Mordecai Kaplan gave his readers plenty of reasons to accuse him of disloyalty. Over his long life, Kaplan denied central pillars of the Jewish narrative—including the existence of a supernatural God and the concept of chosenness. However, Kaplan’s association with the concept of “peoplehood” has escaped controversy. Indeed, it is more popular today than ever before. Foundations, denominations, and institutions from across the spectrum of Jewish life have adapted Kaplan’s key term to emphasize their commitment to the ideal of solidarity and to the centrality of the State of Israel. Allegiance to Jewish peoplehood endures as a barometer for measuring communal loyalty.
If Kaplan’s contested relationship with Zionism and his ambivalent decision to adapt the term peoplehood were better known, the role of his seminal contribution to American Judaism might be far more controversial. Peoplehood was not Kaplan’s first (or only) choice in his efforts to articulate the ties that bind Jews to one another. From Kaplan’s first published essay (“Judaism and Nationality,” 1908) to his final book (The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, 1970,) Kaplan’s mission was to define Jews as a national group. But not in the mold of the nation-state.
Kaplan contrasted Jewish national cohesion with paradigms of nationalism that emphasized territory and sovereignty as the primary markers of membership. Writing in the midst of unprecedented discrimination in the United States and even greater Jewish dislocation in Europe, Kaplan viewed “absolute national sovereignty” as “liable to … destroy the very foundations of human civilization.” Jewish “ethical” nationhood provided the antidote to these trends: cultural diversity, solidarity across geopolitical boundaries, and non-coercive criteria of inclusion. Modern democracies, including the United States, should follow the teachings of Jewish nationalism and refrain from demanding any degree of ethnic, religious, or cultural conformity of its citizens.
Zionism appealed to Kaplan as a laboratory for shepherding a new era of deterritorialized and depoliticized nationalism. Instead of contributing to the division of the world into discrete territorial units with homogeneousness national populations, Jewish nationalism would underscore the practical and moral limitations of national sovereignty. Thus, the establishment of the state, and with it the message that Jewish nationhood was synonymous with statehood, left Kaplan in a bind. The language of nationalism and Zionism had become too closely associated with national sovereignty for him to use effectively. He introduced “peoplehood” to distinguish the basis of Jewish collective consciousness from the ties associated with political citizenship.
Zionism’s increasingly dominant assumptions about nationalism, Kaplan believed, would create a rift between Jewish populations by reinforcing two disparate (and even incompatible) categories of Jewish identity—as a majority national culture in the homeland and a minority religious community in the diaspora. An enduring sense of solidarity would endure only if “peoplehood” established a shared understanding of the meaning of Jewish collectivity as distinct from both political citizenship and religious creed. “Peoplehood” would also need to address potentially conflicting attitudes about democracy and citizenship. Jews in the United States would advocate for the separation of citizenship and patriotism from particular religious, ethnic, or national criteria. The Jewish state would insist on precisely such preservation of a particular relgionational character. Kaplan envisioned “Peoplehood” as forging middle path between American Judaism and statist Zionism by demanding that both poles reconsider their foundational assumptions.
The recent explosion of interest in peoplehood ignores Kaplan’s discomfort with making nationhood equivalent with statehood. Ironically, commitment to the State of Israel now offers a key method for evaluating allegiance to Jewish peoplehood. A more fitting appropriation of Kaplan’s key term would critically assess longstanding assumptions about the role of the state in defining Jewish solidarity. Reopening difficult, and now taboo, topics may seem incredibly disloyal at a moment when many perceive the need to advocate for Israel in the face of criticism. However, Kaplan teaches that robust ties of “peoplehood” require recognizing differences rather than erasing them. Kaplan’s “peoplehood” promises to reinvigorate loyalty to a concept that has felt increasingly alienating to a growing number of Jews sensitive to the tensions Kaplan presciently identified.