Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

A New Day Dawning for America’s Jews

Promoting a Jewish, democratic State of Israel, operating in special relationship with the United States, defined for many of us our Jewish identity.  For others, enjoying our unique position in this nation, as we celebrated our American status, free of overt antisemitism, shaped our Jewish connection. In this moment, as we awaken to this extraordinary and evolving nightmare of anti-Israel rhetoric dedicated to dismissing the US-Israel partnership and undoing our American dream, a striking new reality is set before.

We need to remind ourselves that America’s Jews account for approximately 2% of this nation’s population. What is currently unfolding on our campuses is designed to challenge the special connection that Jews have had with America’s institutions of higher learning. The great universities of this nation were understood as the gateways for our sons and daughters to acquire the skills and establish the networks that would produce for our community several generations of this country’s intellectuals, professionals, and leaders. It represented our entry point into this nation’s corporate sector, literary circles, governmental institutions, and beyond. Our Americanism was bound up with the educational opportunities offered by colleges and universities.

As we experience this assault on our place within higher education, it is a wake-up call about our status as Americans, signaling possibly the end of the “age of Jewish influence and power” that so defined this extraordinary 70-year period of our blossoming ascendency.

American Exceptionalism allowed us to be seen as part of the tripartite American religious equation: “Protestant, Catholic, and Jew”. In turn, our status provided opportunities for Jews to engage in the general discourse of ideas and impact the core institutions of this society. The formation and flourishing of the State of Israel brought us pride but also the responsibility to advocate for its security in the context of advancing our nation’s commitment to support thriving democracies.

What is happening, and why is it taking place now?

Beyond this campus crisis, various factors appear to be present challenging our standing within this society. We identify five elements here, while acknowledging several other factors, as well:

New Generations of Americans are contributing to this transformational shift.  As America’s demographics shift and as new players and groups enter the political space, we believe our standing and political influence are in decline. As this nation’s composition changes, the power equation is shifting.

The Marketplace of Ideas is Changing. Today, there are new and growing political threats and ideological challenges undermining Jewish influence. Post-modernist thought is laying the groundwork for a recreating America’s future, by reframing our historical experience, rethinking the principles of power and class, and undoing the existing political order.

 Our Story, in Particular the Way We Are Representing Israel and Defending Zionism, No Longer Resonates with Key Audiences. The case for Israel and the idea of Zionism, two elements core to Jewish identity and political engagement, now must be rethought. How we both understood and marketed these ideas no longer has credibility with key audiences, both within our community and beyond. Our messaging here must be recast.

 Our Community Today is More Politically Bifurcated. While we have identified this trend over time, we have not confronted its communal or political implications. Collective power allows a group to maximize its influence, but when such a constituency begins to no longer can achieve consensus, its political standing is compromised.

America in Crisis:  Deep political divisions, social unrest, and economic challenges are among the factors contributing to this disruption. These external forces are and will have a profound impact on American Jewry, as anti-Semitic threats accelerate and as Jews are at times feeling threated in this changing environment.

Moving Beyond:

We now must ask what will be our American role as we move past this moment? As we uncouple what is happening and why, it will require us to rethink our place within this society? Will America’s Jews now move to a more limited space within the hierarchy of this nation’s social order?

Reminding ourselves that over much of Jewish history, our power was constrained by the political and religious conditions under which we lived. We acknowledge in such historic roles we were often petitioners, while seeking to preserve our security and selectively identifying specific issues around which we would advocate, always dependent on the power of the church or state to ensure our standing and safety.

As our Standing and Power as a Community is Being Challenged, How Do We Respond?

Part of our response must be directed internally. How will we negotiate and redefine our “American Jewish Identity” as our position and place within this society appears to be shifting, and as our internal demographic composition is changing as well. Today, we are confronted with an array of new internal considerations.

Even as we have evolved as an integral part of the American nonprofit and religious sector, our communal politics and priorities have shifted, and in the process, our divisions and controversies have generated multiple and different Jewish centers of influence. Beyond our communal structures, many Jews today are struggling with their relationship with Israel and Zionism, as we see a divergent set of responses, while others struggle to reclaim their identity as Jews, acknowledging their lack of knowledge and exposure to tradition, ritual and community.

We note that the established institutions of the community no longer represent the Jewish Street, either its political priorities or its religious perspectives.  The undoing of many of our traditional Jewish organizations is reflected in steep declines in membership and in giving patterns. In the process, new organizational expressions have emerged in response to changing religious and political inclinations. Correspondingly, new constituencies, among them Israeli Americans and Jews by Choice, are emerging to assume their place in this changing Jewish constellation and to fill specific needs and desires of the community. As we recreate our role in this society, we will need to rethink how we present and teach the Holocaust, Israel studies, Zionism, and even as we rethink the very idea of our Jewish American identity.

Beyond these internal assessments, how will we define and represent our political status?  To retreat into a totally defensive, protective posture, as some are calling for, would be highly problematic, and costly in advancing our interests. It would signal to our enemies that their attacks and threats have successfully silenced or limited our voices.

I am arguing for a strategic, yet robust and assertive Jewish communal response, as we seek to rebuild coalitions, identify new allies, and chart a new strategy in both advancing our self-interests and our more global concerns. We can not afford to leave the political stage, as we promote our core interests and advance the broader social priorities, core to our tradition and history and central to the welfare of the American public square.

Five strategies seem appropriate and essential for us in moving forward.

  • Advance our security and that of the State of Israel
  • Push back against those who would reject the right of the Jewish people to their national homeland.
  • Expose and isolate anti-Semitic attacks and misrepresentations of Zionism and Judaism.
  • Oppose other forms of racist and xenophobic expressions and policies.
  • Align with allies around efforts to defend and advance the ideas and practices of democracy, pushing back against extremist ideologies and those who embrace the remaking of the American political equation.

If the American Jewish community turned silent, withdrawing from the political fray, we would not only be betraying our community and its welfare but would be seeding the public square to our enemies. Jews not only have a vital stake in this democracy but also in advancing the security interests of the State of Israel.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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