By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprising November victory, five new developments are reshaping the Jewish landscape in this country. As we observe Jewish political behavior six months into this extraordinary period in American history, what is happening inside Jewish America?
- Political Re-Engagement: The Rise of Social Activism
- Financial Investment: Reported Increased Giving for Particular Causes
- A Cultural Renaissance: Programs, Demonstrations, and Theatre
- The Deepening Divide: The Sharpening of the Sword
- Political Warning Signals: The Significant Upturn in Anti-Semitism
In each of these areas, one finds a significant new reality impacting the Jewish landscape as well as the broader American political picture. This newly formed activism became readily evident one day after the President’s inauguration with the “Women’s March,” drawing unprecedented crowds and wide public interest. In the weeks and months that have followed, there have been countless other public demonstrations, organizing meetings, Congressional Town Halls, and policy briefing sessions that have attracted record numbers of citizens. Grassroots mobilizing has become the new reality.
As more money is being committed in dramatically larger amounts to support different social causes and political advocacy work, one finds a corresponding rise in political activism as expressed through greater participation. This newly engaged activism has been documented by increased attendance at specific synagogue and organizational programs. One such action taken by citizens to counter the proposed Administration ban on Muslims would draw hundreds of Jewish activists to courthouses, airports, and other public venues.
This activist behavior however is not only evident on the Jewish political left but can be documented as well among players representing a pro-Trump perspective. On the right it is expressed through public initiatives that one might define as the “promise of Trump” to deliver on specific policy issues, including Israel, national security, economic interests, and tax reform. On the left this new engagement can be identified by embracing efforts directed against this Administration in connection with its immigration policies, environmental priorities, social welfare positions, etc.
As all of this new found energy is being expressed, the deepening political divide found within this nation remains strikingly evident within the Jewish community. If anything, despite post-election rhetoric to the contrary and the efforts of some to bridge policy differences, the feeling tones present within Jewish communities across this nation have appeared to harden over these six months. The Jewish “divide” is certainly most evident in connection with Israel but in light of the President’s policies, the “machloket” (disagreements) now transcend into domestic considerations as well.
If any of these social markers can create a degree of shared concern, it would be the sharp rise in anti-Semitism along with its parallel expressions of anti-Israelism. Here, one would assume that a common bond of fear might draw together the distinctive and separate voices found within the Jewish world. This has yet to be documented.
What will this surge in Jewish political engagement mean over time? This remains difficult at best to analyze, but no doubt the seeds of this newly formed activism appear to have a degree of self-contained energy. Dependent on the state of the political marketplace, this cycle of heightened concern should last well beyond the 2018 mid-term elections into the 2020 political season.
We are reminded of House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s adage “all politics is local.” Indeed, much of this rekindled activism is rooted at this point in school board, city council and state-related politics, as Americans set about “redoing” the business of political practice at the grassroots level. In this connection, of particular interest, is the conscious connection on the part of some Jewish activists to invest in “political organizing” by underwriting civic engagement initiatives, in promoting greater voter turnout, and by supporting candidates in community-based elections. As with other Americans, Jews are concerned about the texture of American democracy at this moment in time. For Jews disagreements over Trump policies has contributed to tensions within synagogues and on the communal stage, just as it appears to be undermining social relationships and family ties.
Nor should Jews believe that they are the only newly energized constituency within this nation. Quite to the contrary, many faith communities, ethnic groups and political organizations are reporting similar patterns of social activism as well as institutional tensions. Wherever one sits on the political spectrum, the momentous impact in this age of Trump has galvanized the public square. No one today is able to watch comedians, attend public events, and listen to newscasts or radio talk shows without the subject of “Donald Trump” serving as the centerpiece of public discourse.
There are certain by-products of this six-month encounter with Donald Trump as President; there is renewed energy associated with American politics and concerns directed toward the political system. More Americans are asking about the origins and intent of the “Electoral College,” while many others are focusing their attention on Congressional Districts and how they have been constructed or “gerrymandered.” Issues such as election campaign funding and discriminatory voter regulations have also drawn wider attention. Indeed, questions abound around such themes as impeachable crimes, obstruction of justice, and conflict of interest considerations.
The conversation in America has fundamentally changed, and its focus has become totally linier, as there has emerged a singular fixation around the President, his policies and his performance.
The material for this article was based on three primary sources: financial reports of major Jewish and secular organizations, reporting on their fund-raising activities over the course of the past months; organizational bulletins and email reports where institutions report on both programs and membership turn out; and from general and Jewish newspaper and media accounts of public activism covering the past six months.
Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.