By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Two years ago, I addressed the unsettled state of America’s Jews in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. At that time I noted:
The Trump Presidency has resulted in a fundamentally disruptive moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only are we experiencing strikingly different policy options and directions, but the cultural artifacts of politics, namely how this President operates dramatically challenges the existing norms of political behavior and action. As we have shifted from a period of American liberalism to a time of political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced, as Jews debate and disagree over what defines their vision for America and how they understand their self-interests in this new political reality.
In that same piece I spoke about “a new type of angst amongst America’s Jews.” In the ensuing twenty-four months, one can only acknowledge a heightened sense of discomfort. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, we see a growing rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior. In connection with Israel, a heightened level of BDS and anti-Zionist activism has become strikingly evident. With reference to the changing face of the Democratic Party, we are facing for the first time a fracturing of the historic pro-Israel bipartisan commitment.
As the hate crime reports are being tallied, both the FBI and the ADL are reporting increased incidents of harassment, cyber hate, and physical threats and assaults. The 2018 FBI hate crimes report noted: “Attacks on Jews accounted for 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, the highest of any targeted religious group.”
Yet, over the past several months, a new level of concern has framed the Jewish state of mind. The presence of high profile Jews charged with misdeeds, whether in connection with the Me Too Movement or the Trump Presidency has created an uncomfortable, yet not unfamiliar reaction. For the first time in decades, the negative depiction of prominent Jews has reintroduced an old reaction, “so why must so many of these high profile personalities be Jewish?” The state of insecurity that once dominated Jewish fear in connection with the linkage between the misbehaviors of Jews and the rise of anti-Semitism has seemingly returned to impact our community’s consciousness. In the early decades of the 20th Century, Jewish behavior was seen as a critical marker of how non-Jews would accept or reject America’s Jews. Jewish organizations would go out of their way to remind their members about maintaining appropriate conduct as a way to protect the community’s image and good name. Being “too loud or pushy” and behaving unethically were understood as negative characteristics. Comporting oneself as “an American” in the public square was viewed as an essential criteria for acceptance.
A number of other factors are contributing to these new disruptive realities. America’s social fabric is being tested, as new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have emerged globally and at home. Jews who were seen for decades as political outsiders are now defined as part of the established power class. Today we are being dismissed as privileged “white” political actors, who are seen by the left as no longer in consort with communities of color and by the right as mere political imposters, seeking to claim “whiteness” as the Jewish entry point into the circles of power.
The new “unsettledness” is driven by other features, none of which we would have referenced even a few years ago:
The Pittsburgh Mindset: Organized attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions would not have been a conscious factor in defining the state of Jewish communal condition. The presence today of groups and individuals who are prepared to impose violence in order to remove Jews but also blacks, Hispanics and Moslems, because these groups don’t fit their racial or religious definition of who is an American.
Intersectionality Movement, Jews as White: The term itself, “intersectionality,” has only surfaced within the past decade. Its implications are significant, challenging and problematic for liberal Jews. Some progressives are seeking to discredit Jewish (Zionist) participation as legitimate liberal actors on the basis that “Jews are white” and therefore by definition belong to the oppressor class, possessing no claims as authentic political partners on behalf of communities of color. Indeed, if you are categorized as a “Zionist,” then your standing is further compromised as we have witnessed inside both the Women’s Movement and the LGBTQ community.
The very issue of race and whiteness simply was not part of the conversation about how Jews were perceived in the American context, yet today it has become a central tenet of the ideology of the alt-Right and part of the political rhetoric of the extreme left. Elsewhere on this site, I have had occasion to address this new phenomenon. The “whiteness” of America’s Jews is now a racial barometer of acceptance. For the far right, the Jewish pedigree is defined as non-white and therefore any Jewish aspirations to operate in the political mainstream, as part of the “white establishment” must be rejected. The Alt-Right and others see egalitarianism, globalism, and multiculturalism as Jewishly inspired liberal initiatives that run counter to American nationalist ideas and values. Extremist groups have employed their specific language invoking such terms as “Cuckservatives” in order to mock those Christian conservatives who embrace the interests of Jews and non-whites over those of whites.
“Israel Has No Right to Exist”: Under this mantra, the enemies of the Jewish State have bypassed their earlier criticisms of Israel’s policies in favor of seeking an end to the Zionist State! Arguing against its legitimacy as a nation and questioning the historic connections of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the land of Israel, this new line of attack simply denies Israel’s international standing as a sovereign nation-state.
Cyber Hate: This is the fifth and newest form of anti-Semitic practice. Cyber political language permits lies and rumors to represent fact. Of special concern social media has increasingly served as a platform for hate messaging in the form of conspiracy theories and the promulgation of “false facts.” The presence of extremist websites has produced a heightened volume of hate speech. With the marginalization of factual information, it becomes easier to market messages of political hate, creating an environment not only conducive to political rhetoric but also to threats of physical abuse. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that such generic practices as immigrant bashing, assaults on Muslims, and racial profiling has also produced attacks on individual Jews, the Judaism, and the State of Israel.
As a result of this unsettling, even uncertain political condition, one can monitor the emergence of a different Jewish political response taking root within this country. 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. Jewish sensitivities are likewise driving a new round of discomfort on the part of some who worry that the high profile presence of convicted or accused Jews might spark new waves of anti-Semitism.
Steven Windmueller Ph. D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.