Revisiting ‘the Jewish Contract with America’

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More than once, I have had occasion to write elsewhere about “the Jewish Contract with America.” In these earlier essays, I describe the elements that defined American exceptionalism and the Jewish contractual response, and the value-added of such a unique connection between our community and this nation. 

The core features of this contract include the following:

  • Antisemitism has never been state-sponsored in this country, and public officials have often spoken in defense of the Jewish people.
  • With no state religion, Judaism has long been accepted with other faith traditions as an integral part of American religious culture.
  • There are no religious tests in connection with serving in public office, so Jews have been able to participate fully and actively.
  • The United States has had a long and special relationship with the State of Israel.
  • As a result of the freedoms ensured by the First Amendment, individual Jews and Jewish organizations can actively participate in the public square, creating partnerships and coalitions to advance their interests, without fear of retribution. 

Today, however, I am compelled to write about the challenges or threats to the historic and special arrangement that Jews have distinctively enjoyed and benefited from in connection with the American story.

The following factors are contributing to a new reality — an increasingly unsettled environment in America — and each of them is contributing to this new American Jewish moment as well:

Demise of memory: The displacement of the Holocaust

As we move several generations beyond the Shoah, there is a greater historical disconnect with the events of 1933-1945. The power of these events has so defined the post-WWII Jewish agenda, so as it fades from contemporary reality, there will be fewer points of recall both by Jews and others. 

Loss of historical context and meaning 

More generally, younger Jews have less engagement with the complexity and richness of Jewish culture. This separation will make history far less relevant to contemporary institutional decision-making as we move forward.

The generational divide

We are currently experiencing the most profound behavioral separation and transition among generations, as Millennials and Gen Z represent a fundamental departure from earlier periods of Jewish existence, where there had existed in prior generations shared life and communal experiences. These new generational cohorts are encountering a fundamentally different connection to being Jewish and being connected with the broader society as a result of deep shifts in culture, communication and context.

The shifting place of culture

If in the past language, music, art and literature defined commonalities among Jews, the 21st century will mark a significant brake in this linkage as contemporary Jews no longer are particularly or uniquely bound to such a shared experience, leaving a significant void in how Jews will come to understand and acquire their own story.

The rise of social media and the new technologies

The core tools of communication are reconstructing how we receive, process and engage in the world. This revolution will profoundly impact how Jews acquire and build their Identity and construct connections with one another and the larger communal enterprise.

The new political ideologies: The closure of an era

If liberalism helped to frame how Jews saw themselves in the world, then the current wave of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews, israel and Zionism is producing a type of Jewish political homelessness, where Jews are feeling less connected, as a result of  the rise of left-wing progressive ideas and right-wing extremism.

Nationalism and populism are unseating old connections

Correspondingly, with the emergence of national conservatism, populism and Christian identity politics, Jews are confronting a new set of political challenges where their rooted perspectives about the American dream and the norms of politics are being brought into question. 

Loss of trust in institutions, individuals and ideas

When a society begins to question the value and significance of such core legacy structures as the Congress, the courts and the presidency, then the shared civic commitment in defending and preserving the republic can come undone. Such a collective loss of trust by the broader public can be devastating to a minority community who has placed its confidence and well-being in the governing institutions of the nation. 

Independently and collectively, each of these elements is contributing to a new American construct, in which Jews are finding themselves less secure and at times feeling “less American.”

When societies face such significant and transformative challenges, their citizenry and institutions tend to reflect these pressures and exhibit certain dysfunctional social behaviors in response. Five elements best describe the “new” American reality:

1.) Hate as an emergent factor. The sharp rise in antisemitism parallels an equally accelerated increase in social media as a vehicle and medium for many forms of expressing The anonymity of the internet has emboldened people to express ideas and launch attacks on groups they would be less likely do in person. As we know, hate begins because of negative assumptions, images and beliefs that exist about a specific group. In periods of social, economic and political crisis, such stereotypical behaviors emerge as more dominant. 

2.) The decline in civics education. The “dumbing down” of American education represents a major challenge, as today fewer students are required to take civics or to study American history, meaning that younger generations have less of an appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism, the role of government and the rights and duties of citizenship. While each state has social studies standards, only 39 states require at least one course in government/civics. In 2001, 34 states required a state-mandated social studies text; that number today is 21. Only 8 states require students to take a state-mandated civics test.

3.) The loss of civility. Most Americans believe that our society is less civil and more polarized than it was a decade ago.  Fully 85% of the 1,000 respondents of the ABA’s 2023 Survey of Civil Literacy Study believe that a number of factors are contributing to this phenomenon, including social media, public officials and the educational system.

4.) The post-modernist Left. The rise of this philosophy, with its assault on reason and truth and its focus on skepticism, relativism and subjectivism, is contributing to a fundamental realignment of contemporary academic thought and mores — including, specifically, about the place of Jews in society. Language, as understood by this movement, must be seen as malleable, so such notions as Zionism and the idea of a Jewish State come under attack and Jews are defined as white, elitist and oppressors. 

5.) The new political Right. Conversely, the growth of national conservatism, the rise of populism and the presence of Christian Nationalism are also contributing to a negation of ideas that are often identified with Jewish liberal thought and practice — such as a welcoming and inclusive society — and seek to establish an alternative political and social reality.

In the mindset of these emerging voices, both from the political right and the progressive left, a fundamental reset needs to take place undoing the existing power structure. Politics and society as they exist today are identified as a failed proposition, and the fact that Jews thrived and benefitted within the context of the post-Second World War American liberal culture is seen as an indictment. In an environment of political division and economic uncertainty, social media is accelerating the dissemination of antisemitic tropes and beliefs that further feed and support the negative notion of Jewish “control” and cultural dominance. For the first time, Jews are experiencing a concerted effort, simultaneously from both poles of the political spectrum, to undo and marginalize their political access and influence and thus alter their American contract.


The Jewish Contract with America implies a level of congruence between the Jewish communal system and the machinery of American governance. When a society undergoes such significant transformational change, a type of disequilibrium can take place, upending a community’s level of confidence, its ability to sustain its influence, and its capacity to be actively engaged. The confluence of the factors identified above — the escalation of hate; the loss of core civics knowledge and connection; the disruption to responsible civil discourse; the growing elements of political extremism, whether expressed on the right or by the left — already increasingly concern the Jewish community.

So, what does all of this mean? On one level this may only be a transitional phase that this society is experiencing. Then again, could this be the beginning of the end of our historic Jewish love affair with this nation? 

Steven F. Windmueller is professor emeritus of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles