Alan Silverstein

Zionism’s “Jerusalem Program” affirms Jewish peoplehood: Unity without uniformity

When I became president of Mercaz Olami in February 2016, a comprehensive vision of Jewish unity governed the major institutions of the Jewish people — the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (JNF), and Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal). Substantive disagreements existed among more than a dozen Zionist parties that took part in the elections of the Zionist Congress — the WZO’s supreme legislative authority held every five years; yet it was clear from the outcomes of those elections that all were committed to forging a “wall-to-wall” Zionist coalition. All sides understood the benefits of unity, of being inclusive of every type of Jew, every type of Zionist. In fact, every Zionist Congress voter had to affirm the criteria of the 1953 (updated in 1968) Jerusalem Program, which emphasized “fostering the unity of the Jewish people.”

Regrettably, new “parties” have entered into the mix that seek to eliminate from the final coalition any factions whose views they disagree with. This divisive attitude made necessary the proposing of a resolution reaffirming “Jewish peoplehood” at a convening of last fall’s Va’ad HaPoel HaTzioni (Zionist General Council). The resolution called upon the World Zionist Organization “to deepen its activities in the areas of Jewish peoplehood, promoting the connection between the State of Israel and the Jewish communities inside the Jewish State and throughout the Diaspora, regardless of their affiliation.”

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, executive director of Mercaz Olami and Masorti Olami, said that the proposal “might seem obvious, but in fact, it is tremendously important for our ability to initiate and act on behalf of pluralistic Judaism and to strengthen Jewish unity throughout the world.” Dr. Yizhar Hess, vice chair of the WZO, noted that “the fact that this resolution gained support across the board proves that the Zionist movement has matured and understands that there is more than one way to be a Jew and to be a Zionist.” One prominent example is the Jewish Agency’s goal of operating “as a living bridge between Israeli society and the Jewish world by promoting Jewish peoplehood.”

What is “Jewish peoplehood?”

In the 1940s, both Rabbi Milton Steinberg and Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan pioneered the use of this term. They sought to capture a sense of communal identity beyond the nationalism of supporting Jewish statehood. Dr. Erica Brown and Dr. Misha Galperin, authors of “The Case For Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?” (2009), noted that Jewish peoplehood “has been called by different names or spurred by different concerns: continuity, identity, renaissance, solidarity, unity. In Hebrew, peoplehood is amiyut, from the word am, or nation…. Peoplehood is about all of these terms but goes well beyond it.”

Mordecai Kaplan elaborated upon factors that characterize Jewish peoplehood:

* a sense of common history and destiny
* a common language and literature, a common ancestral land as the focal point of its future hopes, common folkways, and a common religion
* a social cohesiveness, with Jews being recognized as a distinct group by non-Jews

Kaplan identified three categories of Jewish distinctiveness:

* Believing — a set of religious postulates and values affirmed in diverse ways
* Behaving — Jewish “sancta,’’ “folkways,” and practices identified with Jewish holy days, life-cycle milestones, and daily life-style
* Belonging — affiliation with other Jews in groups, networks, and associations

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, adherence to the inclusive nature of Jewish peoplehood gained traction. In the aftermath of Israel’s military victory in June 1967, United Jewish Appeal’s themes in seeking supporters relied heavily on the notion of amiyut.

The aforementioned “Jerusalem Program” was revised by the 27th World Zionist Congress in 1968, emphasizing peoplehood among the “foundations of Zionism,”:

* the unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland, Eretz Yisrael
* Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and the betterment of the world
* Ensuring the future and distinctiveness of the Jewish people by furthering Jewish, Hebrew, and Zionist education
* Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people

In 1986, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, of the Jewish Education Service of North America, authored “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews,” a study of UJA leadership. His research identified seven tenets of UJA Peoplehood, as a Diaspora (American-Jewish) adaptation of the “Jerusalem Program”:

* The unity of the Jewish people — “We are one”
* Mutual responsibility
* The priority of the Jewish people’s survival amid a threatening world
* The centrality of the State of Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people
* The enduring value of Jewish tradition as an underlying source of Jewish peoplehood’s inspiration for both observant and non-observant Jews
* Tzedakah as promoting the Jewish people’s continuity for the future and commitment to social justice in the present
* Liberal democracy as a virtue for Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora

Dr. Charles Liebman augmented Woocher’s assessment with guiding principles for this “folk religion,” among which were:

* The Jews constitute one indivisible people. Denominational differences must not be permitted to threaten this essential unity.
* Insuring the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish people is more important than theological disputation.
* Jewish rituals are valuable forms of Jewish self-expression, but individuals must be free to select and adapt Jewish practices to conform with modern norms.
* Every Jew must work for the survival of Israel, even if they do not live there.

As supporters of Zionism’s “Jerusalem Program” and the inclusive unity of the Jewish people, the national institutions of Am Yisrael must continue to endorse the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. This means promoting diversity and pluralism within the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, and Keren Hayesod.

Irrespective of divergent views among the World Zionist Congress participants, we must remain unified both in what we favor and what we oppose:

We favor the defense and strengthening of Medinat Yisrael, encouraging aliyah, promoting Jewish values and identity through Hebrew education, and the building of bridges between Israel and the Diaspora.

We also are unified in opposition to anti-Semitism, to anti-Zionism, to assimilation, to Jewish illiteracy, and to indifference to one’s Jewish destiny.

Naysayers — either of components within the Israeli Jewish or World Jewry communities — might enter the Zionist institutional ranks to divide us. Yet as Zionists and as Jews, we must preserve our diversity: unity without uniformity.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”