In This New Age
The Jewish Political Awakening
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Whether they are liberal Democrats, political Independents or Conservative Republicans, Jews across the nation are becoming more politically engaged.
This pattern however is not unique to the Jewish community, as The Boston Globe reports:
“… Historians should also note a silver lining: this is a golden age of American political activism. From Tea Party rallies to Black Lives Matter protests to women’s and pro-immigrant marches and this past week’s discussion about gun control, the national conversation is dominated not just by the discussion of politics, but what they can do about it.”
NPR reports on an intensified period of political activism. The importance here can be seen in the diversity and scope of organizing, as folks are triggered by different causes and reasons for becoming politically connected.
While the patterns may be strikingly different between Jewish liberals and conservatives, four features appear to be common to both groups:
Financial Engagement: Significant numbers of individuals report that they have expanded their support for candidates, political parties and partisan causes over the course of the past year. Various social justice and politically oriented causes are reporting record giving levels. Other donors interested in the political landscape have scaled up their giving to think tanks and policy organizations.
Political Organizing/Social Activism: An array of new political groups have been born over the past 15 months, representing efforts to coalesce around issues and political messaging that seeks to push back against the current political agenda of this administration. The Anglo-Jewish press noted significantly large numbers of Jewish women, for example, participated in the various women’s rallies and demonstrations held across the nation. Evidence that large numbers of Jews, especially women, have expressed an interest in running for public office or have formally launched political campaigns reflects this heightened interest in politics.
Interestingly, there has also been a counter response by supporters of the President to promote his agenda by organizing to grow grass roots involvement and donor participation. An interesting side note, in Jewish communities without JCRC’s (Jewish Community Relations Committees) there have been recent efforts to create local public policy groups that might address issues such as immigration, health care, etc.
Staying Connected: Americans in general and Jews in particular report greater attention to news coverage, interest in late night political satire, and an uptake in both newspaper readership and social media participation around political themes.
Political Conversations: Many Americans report that they are regularly having “political” conversations with friends. Here, the tendency is that most of these discussions occur among “like-minded” politically aligned individuals. Various publications report that just as conversations have become frayed and less frequent among political foes, there has been an acceleration of political dialogue among individuals who share similar views. Part of this renewed interest in creating such conversations is driven by a heighten level of anxiety and discomfort, as confirmed by various news sources.
Part of this renewed political engagement is tied to a broader set of considerations about the state of America’s democracy, including such specific elements as a free press, the freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, secure elections and other core democratic ideals and civic values.
This new level of engagement however is not occurring without some interesting and challenging outcomes. Jewish Democrats, similar to their Republican counterparts, are divided over how best to participate and where to focus their financial and personal attention. The ideological divide within the Democratic Party, evident in the 2016 campaign between “Bernie supporters” and “Hilary advocates,” is being played out in 2018 as individuals are directing their support to specific candidates and causes representing these distinctive political perspectives. Within the Republican Jewish world, one sees as well a political splintering among those individuals who embrace the President and his priorities and those who oppose the Trump Presidency, seeking to lend support to alternative voices and policies within the GOP.
The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism has also attracted donors who are providing increased levels of support to organizations seeking to defend Jewish interests, promote educational initiatives to defuse hate and prejudice, and to build political support for Israel.
Impressively, in reaction to the political climate in this nation, one finds younger Jews seeking to mobilize their friends whether around gun violence or other specific issues. In turn, this has sparked synagogue leaders, national organizations, and others to render support to these teen initiatives.
It is certainly too early to project whether this political upturn represents a short-term phenomenon or how it might be sustained over time. Clearly, the political sparks of the 2016 campaign have re-energized voters and potential voters. A related benefit to this new round of social engagement centers on a growing debate around the need in our school curricula for greater attention to “American civics.”
Writing from a progressive perspective, the Forward editor, Jane Eisner, noted in November:
No longer can Jews rely on the automatic protection of civic institutions like Congress, the judiciary and the media to hold government and powerful economic interests accountable – not when the president and his acolytes are systematically trying to undermine democratic norms and values, and respect for the rule of law.
A new age of Jewish political activism is underway! Reflective of some of the general trends present within this society, Jewish activists have begun to mobilize and engage with their fellow citizens. The trends noted here will be important to monitor as we move into the election cycle this fall, and beyond.
Steven Windmueller Ph. D is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.