By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
“Jews considered themselves actors in political history even when they lacked the power to shape it.” Wherever Jews have lived, they have been engaged with both political authorities, always understanding the importance of asserting their interests. Throughout their history, two ideas were central to Jewish communities: advancing their self-interests and demonstrating political adaptability (adjustment to changing political conditions).
In these challenging times, the tools of political activism have become once again essential resources. Over the centuries Jews created an array of institutional resources designed to advance their political ideas. Individual Jews have played a number of different roles in advancing their community’s political messages:
“Connectors” would creatively bring elites together in order to achieve a specific outcome.
“Defenders” were expected to provide some form of Jewish protection or defense.
“Advocates” would assert arguments designed to advance Jewish interests.
“Exemplars” would serve as role models, and at times heroes, as they symbolized by their behaviors and actions the ideals and values of the community.
The Practice of Community Relations:
We are reminded of the ten principles of Jewish civic engagement:
- As a minority community, Jews always understood that their political power and influence would be limited. The extensive investment of Jews in politics today is in part a response to their historical condition of powerlessness.
- The use of Stadlanim (spokespersons of influence from within the community), a tool employed throughout the Middle Ages, continues to be a critical political feature of the community.
- If they are to achieve their political outcomes, minority communities require coalition partners. Creating coalitions permits the Jewish community and other religious, racial, and ethnic groups to support causes that reflect shared interests. It is important to note that these relationships shift as political interests evolve and change.
- A core axiom is that all politics is local, requiring the Jewish community to identify and build connections wherever they have lived with key political, religious, racial and ethnic partners, and civic “influencers.”
- The Principle of Consensus: Communal policy is driven by the rule of consent, where a significant majority alone can determine and advance public policy and collective action.
- The Jewish community developed over time a set of advocacy and organizing principles. As a means of advancing Jewish interests, the community would seek to engage key non-Jewish elites, which represented one such organizing strategy. In contemporary times, these leaders would be selected from five spheres of influence: the world of business/labor, civic culture, education, religion, and government. These “opinion-shapers” have played critical roles in defending Jews and emulating and advancing social norms, such as tolerance, civility and mutual respect as a way to help shape public attitudes toward Jews and other minority communities.
- Rule of Marginal Effect: As long as there is no direct challenge to their credibility or political interests, minority communities can advance their agenda. When Jewish interests or Israeli policies, for example, are not aligned with core American values and foreign policy priorities, there is a greater potential for increased tension and disagreement among the principal actors and also a greater potential for increased anti-Semitism.
- Jewish communal politics serves as a barometer of the general political climate. Jewish political behavior and rhetoric models the larger political culture. Jews have a unique and on-going engagement with American democracy, creating broad political participation on behalf of both specific Jewish concerns and a wide set of general interests. This political investment by Jews is far out of proportion to the community’s percentage of the population as evidenced its voter participation, support of candidates and involvement with political parties.
- Interest group politics requires that a community have access to national political elites and decision-making institutions. For constituencies with a small population base, it is essential that these groups maximize their resources, develop and sustain a focused agenda, and demonstrate to decision-makers a successful track record. Minority groups establish their political credibility by focusing on the political outcomes that are core to their security and self-interests.
- The presence of a nation state has altered the political equation of the Jewish people. For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews have the capacity to engage both the resources of their homeland security and their Diaspora communities in shaping their political destiny. Modernity has redefined the notions of Jews and power.
The American Jewish Political Experience:
David Biale has suggested that several organizing principles have helped to create the political presence and influence that American Jews have enjoyed. Will Herberg’s tripartite religious model places Judaism on equal standing with Protestantism and Catholicism. Under this notion, Jews can claim an equal place among America’s mainstream religious constituencies, giving them greater credibility and access. Similarly, the doctrine of ethnic pluralism allowed Jews to redefine themselves as an ethnic community, giving them standing with other similar communities within the American polity.
Jewish Community Relations Practice: the Four Time Frames:
- Petitioners (1654-1870): Jews requesting actions to be taken on their behalf.
- Personalities (1870-1930): Individual Jews who created personal relationships as a means of advancing Jewish interests.
- Participants (1930-1960): Jewish organizations joining with others in order to achieve specific outcomes.
- Partners (1960-2018): Jews and Jewish institutions as power players operating within the political system.
Adam Dicktor identified four cogent political idioms that give particular definition to the American Jewish scene:
Nationalist Orientation vs. Accommodational Behavior: Jews operated in one of two political spheres, either understanding their political destiny as distinctively national/tribal in orientation or as accommodating to the larger, more universal focus with its emphasis on “repairing the world.” The essential characteristic of the Jewish political condition has been this dynamic tension between proponents of political nationalism and those embracing Jewish universalism.
Judaism as Americanism: Jews would be seen as full partners in the American story, where “Judeo-Christian values” would frame the social fabric of this nation.
“Be a Jew on the Street and an American at Home”: In the American context one can reject the melting pot perspective in favor of asserting a Jewish political identity.
Never Forget: Jews cannot forget their historical and political distinctiveness.
In advancing the Jewish community relations agenda, we are reminded that public policy agencies tend to follow a prescribed set of practices:
- Employing diplomatic interventions, using political pressure and supporting media campaigns to advance their international agenda
- Promoting educational and informational programs, employing social media, the press, and public media to advance their domestic priorities
- Framing legislative proposals and policy guidelines in response to advancing their priorities
- Engaging in community political organizing and developing public marketing campaigns to support their public messaging, and
- Providing government agencies, lawmakers, academic institutions, and the media with background information on public policy, social trends, and research findings.
The Challenges Facing Jewish Political Practice:
In today’s new environment, we need to account for these four potential “threats” to Jewish self-interests and the public square:
- The new anti-Semitism and the emergence of anti-Israel politics, leading to a changing political playing field around the case for Israel and Jewish security.
- The impact of technology on social practice and communal values, fostering on line political hate, the undermining of the idea of “truth,” and targeting and marginalizing minorities.
- Changing American demographics, leading to the rise of white nationalism and other forms of political rhetoric designed to promote race-based policies and the corresponding social and political changes taking place within the American Jewish polity.
- The decline in confidence and support for American civic institutions and the political process, creating a culture that questions core civic values and practices.
Historian Salo Baron commented that Judaism “represents a peculiar synthesis of a national and a universal religion.” The Jewish political story represents a continuum of this creative interplay between the passion for constructing a national expression of self-interest and the universalist appeal to move Judaism into the world. At a time when the Jewish community needs to reclaim its public policy voice and where JCRC’s and national agencies are called upon to protect and advance Jewish interests, the resources and tools of political advocacy need to be revisited.
 Ruth R. Wisse, Jews and Power, (Schocken, 2007), page 18
 Steven Windmueller, The Quest for Power, (CreateSpace, 2014), page 37
 Steven Windmueller, You Shall Not Stand Idly by, (American Jewish Committee, 2004), pages 26-28
 David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, (Schocken, 1986) pages195-198
 Steven Windmueller, “The Jewish Contract with America” in American Politics and the Jewish Community, edited by Dan Schnur, Annual Review of the University of Southern California’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life (Purdue University Press, 2013), page 20
 Dicktor, Adam. “Rules of Jewish Political Engagement.” The Jewish Week, 7 September 2012.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.
His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.