By Steven Windmueller
American Jews are experiencing a cultural awakening concerning their status as citizens and their role as Jews in this society. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh and as a result of the November 6th election, a new reality is setting in with regard to the “Jewish condition” in this nation. Anti-Semitism is driving a piece of this growing instability. The political climate is also fueling a sense of discomfort.
Many American Jews are experiencing an increased level of concern in connection with the political options that our now before them. A Republican Party aligned with the alt right and a Democratic Party witnessing the rise within its progressive wing of anti-Israel activists both contribute to this state of anxiety that is beginning to redefine how Jews see themselves in America. What will be the impact of these new threats on how Jewish Americans understand and redefine their place in this society?
The Trump presidency has brought about a fundamentally disruptive moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only are we experiencing strikingly different policy options, but the current cultural artifacts of politics – namely how this president operates – dramatically challenges the existing norms of political behavior and action. As our society is shifting from a period of American liberalism to political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced than they are today, as Jews debate and disagree over how to define their vision for America and their own self-interests.
Amid this fundamental political sea change that appears to be underway, with new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism emerging to test America’s social fabric, America’s Jews are experiencing a new type of angst. After decades of being seen as political outsiders, Jews in recent times have become defined as part of the United States’ power class – or, within some circles, the “oppressor class.” On the left, political forces embrace the “intersectionality” movement and interject their anti-Zionist convictions as they dismiss Jews as privileged white political actors. By embracing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the political left has targeted Israel as a strategic gateway to its war on the Jews. On the political right, we see patterns of both blatant and subtle anti-Semitism. The liberal Jewish establishment is blamed for promoting “anti-white policies” such as immigration and diversity. The alt-right and others see egalitarianism, globalism and multiculturalism as Jewish-inspired, liberal initiatives that run counter to American nationalist norms and values.
Over time, are we likely to see a fundamental political realignment involving disillusioned Jewish Republicans and Democrats? Where do American Jewish activists find a new political base in this uncertain climate?
In both real and symbolic ways, has Pittsburgh distorted and destroyed our assumptions about ourselves and our beliefs about America? The recent Government findings noted that attacks on Jews in 2017 accounted for 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, the highest of any targeted religious group (938 crimes directed against Jews), representing a 37% increase over the prior year. We had understood this nation to represent a different proposition: here, anti-Semitism would have no space and we envisioned our Judaism in consort with our Americanism.
At this moment, we are a people in search of our political identity. As this American Jewish journey unfolds, how we manage this moment represents a critical test about our character and credibility and our future roles as Americans and our place as Jews.
What Does This Mean for our Institutions and the Community?
Pittsburgh may have awakened us to this new and uncomfortable reality. The loss of historic memory and a devaluing of the past give credence to our opponents. The radicalization of our nation’s politics is contributing to this new political order. In an age when the rhetoric of hate has taken center stage, this must be seen as problematic to American Jews.
Possibly unlike anything we have observed in the past forty years, are Jews suddenly seeking community and connection? What ought the communal system to be saying to America’s Jews?
This may be a unique moment for the central agencies of our community to recalibrate their message: “Jewish Security through Community” must be seen as the central organizing platform. “Fighting Hate, Through Strength” may well be the new mantra for our federations.
For our defense agencies this moment challenges them to be able to reassert their core principle of practice: the security and welfare of Jews. Fighting anti-Semitism and pushing back against anti-Israel rhetoric and activism remain their charge. These instruments of our community are likely to see a renewed interest by concerned Jewish audiences. American Jews will be expecting our national agencies and local JCRC’s to assert a robust response to hate by creating a pro-active agenda to support America’s civic culture of civility, tolerance and mutual understanding.
Providing meaning, wholeness and sacred community in this disruptive environment ought to be the role of the American synagogue at this moment in time. What might we learn from our tradition and our history about such unsettling periods? But beyond creating this necessary sense of comfort, our congregations are also the avenues for social justice and community engagement. The synagogue must be seen as a safe space for reflection as well as a prophetic gateway for action.
In this hour American Jewry needs to know that the institutions that they have formed and nurtured over the decades will be there for them, affirming Jewish values and manifesting a pro-active agenda.
Along with civic rallies and gatherings, the Shabbat after Pittsburgh represented a powerful affirmation of the importance of community as hundreds of congregations and communities reported significant attendance. How we build off of these moments, now becomes the responsibility of our institutions. Realizing that at this time American Jews are shaken by these external events.
Are the political climate and social fabric of this society coming undone, and in the process are Jews finding themselves increasingly disconnected from the changing mores and values that define the American character? We envisioned our Judaism and our Americanism to be in consort with one another. We have taken pride that Jewish Americans disproportionately contribute to this nation’s cultural messaging, imprinting its social behaviors and helping to frame its political conversations.
The impact of the Pittsburgh attack represented more than an assault on individual Jews. It brought to light the question of our collective wellbeing. There is a heightened awareness among Jews of extremist expressions challenging not only the existing democratic norms of the nation but also reflective of how minority communities, including Jewish Americans, are being categorized and threatened.
Dr. Steven Windmueller 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