Don’t Miss Peoplehood’s Most Promising Moment
Definitions of peoplehood remain terribly outdated and ineffective precisely when they are more necessary than ever.
The recent Pew survey about the changing American religious landscape provided some important news for American Jewish leaders — young Jews are not alone in rejecting religious categories of identity. We now know that the category of “JNR” (“Jews of No Religion”) — an acronym that brought great consternation to the American Jewish community in the wake of the Pew Survey of American Judaism last year — reflects a far broader trend. Like other moments in Jewish history, Jewish patterns of cultural and social identity formation mirror broader trends among non-Jews.
This marks a watershed moment in the evolution of American Jewish life. Defining Judaism as a religion had a great run in the history of American Jews. Religion provided immigrant Jews with a language for differentiating themselves from other Americans, while affirming their shared commitment to the religious values at the core of American public life. The emergence of a “Judeo-Christian” value system made religion the defining paradigm for individual identity, institutional organization and public rhetoric about Jews’ role in America.
This is why I often hear folks say “I am Jewish, but I don’t believe in God,” but I never hear anyone say “I am Jewish, but I don’t know Hebrew or read books about Jewish themes or spend most of my time with other Jews.” Until quite recently, American Jews internalized the meaning of Judaism as a religious definition — one that is parallel to Christianity.
The rise of the “JNR” category signifies a tremendous shift. As the role of religion in American identification diminishes, so too does the role it plays in thinking about Jewish life. The problem with JNRs is not that most of these Jews don’t identify as Jewish. Indeed, 83% of JNRs remain “proud to be Jewish.” The problem is that there is a dearth of language, organizational structure and educational opportunities to support Jewish life outside of communities centered around religious life, such as synagogues. More than ever, we need a robust sense of identity possibilities that build Jewish life outside of the expectations imposed by the category of religion.
In short, this is a peoplehood moment. But, unfortunately, definitions of peoplehood remain terribly outdated and ineffective precisely when they are more necessary than ever.
Peoplehood emerged as a new concept in American Jewish life in the 1930s and 40s. American Zionists adapted the term to make national definitions of Jews, inspired by Zionism, palatable to American Jews nervous about affirming a national allegiance to Jews rather than Americans (I trace this development in my book, Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation). After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, peoplehood became even more important as a code word for supporting Jewish nationalism and the State of Israel without equating Judaism with nationalism. That explains the explosion of Jewish peoplehood in books published in English in the late 1940s:
The emergence of peoplehood after the establishment of the state also explains the legacy of Jewish peoplehood as a concept for rallying American Jews around a definition of Judaism heavily shaped by Zionism: political unity, commitment to a state and a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders. Under the influence of 20th century definitions of Jewish nationhood, peoplehood looks to three questions for defining collectivity: Will your children be Jewish (descent)? Do you share Judaism’s key values (a cultural essence)? And do you mark clear boundaries between “us” and “them?”
These questions are terribly outdated today. In our post-ethnic culture, choice has become as important as descent in defining group identification. The polarization of Jewish beliefs and politics makes identifying fundamental “shared values” far more difficult than appreciating the different opinions on fundamental issues from women’s roles to radically different interpretations of tikun olam. Boundaries have become increasingly blurry and most Jews can point to close family members who do not identify as Jewish.
The model of Jewish peoplehood developed to support Jewish collectivity in response to the two great events of the 20th century — Zionism and the Holocaust — fail to address the key questions and realities of the 21st. The outdated model is a top-down approach that attempts to unify Jews by pointing out shared family history, values, and boundary markers.
What questions might define the search for a paradigm of peoplehood for the increasing number of JNRs who remain proud of their Jewish identity?
1) What Jewish actions do you do?
2) What about Judaism is meaningful to you?
3) How do you balance between your Jewish identity and other aspects of your identity?
These questions shift the meaning of peoplehood. A revised concept values a bottom-up approach that focuses on individual engagement, local communities and multiple nodes. Peoplehood emerges from the meaning that individuals weave together about collective connections rather than an assumed set of pre-existing unifying criteria.
I talk more about this crucial shift in this video, from the University of Washington (‘U Dub’) Stroum Center’s JewDub Talks in January 2015.
Peoplehood is poised to shine —but only if we are willing to consider challenging some of its historical assumptions.
Noam Pianko is the Samuel Stroum Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington. His research interests include Zionism, American Jewish history, and Modern Jewish thought. Noam’s first book, “Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn” (Indiana U Press, 2010), explores alternate conceptions of early twentieth century Jewish nationalism. Recently, Noam published, “Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation” (Rutgers U Press, 2015), which tells the story of a key term in twentieth century American Jewish life. Noam lives in Seattle with his wife, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, and their children, Yona, Mia and Elisha. He can be reached at email@example.com.