Unsettled in America: The Changing Political Roles of American Jews

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

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. In the aftermath of November, 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.

There is a new type of angst amongst America’s Jews. A fundamental political sea change appears to be underway. As America’s social fabric is being tested, new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have emerged globally and at home. These attacks are being launched simultaneously by the extreme right and left, creating a particularly challenging moment.

Jews who were seen for decades as political outsiders are now defined as part of the established power class. In fact, within some circles, Jews are now identified as being part of the “oppressor class.” Political forces on the left who embrace the “intersectionality” movement, interject their anti-Zionist statements and anti-Semitic attacks, as they dismiss Jews as privileged, “white” political actors, who hold no standing with communities of color. Further, by embracing the BDS movement, the political left has targeted Israel as its strategic gateway in connection with its war on the Jews.

On the political right we see a pattern 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 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.

In recent days, there has arisen an internal contest taken up by various Jewish commentators over which of these political assaults, from the right or the left, must be understood as more damaging to America’s Jews and their interests. In the process of arguing such questions, these writers seek to minimize the impact of one side over the other, suggesting that there are “degrees” to the politics of hate, as if anti-Jewish behavior is somehow less threatening or damaging from one political extreme than the other.

Elsewhere, I have had occasion to write about the American Jewish political condition. The tensions and divisions that currently define American politics parallel the differences one finds within the Jewish world. In one such piece I defined the competing ideological camps that today comprise the Jewish political landscape. And in a second article I introduced the dividing lines, the content and scope of the various disagreements among Jews that prevents them from engaging with one another in this political climate.

“What has come undone?” Part of this condition of anomie is derived from the political environment within this country; this applies in different ways to both Democrats and their Republican counterparts. In the first instance, the election of Donald Trump would be a transformative moment for many liberal Jews overturning their established perspectives and beliefs about this society and the role of America in the world. Indeed, their anxiety has only continued to expand as the Trump White House moves forward with its agenda. According to Gallup the “Daily Worry Level” of Americans in general remains extremely high.

For some Jewish Republicans there is a degree of uncertainty and weariness surrounding this President’s style and performance, his uneven statements, and his mercurial patterns of communication. While welcoming the opportunity to provide to this country a unified and dominant Republican message of leadership, the early returns on the part of a number of Jewish conservatives remain at best unclear and unchartered. Other Republican Jewish voices have embraced the President’s message and his actions, pushing back against attacks on Mr. Trump, even in connection with Charlottesville.

In this current environment six realities seem to be in play, contributing to the changes one can observe amongst Jews in connection with their political status:

1. American Jews are mimicking some of the same political behaviors present within the larger society. The sharpening divide between liberals and conservatives that defines American society is certainly present within the Jewish communal sector. Ideological loyalty and partisanship have replaced the traditional focus on bipartisanship. Absent today are the common markers around anti-Semitism and Israel that at one time defined the shared interests of America’s Jews.

2. New generations of American Jews hold fundamentally different connections to Israel, Judaism and Americanism than their parents, resulting in divergent viewpoints and ideas about politics, policy and polity. Younger Jews are exhibiting lower affiliation patterns, weaker links and loyalties to the Jewish State, and appear to have a different perspective about America and what it may mean to be a citizen of this republic.

3. The social media revolution has transformed the communications marketplace. Indeed, this President has re-invented political communications; he has introduced reality politics, promoted the idea of fake news, and introduced his own brand of political tweeting. 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 hate rhetoric but also to threats of physical abuse. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that such practices as immigrant bashing, assaults on Muslims, and racial profiling has also generated attacks on individual Jews, the Judaism, and the State of Israel.

4. Built on the principle of respect for civility and public discourse, the political playing field has given way to various forms of personalized, partisan and particularized forms of political practice.My politics” with its focus on individualized desires and expectations has replaced “civic engagement.” In the past the political process itself was seen as enticing and the debate was worthy of being carried forward on its merits. Jews were “bitten by the political bug” becoming active participants and advocates. The demise of the political stage and the loss of common ground for public discussion have added a new and negative dimension to the Jewish public story, the disaffected Jewish voter and activist are the new headlines. For the first time in more than a century, we are witnessing the exiting of a certain element of Jewish voters and political players. The rules of engagement have changed; in some cases the players are different, just as politics has become messy and even ugly. The downturn in Jewish voter turnout was evident last fall, in part reflective of the general shift in political alienation and the loss of confidence in governmental institutions found within this society.

5. Jews are more financially visible on the public stage than ever before. Some have suggested that Jews have assumed the title of the “new WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Where our role was once about fulfilling the political commandment “You Shall Vote,” it has increasingly shifted to “You Shall Give” as Jews represent an influential and significant donor base, critical to both political parties and to an array of public and social causes. This shift is dramatic, as it has altered the historic political roles performed by Jews. As a result of their financial heft, Jewish entrepreneurs and high-end contributors are replacing a generation of political activists, middle class voters and party loyalists. In place of the “Jewish vote,” which historically defined our community’s role in politics, a new form of Jewish clout holds sway today, as the power of the dollar has offset the impact of the vote.

6. This new political edginess seems to be present everywhere, where political assaults are being delivered simultaneously from the right and the left. Suddenly, we are observing efforts on college campuses to shout down or shut out not only pro-Israel speakers along with other political voices with whom an audience has disagreements, just as we monitor a gay pride parade where organizers refuse to permit the flag of Israel to be displayed, and as we follow BDS operatives who seek to close down pro-Israel student activists. In the some quarters Jews are no longer welcomed.

This political disconnect is also present inside our Jewish institutions, as our professionals and rabbis seek to create “safe space” for conversations to occur and for sermons to be crafted that acknowledge these deep divisions and offer a way forward for constructive dialogue. As a result of this tense divide, one can observe a paralysis of conversation within the Jewish world around these “tough” issues.

End Notes:

As a result of this unsettling, even uncertain political environment, 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. As we have seen, the fallout from this type of politics has sadly invaded Jewish public space, as we are left with a divided constituency. Who today can speak to the collective priorities of American Jewry? A new and dangerous silence has replaced the once robust voices of an energized polity. As the American Jewish journey unfolds, how our leaders manage this moment will provide a critical test about our character and credibility.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.