The concept of peoplehood has a double meaning. The first is descriptive, as a concept factually describing the existence of the Jews as a people. The second is normative, as a value that describes the feeling of belonging and commitment to the Jewish people.
Some believe that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is a paradigm shift in Jewish life. Insisting that the mainstream of Jewish life is focused on Jewish nationalism (Zionism), they argue that Jewish life should instead focus on Jewish peoplehood.
Others maintain that the concept of peoplehood, or "Klal Yisrael" has permeated Jewish life for millennia, and to focus on it does not constitute a shift from the focus on Jewish nationhood. Jews have been extremely effective in sustaining a sense of joint responsibility towards their people and its members for over 2,000 years.
At the same time, the concepts of Jews as a nation and as a peoplehood are not necessarily at odds with one another. The very concept of defining Judaism as a people or a "civilization" suggests a wide variety of values within the context of Judaism.
The concept of a distinctive Jewish people has been part of Jewish culture since the development of the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Torah, Prophets and Writings, Jews are variously referred to as a congregation, a nation, children of Israel or even a kingdom, (Eda, Uma, Am, Bnei Israel, Mamlakha respectively) all implying a connection among people.
Goy , in Biblical Hebrew, literally means "nation", and historically Jews are most commonly described with variations of this concept. In Genesis 12:2, God promises Abraham that his descendants will form a goy gadol ("great nation"). In Exodus 19:6, the Jews are referred to as a goy kadosh ( ?), a "holy nation". One of the more poetic descriptions of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible, and popular among Jewish scholarship, is goy ehad b'aretz, or "a unique nation upon the earth!" ( and ). The "nation" concept refers not just to a territorial or political entity, i.e. the Kingdom of Judah, but in the ancient sense meaning a group of people with a common history, a common destiny, and a sense of connection to one another, an ethnos. The nationhood concept adhered to the biblical and religious identification as a chosen people, a holy nation set apart from the other nations in obedience to the One God. This conception of Jewishness helped to preserve the Jewish people during the diaspora, when Jews were "scattered among the nations". It was similarly invoked by the Zionist movement, which sought to Negate the Diaspora (shlilat ha'galut) by Gathering the exiled of Israel (Kibbutz Galuyot) back to their homeland, where they would achieve national self-determination.
Some modern Jewish leaders in the diaspora, particularly American Jews, found the traditional conception of Jews as a "nation among the nations" problematic, posing a challenge to integration and inviting charges of dual loyalty. The first significant use of the "peoplehood" concept was by Mordecai Kaplan, co-founder of the Reconstructionist School of Judaism, who was searching for a term that would enable him to describe the complex nature of Jewish belonging. Once the State of Israel was founded, he rejected the concept of nationhood, as it had become too closely identified with statehood, and replaced it with the peoplehood concept. In his work Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan sought to define the Jewish people and religion in socio-cultural terms as well as religious ones.
Kaplan's definition of Judaism as "an evolving religious civilization" illumines his understanding of the centrality of Peoplehood in the Jewish religion. Describing Judaism as a religious civilization emphasizes the idea that Jewish people have sought "to make [their] collective experience yield meaning for the enrichment of the life of the individual Jew and for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people." The definition as a civilization allows Judaism to accept the principles of unity in diversity and continuity in change. It is a reminder that Judaism consists of much that cannot be put into the category of religion in modern times, "paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation." In the sense that existence precedes essence and life takes precedence over thought, Judaism exists for the sake of the Jewish people rather than the Jewish people existing for the sake of Judaism.
Since 2000, major Jewish organizations have embraced the peoplehood concept and intellectual interest in the topic has increased. Major organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, the JFNA New York Federation, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israel Ministry for Education, the Diaspora Museum, the Avi Chai Foundation, the American Jewish Committee and many other smaller organizations are either introducing the peoplehood concept as an organizing principle in their organizations or initiating high-profile programming with an explicit focus on Jewish Peoplehood.
Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency's chairman, declared that the agency's traditional Zionist mission had outlived its usefulness. In his new capacity, he has made Israel education and promoting Jewish Peoplehood a priority, particularly among the young.
Alongside the use of the peoplehood concept by Jewish organizations, there is a parallel growth of intellectual interest in the topic since 2000. The intellectual discussion asks: What is "Jewish Peoplehood"? What are the key characteristics that distinguish Jewish Peoplehood from other concepts?
The areas of agreement among Jewish intellectuals writing about the concept of Jewish Peoplehood point to three principles:
The three unifying principles of the Jewish Peoplehood theory:
In combination, these three principles imbue the Peoplehood concept with coherence and offer an added value to organizations that wish to create programs "that build Jewish Peoplehood" in a sustainable and measurable way.
There are several variants of the communitarian position among intellectuals writing about Jewish Peoplehood. The common denominator is the desire to find common ground upon which connections between Jews are built.
The four distinct positions regarding Jewish Peoplehood:
For some critics, Jewish Peoplehood is still an amorphous and abstract concept that presents an optional ideological approach towards the Jewish collective. Others wonder if it is too weak a foundation on which to base Jewish collective identity, especially since the vision of Peoplehood is not predicated on having any kind of religious or spiritual identity.