The Jewish people: we are one, and we are many

THE establishment last week of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and its dubious claim that “Jews” speak with one voice about Israel, led me to once again revisit the debate on the state of contemporary global Jewry.

What is clear is that the idea of “One Jewish People” is undergoing deep scrutiny and revision. In fact, last Sunday, Professor Yehuda Bauer, speaking in Sydney, noted that a unified Jewish stance on any issue is not only impossible, but a fantasy. After all, Professor Bauer explained, when have you seen Jews agree on anything?

Indeed, in one survey, Israelis could not even agree that falafel is the country’s national food.

Scholars have been radically rethinking the nature of the relationship Jews from different communities and places have with one another. A definite conclusion is that the Jewish people are not all one. We rarely speak with one voice and we don’t all fundamentally share a common understanding, ideology and vision of the world. Rather, what we are discovering is that Jews around the world share one thing – they self-identify as Jews. What that means specifically is where the conversation starts to get thorny and problematic. Today, in a postmodern environment, the definition of Jewishness has become wholly subjective and elusive.

The change in the global map is forcing us to challenge our long-held assumption about what it means to be Jewish and to question conventional wisdom. The low levels of observance among the young, growing illiteracy regarding Jewish history and faith, and the new ways intermarried couples are raising their children, as well as the significant new forms of practice such as the Reconstructionist and the Renewal movements mean that there are now alternative Jewish universes.

The “Jewish peoples” is the favoured term nowadays.

Some celebrate this un-unified state, arguing that the slipperiness of Jewish identity and the embrace of difference and differences as core virtues are the piston engine that is driving the creativity and innovation that we are witnessing.

No doubt, the Jewish people are not monochromatic. There is a plethora of Jewish sectors with different political, ethnic, linguistic and sexual hues they are part of a living, breathing, incredibly multivalent and complicated community.

To paraphrase, consider the following: what does a working class, second-generation Mizrachi Orthodox Jewish woman in Meah She’arim have in common with a secular, urban, upper-middle-class European-born Jewish woman in Caulfield or Bondi? Well, one answer would be that they are both Jewish. But what else?

Those who understand the Israeli socio-anthropological landscape would know that many secular Israelis see themselves as Israelis first, and that their Judaism often takes a back seat. The Jewish question for them only arises when they travel to other Jewish communities.

Post-Soviet Jews, in a recent sociological study, questioned the very notion of a sole, unified Jewish

Since the 1980s, groups that historically felt marginalised have come to the fore. Jewish feminism has experienced a meteoric explosion and has made its presence shine bright. Sephardic Jews have begun recovering their history through art. Homosexual Jews have sought empowerment and visibility in Jewish culture, broadening and complicating our notions of what constitutes Jewish identity.

Also under discussion is the concept of Diaspora/Israel and questions regarding where the global Jewish world pivots. For some, Israel is still the centre of the Jewish world, while others dispute the centrality of Israel in Jewish geography and memory.

Reflect: how many would claim that Jews in Australia are homeless, rootless and exilic? There is little doubt that Australian Jews are rooted and tied to a particular place, and see themselves as such. More and more authors are depicting Jewish communities around the world as a portrait of celebrated diversity.

Take Kol Dor, an international organisation of 20- and 30-something Jewish leaders. In their first gathering in 2004, they agreed they would not talk in terms of Israel-Diaspora. Instead, they would speak in terms of “global Jewish discourse”?.

Similarly, writer Lawrence Schimel has said, “I am a Diaspora Jew, meaning I am descended from the tribes that have scattered across the globe and have not made aliyah, have not returned to the homeland of Israel.”

Yet, despite the infinitely diverse way of expressing what it is to be a Jew, most Jews increasingly feel a common destiny with Israel. The unrelenting campaign to delegitimise Israel’s right to exist and the worldwide assault of antisemitism has shaken many. The heightened sense of precariousness and the spectre of Israel besieged have increased pro-Israel advocacy and greater identification among the younger generation, even if they may not support every policy decision of the Israeli Government.

In Cultures of the Jews, David Biale and the other contributors demonstrated that it is naïve to talk about Jewish culture in the singular and that the intense dynamic between unity and diversity has been a constant defining element from the times of the Bible.

Researcher Ilan Troen has observed that the “Jewish world is moving towards a reality of greater diversity, towards a multiplicity of identities – we are many”.

Isn’t that a positive vision?


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