This is an uncomfortable moment for American Jews. We are caught up in an American cultural war over identity, race, and politics. As a visible and influential community, Jewish Americans are experiencing its fallout.
Throughout our history Jews encountered different periods of instability where external threats undermined our political status. Yet, in the American context, this moment represents a distinctively unique and unsettling experience!
We should remind ourselves that the American Jewish story has been profoundly different from other previous global Jewish political encounters. Buffeted by Constitutional protections, the affirming posture of this nation’s leaders, and the general goodness of the American polity, Jews have thrived for more than 350 years on this continent.
The Rise of the Extreme Right:
Why here? Why now? A confluence of threatening and unsettling issues have emerged. The rise of American nationalism, as framed by Donald Trump’s Presidency, has brought forward a new popularist culture. Here, truth and conspiracy have become intertwined. At its extreme, we note the emergence of “Replacement Theory” where the Alt Right and its supporters claim that the machinations of Jewish influence and power are seeking to unseat and replace the existing white power structure. In turn, Jewish “whiteness” is brought front and center, as Jews are being questioned concerning their racial legitimacy.
Writing in 2017, I concluded:
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 (2016), 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.
The Democratic Progressive Assault:
Offsetting this rise of right wing authoritarianism has been a reassertion of left wing activism, where Progressives have moved to impose a political mantra of culture, race and identity. The imposition of “intersectionality” has blurred the distinctions among groups and peoples who face persecution or who are seen as powerless. In this setting, Jews have been singled out as part of a power class of oppressors. Whether here in the United States through the exercise of our political influence or in the context of Israeli “atrocities” committed against Palestinians, Jews/Israelis are today being tarnished with this overarching brush of racism. In the fallout over such assertions, we are being collectively identified as the new Nazis.
The New Political Messages:
The new political corollary identifies Jews for the first time in American history as simultaneously being targeted from the right and the left, creating this unsettling environment.
In a previous essay, I concluded:
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.
In 2019 I examined the contributing elements that have framed this political discomfort level. This new “unsettledness” is driven by a number of key features, none of which we would have referenced even a few years ago:
The Pittsburgh Mindset: Organized attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, dramatically and tragically played out on October 27, 2018, involving the Tree of Life Congregation. This would be but one of several public salvos threatening the welfare and security of our community. The presence today of groups and individuals who are prepared to introduce violence in order to remove Jews as being labeled as unfit to
Intersectionality Movement and Whiteness: Some progressives are seeking to discredit Jewish (Zionist) participation as legitimate liberal actors on the basis that “Jews are white” and possess no claims as authentic political partners on behalf of communities of color. Indeed, if you are categorized as a “Zionist,” then one’s standing is further compromised as we experienced within the Women’s Movement and the LGBTQ community. We are identified by the left as discredited actors!
Until recently, the issues of race and whiteness were not part of the civic discourse, yet today these themes represent central tenets of the ideology of the alt-Right, just as they serve the interests of the extreme left.
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” ought to be rejected. They hold that egalitarianism, globalism, and multiculturalism represent Jewishly-inspired, liberal initiatives that run counter, in their thinking, to American nationalist ideas and values.
“Israel Has No Right to Exist”: Under this mantra, the enemies of the Jewish State on the political left are bypassing 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 line of attack simply denies Israel’s international standing as a sovereign nation-state. As I have suggested, Israel has come to represent the collective Jew.
Cyber Hate: Cyber political language permits lies and rumors to represent fact. Social media is increasingly serving as a platform employed by all camps messaging conspiracy theories and the promulgation of “false facts.” The presence of extremist websites is producing a heightened volume of hate speech and a corresponding set of anti-Jewish behaviors.
With the marginalization of factual information, it becomes easier to market messages of political hate, creating an environment not only conducive to negative political rhetoric but also physical threats. 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 and the State of Israel.
Framing the Jewish Response: We will need to construct a coherent and comprehensive response. Here is my thinking.
Principle One: Not all hate is the same! We have a tendency as a community to bunch all such manifestations of hate into one box. We are facing a whole array of behaviors, encompassing anti-Israel activism, hate expressions directed against both individual Jews and the Jewish community, and other forms of more general anger toward the US government, its policies and global positions; civic and Jewish organizations; and individual decision-makers among them Jewish funders and activists.
Principle Two: Certain elements of anti-Semitism are so deeply rooted in culture and history. Specific core religious themes are so deeply embedded in Western consciousness, its literature and practice. It is less likely that we will unbend such beliefs!
Principle Three: We have a better chance to manage America-based anti-Semitic expressions and anti-Israel activism than we do, for example, European manifestations of such hate. The American scene affords us specific policy and program options simply not available elsewhere, in part due to the character and construct of this society.
What is working against us? Here, it is essential to identify the structural challenges that may impede our success and overall effectiveness.
Operational Systems: The American Jewish communal model is highly diffuse, making it more difficult to manage and respond collectively to hate messaging. As we have noted elsewhere, the Jewish communal structure is designed to permit multiple institutional players to compete in the marketplace, resulting in a minimalist commitment to collaboration and division of responsibility.
Delivery Systems: The educational systems in this country have been uneven in the ways that they have delivered messages and information about Jews, Judaism and Israel. As we are living with multiple governmental models operating in a large and diffuse educational marketplace, we face challenges in our capacity to deliver informational programs to diverse audiences in this nation. Managing contacts with text book publishers, school districts and curriculum committees complicates this process.
Multiple Battlefronts: We are dealing with multiple issues and differing constituencies simultaneously as we face at one moment a variety of threats, both domestic and foreign as well as from the political extremes both right and left. Some forms of expression are driven and directed by organized hate producers with the support of funders and operational infra-structures, while other activities and threats are being generated by solo-actors, with limited resources or support networks.
What is Working for Us: We have currently built in significant and influential pockets of pro-Israel allies and pro-Jewish constituencies, amongst them Evangelicals-Black Churches-US Military Personnel-Friends in Government and in other high visibility civic settings. Remember, we are still winning the public opinion campaign on both the Israel and American Jewish home front. What we cannot allow is to lose our position of influence or our advantage on the PR side of this battle!
What is Changing in our Society and Why?
- Rapid Changes to the American Demographic Scene: the rise and growth of new generations (Millennials-Gen Z), the two largest generations in history, who have had minimal exposure to Jews or Israel. The changing character of America itself is shifting: the growth of Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans and Asian Americans, provides a demographic snapshot.
- Growing Nationalism and Isolationism: America has global interests and historic relationships and these ought to remain in place!
- The Underdog as the American Mantra, as if all victims are the same! The American Street is not the same as the Streets of Jerusalem: We need to break the mythology that intersectionality provides, suggesting that all persecuted populations are experiencing the same conditions! Each setting has its distinctive cultural and historic features.
- Some American Jews Have Broken with Israel: As with all such policy questions, the case for Israel should not be seen as distinctively a Jewish special interest issue, this is an American/Western values conversation. Israel is a strategic and valued US ally, critical to America’s self-interests. As the Jewish State holds special religious and cultural significance to our community, we need to do a better job of conveying its meaning to our own community!
Education and Engagement: American students at all levels should be exposed to the role and place of Jews in society, the history of Jews and the Holocaust, and the rise of modern Zionism and the Jewish State. This involves, legislation and state-sponsored policies to embed these offerings in elementary, junior high and high school curriculum requirements. Aligned with curriculum and textbook materials, the creation of media pieces concerning Jews, Judaism and Israel that can be used in classrooms will need to be developed and made available.
We know that education concerning Israel and Judaism, as well as personal exposure to Jews represent the most effective ways of destroying stereotypes and changing attitudes. This is a multi-pronged initiative on the federal and state levels, with publishing houses, media outlets, school administrators and teachers associations. Major attention ought to be given to growing our involvement in changing what is taught or not taught and in monitoring outcomes.
Israel Exposure and Education: Accelerate the number of elite missions of communal leaders from various ethnic and religious constituencies to Israel. This model of taking elites to Israel (civic-cultural-religious-business-education) works! Premise: Leaders produce facts on the ground for their constituencies and help to frame public attitudes!
Promote social media and television info-commercials about Israel across the American landscape. Knowledge and familiarity offsets negative images.
Build an Organized Jewish Political Response to Progressives: Such an initiative will need to engage and educate the Democratic Progressives: Not all conflicts are the same (break the intersectionality framework); create opportunities for emerging progressive politicians to meet with pro-Israel activists, experience Israel first hand, and to be exposed to materials focusing on Jewish history, the Zionist experience, Holocaust, and more. We ought not to give up on engaging the political left!
Monitoring of Hate Organizations and their Activities and Messaging: While much of this important work is being done by an array of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, greater coordination and management of this process will be required. Stronger governmental intervention in isolating and targeting hate organizations and their key actors will be required.
A focused effort to monitor social media as well as the general media; moving to remove and/or replace untruths and myths! Possible federal legislation as well as corporate sector by-in will be essential. The civil liberties issue of freedom of expression (speech) ought to be balanced against what constitutes “truth” and core facts.
Preparing the Jewish Community:
Without a focused response, American Jews will remain concerned, even fearful. One of the key tasks ahead will be to provide information and education to Jewish audiences both on the nature of the problem and the collective responses being prepared and introduced. We have an obligation to engage especially our young people. This challenge requires our shared commitment!
Past as a Guide to Action:
On other occasions, Jewish institutional leaders in consort with one another were able to effectively create a plan of action that framed the critical issues, devised a shared work plan and built a collective response. That will be required here if we are to create a coherent and strategic communal response!
We face major challenges ahead. Proactive American leadership, both Jewish and civic, will represent the essential ingredient in building an effective message and managing this war against Israel and American Jewry.