Jewish Political Realities in a Changing Environment

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Politics is about understanding the global picture, namely who are the players and what are the stakes? Yet, as with most political actors, we often remain in a particular frame of reference, a type of political comfort zone, often finding it difficult to embrace the changing character of the political order, especially when social forces are seeking to change priorities and alter established viewpoints. We appear to be experiencing at this moment a series of unsettling and changing realities, forcing us to confront our own vulnerabilities, while challenging our sense of security and order.

The Israeli Elections as a Framework

Jews like other folks are specifically wedded to traditional political images; indeed there is a sense of security around holding to such fixed perceptions or viewpoints. While Zionism, for example, contained a broad sweep of political ideas, some would define Israel as a liberal beacon of democracy, reflecting a particular political design about the Jewish State; but that viewpoint serves only to describe one perspective when defining Israeli society. As a result, as Israelis endorsed a center-right political coalition in last month’s election, those who hold a different mindset about the Zionist enterprise have become disillusioned. This sense of loss has created a political disconnect for some American Jewish liberals. This is not their (our) Israel! Over time some within the American Jewish polity have become wedded to specific images about what we anticipate as the Israel story. Where pluralism, a peace platform, and the politics of equality would define the Jewish left’s platform, Israel’s political right has opted to promote a different set of priorities, one that appealed to a broader base of Israelis in this last election.

The Fear Factors

The politics of hate that today defines the position and status of European Jewry has added an overlay of fear and uncertainty for world Jewry. This emerging reality is both unsettling and comes as a shock for some as it undercuts our preconceived notions. The “lessons” of the Holocaust were designed forever to set aside the issues of ethnic and religious intolerance. Now 70 years beyond the Shoah, we are witnessing a rebirth of anti-Semitism. The growing presence of global anti-Israelism is creating its own levels of anxiety and tension for Jews. We may have falsely held to the notion that the past would not be a precursor to our future. Europe, once again, appears to be unsafe for Jews, and our perspectives on history are coming undone.

In addition, Iranian nuclear ambitions have created a stir within the Jewish soul and reawakened a historical nightmare. What if it is true that the intention of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the annihilation of the Jewish State? Can Israel or the Jewish people afford to be dependent on the assurances of the great powers? What happens when the perceived interests of the world’s major political players appear to run counter to the security concerns of the Jewish State? Again, we are unsettled by a set of fears that were simply not suppose to evolve in the aftermath of the holocaust and with the establishment of a state of our own. How could this be happening to a people whose only intention has been to secure its place among the nations?

“The Relationship”

The idea that political “relationships” define policy outcomes is a misreading of how foreign policy operates. Nations have interests and these can and do change as reflected by the events on the ground and as a result of national strategic priorities. Jews have had an illusion that the “special relationship” that defined the Jerusalem-Washington connection would be a constant. Such political understandings are not necessarily set in place for all times. The idea of a political disconnect between Israel and the United States is both unsettling and operates against our sense of security.

“The Rule of Marginal Effect” suggests that as long as there are no external or internal threats to an existing policy position, its supporters are able to defend and promote its specific value. Over the course of the past decades, there were no significant political or strategic challenges to the US-Israel relationship, such a distinctive partnership could operate, basically unimpeded. When threatened by either competing domestic pressures or by over riding international demands and changing strategic priorities, nations will jettison these “special relationships.” Such was the case involving America’s special relationship with Taiwan, following the Second World War. In 1979 Washington would alter its political connections with the Republic of China under the rubric of its “one China policy”. This strategic shift would permit the United States to establish full diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China.

What might we learn? Political connections cannot be seen as static, but out of necessity they need be adjusted to the constantly changing strategic realities. As history would affirm, it remains necessary that the case for Israel must be continuously defended. The value and importance of such historic bounds must be defined on the basis of its evolving and contemporary relevance. The current military upheavals have upset the Middle East equation, bringing into question the status of the Israel-Washington connection.

Some have suggested (Max Boot) that the current administration is forging an “Obama Doctrine” which represents a policy shift in United States relations within the region. As the issues surrounding regional insecurity continues to widen, American interests and strategic requirements propel its military and diplomatic priorities in directions that are seen as contrary to the concerns of its former strategic partner. Under this scenario the United States is seeking to re-establish ties with the Iranian regime, while possibly altering its political linkages with Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel. Is this a potential new strategic reality, and if so, what might it mean for the Jewish State?

The Power Issue

Having tasted from the wells of power, Jews have been consumed with the idea and image of having gained access to those in power. But could it be that Jewish political influence will be diminishing over time? “Power” for a minority community is also a very different reality than for a majority culture. Minorities measure their success around a set of concrete priorities; when these objectives seem to be comprised or marginalized, they become fearful about their status and political effectiveness.

Clearly, there are moments in history where the interests and priorities of a particular population must remain focused on its strategic welfare, even as the global enterprise seeks to shift its broader priorities. The perceived “greater good” as introduced by the world’s primary political actors is set against a minority’s “greatest fears”.

Each of the themes, introduced above, raises a degree of Jewish discomfort, creating in their wake a new level of uncertainty about the collective well-being of Israel and the Jewish people’s political future.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. For a complete listing of Dr. Windmueller’s writings, visit www.thewindreport.