Suddenly there was a voice from the corner of the room. An Israeli, part of the contingent of soldiers who joined the group for five days, spoke in halting English: "Don't you understand? If there were a war in America against the Jews, I'd fight for you. The people of Sderot-- they are our people. We are one people."

That's the vision of Jewish peoplehood - and of Zionism - that I was raised with. As a youngish North-American-raised Jew, sentiments like these seem to put me firmly in the minority.

At least, that's the impression one gets from the discussions in the BJPA and the UJA-Federation of New York Commission on the Jewish People's four part seminar on "Interrogating Jewish Peoplehood," held over the course of 2010. In the context of an urgent anxiety about the future of Judaism in general and the American Jewish community in particular, a group of committed, and mostly older, Jewish leaders discussed their understandings of the notion of Jewish peoplehood and how that notion can or should or will be played out in the next and coming generations.

At the conclusion of the seminar, Clare Hedwat, Planning Manager of the Commission, produced a report that summarizes and reflects on some of the content, questions, and conclusions that arose over the course of these conversations. The quote above frames the report.

It is fitting that the report would open on that note since the issue of the Jewish state, its meaning for young Jews and the meaning and consequences of the rift between generations on the proper role of Israel in Jewish identity and activity runs throughout the report:

We fail as a community if we unwittingly ask the younger generation to make a choice between universalism and particularist Jewish concerns. If we ask young people to decide between the two, intentionally or otherwise, we are not guaranteed they will stay within our pews. 

Our greatest communal challenge lies with those who don’t care enough, don’t know enough or are too turned off to voice any opinion at all. JStreet does not constitute a problem of Jewish peoplehood. J Streeters voice criticism of Israel: put simply, they take Israel seriously enough to critique and aspire to change. The real problem for Jewish Peoplehood in our time is presented by those who totally reject the notion that the Jewish People or the state of Israel has any claim whatsoever on them. In our conversation, Prof. Steven M. Cohen referred to such Israel-rejectionists with the rabbinic term, Rasha, referring to the wicked son in the haggadah who claims to see no value in Judaism’s precepts and commandments.

The issue of Jewish responsibility to the Jewish state, Israel, flows into a discussion of responsibility to the Jewish "nation,"... beginning with a Biblical passage about the Gadites and the Reubenites and how they came to participate in the conquest of the land of Israel without coming to permanently settle there. And so even the scriptural-based discussion of what it means to be on the inside of the Jewish/not-Jewish boundary and Jewish responsibility to Jews is, at least, framed by the relationship of the People to the Land.

In the scheme of history, the decades since the founding of Israel constitute the shortest blip. But whatever combination it is of the prevalance of concern with Israel (whether positively or negatively) in the American Jewish community and the thousands of years of religious tradition connecting the People to the Land scripturally and liturgically, it seems nearly impossible to talk about the notion of Jewish peoplehood apart from the Jewish land, even when the mission statement of the seminar barely referred to that whole can of worms at all.

The other theme that arose was kinship and family - the idea that our connection to each other as Jews can best be understood,and presumably emotionally experienced, the way we experience and accept the notion of family.

We may question aspects of Israeli society without doubting the inherent link between Israel and world Jewry and the responsibility we have to Israel as a Jewish people. On the other hand, we intuitively understand that Messianic Jews (who believe in Jesus), or Jews who do not recognize the state of Israel, are effectively ‘outside’ of the family and the Jewish peoplehood conversation. Halachically speaking, one cannot “de- Jew” oneself. In terms of Jewish peoplehood, we are able to identify those who have removed themselves from normative discourse on issues pertaining to the Jewish nation. As David Mallach noted, we recognize what peoplehood is not. As Rabbi Gordon Tucker elaborated, we understand the implications of kinship.

It does seem true that we viscerally understand the implications of kinship. But modernity is also challenging the notion that 'you can't choose your family.' Our understandings of family, both cultural and legal, don't necessarily seem static enough to rely on even as a metaphor. And too, how much work can a posited shared emotional 'understanding' do in making connections among Jews, if not defining them?

The report concludes, as many good Jewish efforts do, with the promise of more questions and more talk:

Perhaps the greatest challenge as posed by the series is how to provide venues in which the conversation can continue, and how we may channel them in ways that provide new directions in which we may work, increasing the opportunities of engagement with Jewish peoplehood in relevant and creative ways.

I do get the sense that in the mean time, at least, we do seem stuck being the People Israel, and the people of Israel - but of course that may well be due to my bias because of the emotional standpoint where my particular Jewish family experience  has stood me.

The full report is available on BJPA, as are more resources on Jewish peoplehood, Israel-Diaspora relations, and Jewish attachment to Israel.