return to a (perhaps somewhat imagined) more innocent age, located somewhere in the 1950s, where Jewishness was a warm club, seemed relatively homogenous and any dissent from mainstream narratives was kept firmly below the surface. Behind Peoplehood’s shiny new façade lies an attempt to put many genies back in the box, those of intermarriage, of increased Jewish diversity and decreasing connection between Israel and diasporic communities. It is thus an agenda for reconstruction rather than renewal, to use Zalman Shachter Shalomi’s terminology, and a clue to its fearfulness is the fact that it is already moving towards dogma. Anita Shapira, of Tel Aviv University has accused Shlomo Sands (whose book ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ will given a full analysis on Jewdas at a later date) of ‘peoplehood denial’, a phrase evidently designed to ‘evoke’ holocaust denial’, and perhaps even suggest that the two are equally dangerous. This represents another, more sinister aspect to the peoplehood concept, its attempt to buttress the legitimacy of the Zionist project. Most Zionist thinkers maintain as central dogma that ‘every nation/people has the right to self-determination’ (whatever that means), and thus maintaining the notion of Jewish nation or people is necessary to ensure the survival of Israel as a state with a Jewish majority.
None of this is to suggest that all notions of ‘the Jewish people’ are nonsense. The term Am Yisrael, though probably originally meaning something closer to tribe or cultic sect rather than nation, is indeed an ancient term. Even if we accept the Shlomo Sands notion that Judaism is essentially a religion, other religions understood themselves as a coherent group, the Ummah for Islam, and Christendom for Christianity. The claim to Jewish peoplehood has always been mythic, rather than based on any empirical uniting features, but we can acknowledge that many practising Jews throughout history understood ‘am yisrael’ to be a meaningful concept, however they interpreted it. What is new, however, is the attempt to separate the notion of the Jewish people from all other elements of Judaism, and make it the sole focus. Traditional Judaism posits a triangle: God-Torah-Israel. Peoplehood eliminates two thirds of the triangle, surely leaving us with something approaching an idolising of race. This Judaism without content eliminates halacha, aggadah, prayer, philosophy, rabbinic hermeneutics and personal and communal ethics, in the name of building a faux unity. One need not be ‘religious’ in order to appreciate this; a ‘secular’ Judaism can be equally content driven, by Yiddish song and literature, by the Ladino language, by the modern Jewish philosophical tradition, by a knowledge of Jewish history. Such content does indeed unify its practitioners, but focussing on an ‘object’ rather than ourselves, frees us of the narcissicism and exclusivity that otherwise occurs.
It is feared that a focus on particular content, such as modern Jewish philosophy, or the Yiddish language, will fail to connect us to the whole, will in fact detach us from our collective unity and belonging. It probably will. But this is inevitable; there is no unity to which we ought to be belonging, no essence that binds us all together. Judaism/Jewishness is without centre, diverse sets of cultures, practices and politics that are bound together only polemically in the service of particular ideological projects. But so what? Is that such a problem? From Mediaeval philosophers to Kabbalists, Jews have frequently been more attached to their particular ideologies and communities than to the ‘collective’. The strongest Jewish communities had the greatest diversity and argument, only the experience of 20th century hatred coupled with the fear of corrosive modernity has driven us to strive for an imagined unity.
A recognised trend, amongst certain Jewish commentators, is a shift away from focussing on peoplehood towards a focus on meaning. Perhaps there is something in this. It is arguably a North American phenomenon rather than a global one, and it is a move toward meanings in the plural rather than singular. And it is still an attempt to introduce a meta-narrative, to reinstate an essence to Judaism by the back door. But such a shift, if there is one, towards content(s) and meaning(s) does have a major advantage. When we next meet, for our big ethnic love-in, at least we’ll have something to talk about.