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Peoplehood and Diaspora/Israel Relations

This text describes an approach to Israel through the lens of Peoplehood, based on the approach of Mordechai Kaplan. It asks the question: in which ways, if at all, is a Peoplehood relationship with the State of Israel different from the standard view of connection with Israel that is at the heart of most educational activities relating to Israel within the Diaspora?

In the Diaspora, where Jews constitute a small minority of the population, the opportunities for independent creative action are limited. Their involvement, however, in the cause of world Jewry and, more especially in that of Israeli Jewry, the national majority in Israel, stimulates their own Jewish creativity. The number of Jews who visit Israel, who study in Israel, who are moved to learn its language, sing its songs, read its literature, participate in the solution of its social and economic problems, live naturally a more creative Jewish life than if the State of Israel did not exist.

Without the State of Israel, Diaspora Judaism, living on the momentum of the past, a momentum which necessarily weakens from generation to generation, unless new creative forces are set at work, would soon be reduced to an anachronism…

As we make the problems of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Israel] our own, we…are lifted above our egocentricity and are forced to grapple with ethical problems, instead of merely paying verbal tribute to ethical principles in the abstract. The relation of Diaspora Judaism to that of Israel is like the relation of heat to the flame that produces it. Without the flame, there could be no heat. If we wish to enjoy the heat of Jewish creativity in the Diaspora, we must, through our personal participation in the Zionist cause, keep feeding the flame of Jewish life in the State of Israel.

Mordechai Kaplan: Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, 1956

Explanation of Text:

A Peoplehood approach to the question of Israel means accepting all Jewish communities throughout the world as legitimate and valuable (if not necessarily completely viable in the long run). However, it is clear that within this approach, there is a necessity to see a Jewish state as occupying a different position in terms of its significance and potential for creativity.

This piece by Mordechai Kaplan, famous as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, a stream of Judaism which redefined the Jewish collective as the civilization lived by the Jewish people, deals with a subject that was extremely central to his thought, the relationship between the Jews in the new sovereign state of Israel and Jews throughout the world.

In his Principles of Reconstructionism, drawn up a year before the above statement he had mentioned the need for “the renewal of the covenant binding all Jews throughout the world into one united people, with the Jewish community in Israel as the core”.

He saw the need for all Jews to accept Jewish communities everywhere as part of the international Jewish People with special emphasis on the Jewish community in the Land and State of Israel. He believed that without the Jewish community in the State of Israel, and the great cultural and spiritual energy which would come from there, the other Jewish communities around the world would suffer cultural attrition which would ultimately lead to their downfall or disappearance.

In this, he was a disciple of Ahad Ha’Am, the unorthodox Zionist thinker who also believed in the importance of the survival of Diaspora communities and the energizing power of the Zionist community in Eretz Israel. The difference between them in this respect was that Kaplan had every intention of living that active Jewish life in which he so believed, in the United States whereas Ahad Ha’Am moved to Eretz Israel/Palestine at the age of 66, almost ten years younger than Kaplan when he wrote the above excerpt.

Kaplan believed that Zionism was a good thing and that aliyah was a good option for those who wanted. However he totally rejected the idea common in Zionism thought (Ahad Ha’Am was in a minority position in this respect within the Zionist movement) that said that the Galut – the Exile, referring to Jewish communities outside the land of Israel – should be eliminated and that diaspora communities were a negative aberration from what Jewish life should be like, lived completely in the Jewish land.

Kaplan believed that only if the Jews were a majority in their own land where they had both the ability and the obligation to deal with all of the problems that life produced, would they need to call on the resources of thousands of years of accumulated insight to solve issues.

In that environment Judaism would indeed come alive with all of its three-dimensional potential and a rich and vibrant cultural creativity would be released. This would ultimately enrich the lives of Jewish communities throughout the world and that was why he saw the community of the Yishuv as a kind of “primus inter pares” among the Jewish communities of the world.

Thus the metaphor of the flame that he uses in the piece above; the power of the flame from the Jewish community of Israel (which he distinguished from the state itself which was a political entity whose job was to organize the lives of the whole population including non-Jews) would warm and enrich all the communities the existence of which was valid and legitimate in and of itself.

It was clear to Kaplan that Israel was a project of the Jewish People in which all Jews must feel invested and the Jewish People must be one of the projects of the State of Israel and the Jewish community within. They must complement each other and see the continued existence of the Jewish People all over the world as a creative enterprise common to all.

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