Tough Questions for an Uncomfortable Moment in Time

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

We are living with new realities. Each of these challenging and unsettling conditions is accompanied by a set of questions. Whether we are speaking about American democracy and anti-Semitism, the idea of “community,” the State of Israel, or the meaning of Judaism in the 21st century, we are living through a disruptive and complex moment in our Jewish journey. In this season of Elul, as part of our personal and collective reflections, may we also consider these compelling issues.

Items 1 through 4 address different aspects of anti-Semitism:

1. We held to the proposition that America was different from any previous Diaspora experience for Jews. We have enjoyed a unique love affair with this nation. After all, there was no history here of state-sponsored anti-Semitism; this represented a free and open society in which there were guarantees of religious expression, freedom of speech and assembly. Are we seeing signals that might suggest that we are experiencing what every other Jewish community in history has known, the presence of pervasive anti-Semitism? While we know that at this time such behaviors and actions remain on the edge, what steps must be taken to make certain that anti-Semitism does not ultimately become normalized in this nation.

2. We believed that the press and the media were the arbiters of truth, reason and responsible journalism. With the development of social media, the quest for truth is being challenged. Today, we find competing “truths” being introduced. From our historical vantage point, the Jewish people have understood how falsehoods can and have been used against us. How do we ensure the promotion of truth? How can we counter falsehoods and the misappropriation of facts?

3. We believed that following the Shoah, anti-Semitism would diminish, as “the Final Solution” would be seen as so horrendous that no one would want to be identified with hate politics. Did we misread history or were we simply naive? As we observe both the rise of Holocaust denial assertions and efforts to define Israel as the embodiment of Nazi ideology, how do we best respond?

4. We held to the belief that working in coalition with women’s groups, ethnic and racial constituencies, and interfaith organizations would allow us to collectively advance our mutual interests and that by being engaged, Jews and Jewish interests would likewise be sustained, defended and advanced. Some groups today are questioning our credentials, as being “too white” or “too Zionistic,” while others are seeking to impose boycotts and sanctions on Israel. Where does anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism fit into the new definitions of anti-Semitism?

Our “whiteness” represents a political football, as both the extreme right and the left are seeking to redefine our place in this society. For the first time in our American story, our status is being questioned at both ends of the political spectrum.

Items 5 & 6 give attention to the idea of community:

5. At this moment in time, what issues draw us together as a Jewish community? Some have suggested that we are today operating as multiple communities, as we no longer hold common values, shared beliefs or an agreed upon communal agenda. As a result, are we a “community” any longer?

Historically, Jewish communities that were seen as divided were doomed either to be destroyed from the outside by our enemies or torn apart from within by the Jewish wars that divide us. Are we possibly repeating the worst expressions of Jewish history?

Living through a period of significant discord, is it possible that we will see a “return to community” as people are in search of connection and a sense of wholeness? What are the possible implications for the rebirth of the Jewish collective spirit, leading to the recreation of community?

6. Today, we face a number of demographic challenges! We are an aging community; we are experiencing high rates of intermarriage and undergoing rapid assimilation. Even as we welcome the emergence of new creative expressions of Jewish religious, educational, cultural and political engagement, will we be able to sustain economically and demographically our communal and religious infrastructures? Some have suggested that the past is the past, and that these new Jewish expressions will naturally emerge to replace and redesign our public and private spaces.

What will it mean to be “ Jewish” in the 21st Century? We understood that community, affiliation and membership were the essential elements for being “connected” to Judaism and the Jewish people. For some today it is about “why be Jewish?” while for others it evokes an inquiry about how to express or engage with Judaism? What is evident that we have constructed multiple avenues by which we define and embrace our tradition. Are we today a series of competing “Judaisms”?

Items 7 & 8 offer some insights on how Israel is reshaping the political equation:

7. We celebrated the bipartisan character of the American-Israel relationship. In an age of sharp political divisions, what can we expect politically as we plan for the future? Today, there are litmus tests for proving one’s pro-Israel credentials. Are we still able to secure a common framework that supports the Washington-Jerusalem partnership?

8. We have been blessed to live in the period of our national renewal, but did we understand and appreciate the complexities of nation building, of negotiating Diaspora-Israel relations and the management of political power? We defined this experimentas creating a “democratic, Jewish state.” Yet, today there are proposals calling for the annexation of territories and for a one state solution. If we were to lose either the “Jewish” or “Democratic” character of the Jewish state, what will the State of Israel represent to its citizens, our Diaspora communities, and to the world?

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: