Five Moments in Time
And the Jewish Responses
By Marylin Kingston and Steven Windmueller
Politics is not an abstract notion for Jews. Jewish security and identity are tied to the political order. As a result, historic events are directly connected with Jewish fate and welfare. Over the course of time, a minority community learns much about itself, especially as it faces an unchartered future.
Each of the five events, stated below, continue to impact the Jewish storyline, for Jews history lives within the psyche. These historical markers embody our journey over time and place, as the scares, triumphs, and memories of these experiences remain with us. Each of these events informs the collective character of the Jewish political portfolio. These special moments on the Jewish calendar would alter the destiny of our people. The modern Jewish historic experience remains instructive, as we are reminded that at each turn, there will be the promise of new beginnings in tandem with the reality of the on-going threats directed against Jews and Judaism.
1. Since Jewish emancipation, more than two hundred years ago, what has been the political fate of Western Jewry?
2. One hundred years after the First World War, what did the world and more directly, world Jewry, understand about that war and its impact on political ideas and historical events of the 20th century and beyond? How did that war change Jewish history, thought and culture?
3. Eighty years after Kristallnacht, what have we learned about anti-Semitism? If the Shoah was to teach the world about genocide, what lessons, if any, has humanity learned?
4. Seventy years since the founding of the State of Israel, how has the existence of the Jewish State changed us as a people and the Jewish condition in the world?
5. Now nearly two years into the Trump Presidency, how do we as a community understand this administration’s impact on America and on us? Realizing that some within our community have embraced the policies and politics of the current administration, others are extremely troubled about the state of American politics, the erosion of civic culture, and the weakening of the institutions of government.
The first question introduces the expectation of modernity and its potential for changing the course of Jewish history. Indeed, emancipation and nationalism generated an array of new opportunities and experiences for Western Jewry some two hundred years ago. But just as it exposed the modern Jew to the great ideas of science, religion, and politics, it would also set into motion the seeds of modern anti-Semitism. In some cases, the allure of modernity would draw Jews away from tradition, while others would seek ways to accommodate the new world into the richness and vitality of Judaism.
One hundred years ago, as the “Great War” reached its conclusion, Woodrow Wilson’s belief that this was “the war to end all wars” would represent only a hallow political dream. The impact of the war resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands Jews, reminding the community of its unstable and uncertain political condition. The promises made at Versailles, and earlier by Lord Balfour, would remain unfulfilled for another 30 years. In its aftermath, Europe would undergo its most devastating decade of war and destruction.
Following upon the failures of 1918, Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November 1938, would signal the beginning of the end not only for German Jewry, but also launch the mass liquidation of European Jewry. The Holocaust fundamentally changed not only the Jewish demographic reality, but it also dramatically changed the Jewish psyche.
The declaration of the Jewish state on May 14th, 1948 affirmed the historic dream of the Jewish people. If other moments were measured by death and destruction, commemorating the founding of Israel confirmed a different Jewish political status. No external event could replace this new reality; for the first time in modern history Jews were able to experience self-determination. In directing our own political destiny, Israelis would discover the burdens and threats associated with managing and maintaining security and the accompanying challenges in connection with nation building.
In some measure each of these four “anniversaries” encapsulate the story of the modern Jew. Individually, each event has had its own distinctive impact, and collectively they created the framework around which modern Jewish history would evolve. Each offered distinctive lessons about the political condition and the roles that Jews would play in shaping the modern world.
Intriguingly, the fifth question functions as a commentary on the changing character of the modern Jew! Fourth and fifth generation Jewish Americans may be totally removed from experiencing or relating to any of the earlier symbols of this journey through history. The contemporary American Jew may well be disconnected, and possibly, untouched by earlier events; hence, 21st Century America becomes their referent point. For those who approach politics through a Jewish lens, they encounter a Jewish State and the Jewish polity in a very different place than any previous generation. Indeed, many Jewish Millennials and Gen Z’s will enter the political arena totally devoid of connection or interest in the particulars of earlier Jewish story.
Donald Trump and his impact on Jews and Israel has become its own unique and divisive phenomenon. Indeed, for some it reaffirms the strong and significant connections that bind Jerusalem and Washington. The President’s policies, for this sector, are viewed in accordance with the interests of the Jewish community. Yet, other American Jews reject the Trump Presidency, believing that his policies and politics undermine the core institutions of government and the civic values of society.
Over the course of several hundred years, while mostly powerless, Jews would be compelled to accept the world as it was. In this contemporary frame, Jews have the capacity to direct and define our own political destiny.
The Jewish story models that of other minority cultures, as the elements of power that are afforded or earned by minorities are acquired over time. Each historical experience provides insights to the petitioners of power about the political landscape, offering opportunities to expand or test their capacity to change the status quo.
The Current Condition:
In this new age, Jews are struggling with how to manage political liberation. Unable to currently articulate a shared set of political interests, the community remains divided and marginalized. In turn, power dissipates. Conflict and recrimination represent destructive outcomes. Factionalism replaces consensus and unity, distrust trumps collective action. A state of anomy describes the internal Jewish order. Anger and discord define today’s Jewish public square. This current reality will have profound implications for our political standing and security. When we create our own power vacuum, as a result of our internal discord, we open the political marketplace to our enemies.
When minorities rise to power, as in the case of Jewish Americans, their political visibility increases. When gaining influence, at times minorities may misinterpret such opportunities, as ensuring their access to the halls of power. Such notions are particularly problematic for small communities, since minorities must continually protect their interests.
Having traveled this long road to acquire political empowerment, Jews are witnessing a counter-response, a rising tide of anti-Semitism pushing back against Jewish ideas and values. Anti-Israelism has become an acceptable theme among certain intellectuals, campus organizers and public figures. The presence of such hate has been emboldened by our own internal divisions.
Disruptive politics drive the new disregard for minorities and define the contemporary political culture. For some, Jews are the embodiment of liberalism, and yet for other critics, Jews are identified with the current populist politics of the current President. This historical image of Jews caught between the political forces of the right and the left is now playing out in the American context.
Is this new American reality going to be the defining message of contemporary politics? For this generation of Jews, the presence of anti-Semitism is both unsettling and unexpected. Having come so far to normalize the Jewish condition, Jews discover a new scenario; both the left and the right are preparing to weaken our political credibility, as both sides grabble to remake America, and in the process seek to minimize and marginalize our status and input.
Marylin E. Kingston Ph.D. is an organizational psychology consultant practicing in California.
Professor Steven Windmueller Ph.D. 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.