Civility and consensus have given way to name-calling and political separation.
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Americans are angry. Many feel that their government doesn’t work, while others believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. For some their anger is about feeling marginalized in their own society, as immigrants and others are seen as threats to this nation’s values and its character.
This state of anger is readily present within the Jewish community as well. Jewish political frustration is broad and encompasses the perspectives of Jews both on the left and the right. For liberal Jews there is growing unhappiness over the absence of legislative initiatives dealing with immigration reform, gun control, and the protection of voting rights for minorities across the country. Jewish conservatives, who were already critical of the Obama Administration in its handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would become enraged by the Iran Nuclear Accord Agreement, the management of the American response to ISIS, and the general tenor of the nation’s commitment to security. The grievances and differences among Jews has created what some have framed as the “great divide,” where the political tension can be defined as deep and uncompromising. The degree of angry rhetoric and the heightened levels of communal tension serve to affirm this schism. Civility and consensus have given way to name-calling and political separation.
Five years ago I had occasion to write an article entitled, “The New Angry American Jewish Voter”(Jewish Journal cover story, August 11, 2010). In that piece I described the American Jewish community as a “contemporary version of the Maccabees, namely a revolt against the existing order.” But the depth and intensity of Jewish anger has not dissipated, quite the reverse, it has become more entrenched and pronounced.
In crisis settings there is a tendency to seek to place blame on those who are “responsible”; at times such reaction is directed against authority figures, and not just against perceived external enemies or those who are seen as real or possible internal threats to the society. Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that the use of the term “War on Terror” was intended to generate a culture of fear deliberately because it “obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”
Part of the anger and distrust we see being exhibited in the public square it would seem is being emulated within the Jewish world. A number of specific factors seem to contribute to this state of “Jewish warfare”:
The Assault: There is today both an assault on liberalism and a corresponding effort to marginalize the political right. The goal of both sides is to silence the other and in the process dumb down dissent. The communal environment is at times a toxic marketplace riddled with battle zones as “thought police” seek to silence or minimize the power and presence of the other. At times it may take on the trappings of a loyalty test where individuals who are identified with particular organizations or points of view are defined as “outside” of the mainstream of the public discourse. Political labels and titles today have taken on assumed or set images, so if one is assigned the tag, “Democratic” or “Republican,” “Liberal” or “Conservative” then what follows are these automatic assumptions layered on these individuals. No room is left for self-declaratory statements about one’s political identity, even their uncertainties.
The Decline of the Political Center: The loss of the political center is particularly unsettling as many who hold the middle ground have left the stage, feeling uncomfortable or uncertain as to their role or place. Many are reporting that they have severed ties with old friends over political disagreements, while others find it difficult to attend public gatherings where issues of the public agenda are slated to be discussed. This expanded level of tension obviates the possibilities for serious discourse.
The Rise of the Financial Elites: One of the troubling signs facing the Jewish community is reflected in the emergence of a group of financial elites who, like their counterparts in the general society, are employing the power of the purse in order to define the collective agenda and more directly the nature and tenor of its public discourse. A Jewish plutocracy has emerged to govern and manage pieces of the communal system. The impact of this model has led to a two-tiered communal order of the powerful and the powerless.
The Discrediting of Jewish Leadership: One of the outcomes connected with this conflict-centered environment is the marginalization of leaders and the critique of institutions. With the Jewish world not only do individual leaders experience specific attacks but also an entire class of communal professionals, rabbis, and laity has become the target of criticism. The credibility of many of those whom we have entrusted with the governance of our communal and religious institutions has been undermined and challenged. In the process the debate has shifted the focus of the conversation from policy to personality.
The Millennials: With the rise of the millennial generation, one finds a measure of distrust of leadership, accompanied by a distancing from institutional engagement. The resulting outcome, the absence of a significant part of a generation from the public and communal tables of discourse; this will have a devastating consequence on the viability and sustainability of institutions in the general society and also within the Jewish realm.
Complexity without Resolution: No doubt a number of the issues that define today’s agenda are seen as complex and without immediate solutions, adding to the degree of tension and impatience within the public square. The inability to resolve issues merely carries the crisis forward, and as with a virus seems to expand upon itself taking hostage other subject matter that likewise quickly becomes controversial and divisive in tone and substance. This same scenario is being played out within Jewish quarters.
Framing the Jewish “Wars”:
Clearly all kinds of factors are contributing the perpetuation of tensions within the Jewish world. In the absence of resolving some of these trigger issues that include such questions as “who speaks for the Jews?” and “what political voices best represent Jewish interests?” or “what are Jewish interests and priorities?” the intensity of these battles continue to expand.
Four areas comprise the Jewish conflict zone:
1. Defining Israel: Whose Voices and What Policies Ought to Be Considered?
- BDS, Settlements and the Peace Process: Can or ought American Jews
critique Israeli actions and policies?
- J Street: Whose voices can be included in our public conversations?
- Religious Pluralism: On the questions related to the Jewish character of the State of Israel, don’t all Jews have a stake?
- US-Israel Relations: What role ought my government to play?
2. Defining United States Immigration Policies: Were We Not All Strangers to This Land?
3. Managing our Security: What Constitutes the Appropriate Balance between National Security and Preserving our Civil Liberties?
4. Engaging our Neighbors: Can I Invite Muslims and Other Voices to the Table?
The danger of political hate is that it has no boundaries and the wars among the Jews can only be seen as an ongoing tangle of diatribe and distrust. Yet, to the credit of some Jewish organizations, communal and rabbinic leaders, and several institutions operating outside of the Jewish world, there are conscious and concrete efforts to provide an array of resources to recreate an environment of civility, to introduce the art of communicating and the act of effective listening, and to promote safe space for constructive dialogue to occur.
Unless the Jewish people can figure out a pathway to dialogue, our legacy may well be the demise of what we have historically understood as the communal voice. Our children will be the recipients of a dysfunctional enterprise of disconnected institutions, competing voices, and the loss of a collective message. Our future is bound up with the task to sustain and strengthen this fragile yet essential table of Jewish public discourse.
Professor Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. You can find Dr. Windmueller’s collection of writings at www.thewindreport.com.
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