Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

We live in a remarkable period of Jewish history. Decades after the devastation of the Holocaust, the Jewish people has created a remarkable sovereign democratic state in its historic homeland. Outside of Israel, particularly in North America, Diaspora Jews enjoy unprecedented affluence, influence, and acceptance.

A century ago, defining who was a member of the Jewish people was relatively clear. Biology was decisive. Jews were either the children of a Jewish mother or those who converted to Judaism through broadly accepted procedures under Jewish law. Today, while biology remains a significant determinant, it has been gradually eroded as more and more Jews have a non-Jewish parent, family members of Jews see no need to convert, and self-identification is perceived to be the critical component of Jewish connection.

These changes in the larger Jewish tent have policy implications in many areas, among them: how and for whom Jewish resources – Jewish philanthropic resources and those of the Government of Israel – should be used; how best to define membership and the criteria for leadership of Jewish communal organizations; Israel’s Law of Return; and far more.

JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer observed that when it comes to the US Jewish community, “questions of personal status have become irrelevant… and the community has no interest in enforcing its boundaries.”3 He continues: “The watchwords today are inclusiveness, pluralism, trans denominationalism, and ‘journeys’ leading to a ‘self-constructed’ Judaism tailored to the needs of each Jew.” If this accurately describes much of the North American Jewish community, and in somewhat different ways large segments of other communities, Israeli Jews included, then the sovereign individual pursuit of Jewish grounding at times trumps the advantages of having a uniform communal criteria for entry and “membership” in the Jewish people.

This special JPPI report on the 2016 Structured Jewish World Dialogue aims to describe the viewpoints of Jews on the contemporary meaning(s) of Jewish belonging.4 It also aims to outline some of the possible implications of these perceptions for policy making in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world. JPPI recognizes and respects the fact that there are multiple viewpoints and opinions concerning the questions we raised with participants. We also acknowledge the fact that the Dialogue did not, nor could, cover all of these viewpoints.

JPPI’s 2016 Dialogue was conducted under the wider umbrella of its Pluralism and Democracy project, which is supported by the William Davidson Foundation. The Dialogue process, an unmediated study of Jewish public positions highly relevant to the Jewish world, comprised 49 discussion groups in Jewish communities around the world. Questionnaires were administered in this framework, and research on the Jewish public as a whole was analyzed – including studies on Jewish populations with thin attachments to Israel, and organized Diaspora Jewish life. Discussions were held, and this report was prepared, in accordance with Chatham House Rules, i.e., participants may be quoted, but without specific attribution. This was meant to ensure open and frank exchanges. Participant names are listed in the appendix. This year we also rely on a wide JPPI survey of Jewish public opinion in Israel conducted in March 2016.5

The 2016 Dialogue is the third in an ongoing series. Last year (2015), the topic was “Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict.”6 In 2014, at the request of Israel’s Justice Ministry, the Dialogue was a part of an effort to formulate recommendations regarding a possible “constitutional arrangement dealing with Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”7 In both cases, JPPI’s concluding reports were recognized as significant achievements in advancing the Israel-Diaspora discourse.8 Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 2014 Cabinet meeting, encouraged the Institute to continue with this important and timely endeavor.

Six basic underpinning assumptions served as a launch pad for the dozens of discussions held in March and April of 2016 on The Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity:

  1. Being Jewish means having a connection to a broadly defined group with certain characteristics or definitions (if there are no definitions, there is no group; if there is no group, there is nothing to connect to).
  2. The once-clearer understandings of the contours of the Jewish collective were based on a set of definitions, many of which no longer apply today.
  3. This era of “fluid identity” makes the notion of defining (or worse, setting absolute boundaries) who is “in” and who is “out” of the group both unappealing and impractical.
  4. Different communities of Jews have varying, at times contradictory definitions of “Jewishness” – this is markedly true in the case of Israel and Jewish Diaspora communities.
  5. The erosion of the Jewish world’s ability to subscribe to a broadly accepted understanding (if not exact agreement) of the nature of the group has ramifications on cooperation between Jews.
  6. It also affects the policies of Israeli governmental bodies and Jewish institutions of many types.

We also note that these assumptions have underlying implications. JPPI has identified four areas likely to be affected; questions pertaining to them were central in community discussions:

  • Allocation of resources: The impact of Jewish identity definitions on the ways communities, foundations, and the Government of Israel allocate limited resources for broad programmatic purposes.
  • Legal and procedural issues: The effects definitions of Jewishness have on Israeli law and institutions (Law of Return, marriage, military service), and to a lesser extent on Jewish communities worldwide (membership in organizations, eligibility to serve in certain roles).
  • Psychological state of the Jews: Decades after the Holocaust, population figures with respect to the Jewish people certainly matter. How we define inclusion affects the numbers.
  • Sense of Peoplehood: The group with whom one identifies, and the sense of responsibility felt as a result, is framed by who is (or is not) considered to be part of the Jewish people.9

This report describes the context in which our discussions took place, lays out the reasons this topic requires discussion at this time, provides several short reference points, and frames the main questions the Dialogue considered. It deals with questions on which volumes of books and articles have been written, but strives to be relatively short and concise. Our focus is twofold: to give a sense of what Jews think about this issue when presented with certain simple questions, and to present possible practical and conceptual implications that the current state of Jewish zeitgeist might entail. Generally speaking, the report steers away from an elaborate discussion of Jewish history and philosophy.

JPPI would like to thank the hundreds of Dialogue participants, and the many dozens of organizers, moderators, and note takers in the many communities that took part in this process. We hope that this Dialogue, much like the two preceding it, produced an interesting, thought provoking, and useful report. But we also believe that, reports aside, having a Jewish Dialogue on a global scale is a worthy process in and of itself.