Recreating America’s Story: The Jewish Response

Image courtesy Pew Research Center
Image courtesy Pew Research Center

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As we are about to celebrate our nation’s 240th birthday, America is experiencing a fundamental transformation of its very identity and character. There are profound political and social transitions underway within our society and beyond. All of these changes have direct implications for American Jewry and its future role within this democracy.

The Trump nomination, the rise of international terrorism and national violence, the global economic transitions, the tenor of public discourse seem to reflect some of the fragmented pieces that define and influence the contemporary American environment. Indeed, some of these factors are systemic in nature, while others reflect episodically events in a world facing significant and serious economic challenges and political threats.

Part of the transitions facing our nation are driven by a changing, more diverse American public; some of what we are witnessing has been accentuated by the emergence of a communication and technology revolution that has fundamentally altered how people acquire and interpret information. Much of this transformation is aligned with an economic revolution that is remaking the nature of how we understand the idea of knowledge, work and business.

The impulse for much of these unsettling changes has been stroked by the rise of populist sentiment. We are reminded that populism is a political culture where citizens believe that they are being mistreated by a small circle of elites and experience a loss of control over their destiny. Throughout its history American society has witnessed political trauma where populist movements, for example, gave rise to the Know Nothings in the mid-1850’s, the Silverites of the 1880’s, and more recently, the Tea Party movement. The presence of third party candidates, political protests and social unrest gave definition to how these social forces have expressed their discontent with the status quo and the existing power structure.

In our times there is a loss of public confidence in the ability of leaders to be responsive to the issues of governance and the capacity of institutions of government to effectively perform. The level of non-confidence in institutions transcends the world of politics and has impacted adversely attitudes about the economic structures among other sectors of American society. As the social contract with America seems to be unraveling, one notes with concern the rise of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant feelings. As segments of our population embrace these views there is a corresponding loss of civility and the unwinding of the political glue essential in preserving a nation’s sense of connection and unity.

Today, people feel betrayed, angry and disappointed that the promises extended to them by politicians and the expectations shared with them by the corporate sector have remained unfulfilled. As jobs disappear and as opportunities seem to dissipate, many within our society have lost confidence in the institutions and the individuals who were charged to protect and advance their interests.

What might this mean for the Jewish community? In the past, Jews were responsive to the major transitions that would impact their security and wellbeing. Internally, the community would produce the “Biltmore Program” in 1943 as a response to Hitler’s assault on European Jewry. In the 1970’s, as a result of the Yom Kippur War, our leaders would organize in support of the State of Israel. Again and again, our communal system would be responsive to the threats and challenges confronting our people and the greater society. The Soviet Jewry movement and our response to the crisis facing Ethiopian Jews would demonstrate our community’s pro-active character. Challenged from the outside, the American Jewish community was able to mobilize itself to address the historic issues that defined us as a people and a community.

Externally, our community would be responsive to the Great Depression, mobilizing communal resources in consort with the government to help meet the needs of the country. American Jewry would support this nation’s war efforts and would join with other Americans to embrace the message and meaning of the civil rights movement and other social causes. Over the decades the community would remain responsive to the collective interests of the larger society.

Jews have always understood that they have a stake in the welfare of American society. At this point how do we as American Jews begin to articulate and to advance a set of policy initiatives designed to address some of these domestic and international issues? As stakeholders in promoting and strengthening this society, we have invested in the American experience, making it our own and embracing the values and principles that distinctively define this country. Our Judaism informs and supports our Americanism. What is paramount to the well being of Jews in America and other communities of interest is sustaining the viability of the American story. The “contract with America” that we as Jews have adopted for ourselves and the generations to follow is tied to the democratic principles as outlined in the Preamble, the First Amendment and the Sixth Article of the Constitution. As investors in the American experiment we have today a great deal at stake.

A dysfunctional America where many have lost confidence and belief in the American dream is a prescription for anti-Semitism, just as it bodes ill for other minority communities. We have a fundamental stake in preserving the American dream.

Jewish leadership in consort with other religious and ethnic groups ought to move to mobilize our fellow citizens of diverse political, cultural, economic and social background in order to address the current state of American democracy. In coalition with other leaders and activists, we will need to rethink the “American promise” and how this society and its core institutions can reclaim the support of its citizens in building a system of governance that is responsive to the desires and needs of the nation. America’s leaders, in turn, will have a responsibility to propose policies that give promise to recalibrating this country’s economy so that it best serves the interests and expectations of Americans. At least ten substantive areas require the attention and engagement of concerned citizens, and more directly the Jewish community, if we are to alter the political malaise that currently defines our society

  1. Building an economy that takes into account the needs and aspirations of Americans; promoting trade agreements that can readily demonstrate that they will produce new streams of employment and economic opportunity. (Economics)
  2. Focusing on the international threat of terrorism, working in consort with our allies and others, in containing and ultimately eliminating the ability of such forces to carry out their intentions (Terrorism)
  3. Sustaining our world so that we might ensure that future generations can live in a globally-secure environment, where America is proactive in taking the lead in promoting new safe energy initiatives (Environment and Energy)
  4. Establishing a national commitment to repair and update America’s infrastructure of highways, bridges, airports, water systems, etc. (Infrastructure)
  5. Creating a responsible immigration policy that addresses the various complex components of this issue (Immigration)
  6. Addressing the critical breakdowns in the educational and social service delivery systems essential for our inner cities and rural communities by preparing those in need of retooling with the skill sets to meet 21st century economic realities (Communities in Crisis)
  7. Managing the issue of gun violence, by fostering a national conversation on this topic (Guns and Security)
  8. Moving forward to develop an alternative model of campaign financing (Campaign Finance Reform)
  9. Investing in American civic engagement, energizing and empowering our citizens to become more politically active (Political Activism)
  10. Responding to the policy debate over preserving an appropriate balance between the national security interests and the privacy concerns of our fellow citizens (Privacy)

None of these policy concerns can or will be effectively addressed unless this nation’s leadership is committed to creating an environment safe for public discourse where constructive dialogue and debate can and will take place. Not only must there be a conscious commitment on the part of Congressional leaders to embrace this principle but the next President must use his or her office as a platform for generating these discussions. The concept of open conversations ought to be seen as an integral part of the politics that every city, town and rural community seeks to establish. “Citizenship” must again be celebrated both as an obligation and as an essential opportunity to mobilize the public’s attention to the issues that require an invested electorate.

As many have lost confidence and belief in the American dream, Jewish leadership in consort with other religious and ethnic groups have an obligation to mobilize Americans of diverse political, cultural, economic and social backgrounds in order to address the current state of American democracy. In coalition with others we will need to rethink the “American promise” and how this society and its core institutions can reclaim the support of its citizens in building a system of governance that is responsive to the desires and needs of its citizens. Among the tasks before America’s leaders will be the obligation to propose policies that give promise to recalibrating the American economy so that it best serves the interests and expectations of Americans. This sense of collective engagement cannot to be left only to the country’s political elites but rather religious and civic leaders in conversation with other mainstream institutional representatives must convene a national summit committed to examining the issues that divide our constituencies and that are creating the social tensions within our society.

Is this not a moment for serious and dedicated citizens to challenge the establishment, Republicans and Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, to revisit the political equation that inspired our forefathers and mothers to embrace “being an American”? And the Jewish community needs to be an essential player in this scenario.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website,