(The remarks posted below were adapted from a presentation I made on January 25th 2022 to the Delegates Assembly, Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)
This is indeed a new moment in time. We find ourselves in a very different place, as a community and as a nation. The construct of our society is undergoing major disruptions, as we witness the undoing of our communal order as well as threats to the very fabric of our democracy.
The Challenges Before Us
We are experiencing a significant generational transformation, as we move from a deeply embedded communal model to a highly individualized framework. Inside of our communities, we are living with the emergence of privatized Judaism, highly personalized expressions of practice supported by social media. Much of our communal religious and educational experience is today virtually-based. More Jews than at any time in our American storyline are unaffiliated, religiously and institutionally, nearly one-third of younger Jews describe themselves as Religious Nones.
In this environment, Israel for many in our community is understood to be judged without favor, absent now is a personalized or organic relationship to the Jewish state that had defined earlier generations.
As the Pew Studies also suggest, Jews remain deeply embedded as liberal activists, caring about the welfare of the society, even as they become acutely aware of anti-Semitic threats, and experience other challenges to their liberal inclinations.
Yet, at the same time, we are in the process of becoming multiple communities. As a communal system, we have moved from a place of consensus to a cauldron of division, even discord. The divisions we identify are centered around competing generational perspectives, a growing diversity comprised of Jews by choice and Jews of color, as well as the deep and abiding political differences that separate us.
What still binds us, an extraordinary sense of Jewish pride as expressed by the behaviors and beliefs of Jews in connection with such historic symbols as the Holocaust and our continued engagement with Jewish culture. Anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Israel rhetoric bind us together, even as we hold different perspectives.
Our American Story: External and Internal Threats
The mega issues cascading about us include the question of whiteness, historical and institutional racism, and the legitimacy of our democracy. Over the past six decades, Jews both embraced American exceptionalism and were its beneficiaries. Today, the very idea of exceptionalism is being challenged.
Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington identified that this democracy experiences disruptive cycles generally occurring every 60 years. The common features to these patterns include a loss of trust in institutions and a contempt for established elites. Indignation, anger and resignation are themes that define the body politic.
We need to both understand and respond to the dramatic demographic changes now underway in reshaping American society, its social beliefs and cultural mores.
In this context, we are encountering divisions over race, culture and politics, conspiratorial beliefs and the value of truth. We are experiencing for the first time a state of political dysfunctionality.
In broader terms, Tom Nichols’ 2017 book, The Death of Expertise, portrays the assault on truth and the evolution of alternative facts, as distinguishing features to our current crisis. Democracies, as we know, can only thrive if we are able to embrace essential truths and create a shared vision.
Trumpism as a new National Phenomenon
My recently released volume on Donald Trump points to how his Presidency activated American Jewry, not only as voters but as donors, even as candidates, representing those who both opposed 45 as well as Jewish Americans who embraced his politics.
This political moment reminds us of how deeply embedded America’s Jews are in preserving and growing this democracy.
Yet, against the backdrop of this period, we are encountering a new political war directed against us. As Jews, we are being identified as globalist elites and Zionists.
This assault was launched from the right but now has its adherents from a number of other sources, both political and religious, who view in particular our white, liberal and Zionist credentials as problematic. As we know from our past, there have been and currently are political actors and religious zealots seeking to eliminate or marginalize us as inauthentic political players. Our enemies do not distinguish our political credentials or religious labels.
We must take note of Timothy Snyder’s work, On Tyranny, where he draws numerous parallels between the rise of Donald Trump and the emergence of Nazism and Fascism, without equating this moment to 1933.
We remind ourselves that the community relations movement itself emerged from the politics of hate that our community experienced at the beginning of the 20th Century.
In thinking about the challenges and issues before us, our focus alone should not be set exclusively on problem-solving but rather in building a generative vision for our community and beyond.
Our Community Relations Journey:
Over time, I have written extensively about these various phases of growing and framing our community relations enterprise.
In many ways our community is still embracing 19th Century institutional models, at times dealing with a 20th Century agenda, yet serving a 21st Century demographic. We must ask: are our organizations relevant, are their messages coherent and meaningful, and are our leaders credible, transparent and inclusive?
I am outlining here a number of particular observations and core next steps:
The age of territorial Judaism, with its emphasis on unilateralism, competition, denominationalism and institutional ownership, has passed from the scene. We are well launched into a period of collaborative engagement and partnership. Funders understand this! Indeed, we are inheriting a generation who neither appreciate nor accept the silo mentality that defined a prior era in Jewish communal practice.
Technological innovation will drive the 21st Century. Managing the social media platforms and the other innovative technologies will shape our public policy options, our advocacy and organizing efforts, and produce alternative forms of religious expression and communal engagement.
A radical shift is taking place within our communities in connection with financial resource development as community and family foundations and private donor funds are today reshaping Jewish philanthropic giving.
If we believe that there is a level of value-added in connection with the work of community relations practice, we will need to plan, as we require generalists, skilled in marshaling the resources to represent our community at the multiple tables at which we must hold space. We will likewise require a cadre of dedicated experts in mastering social media technology, monitoring extremist movements, managing our community organizing strategies, and in understanding Jewish political trends. Further, we will require a whole new generation of community activists.
Across the Jewish communal stage today are numerous organizational initiatives focusing on specific community-based issues, targeting particular audiences, and building networks of relationships. Critical to the welfare of our community will be an effort to network these voices.
Moving Us Forward:
In a 2018 article on the state of the field, I laid out a detailed strategy essential for us. Here are a few primary conclusions, drawn from both that document and beyond:
- Essential Conversations involve tackling the difficult and divisive concerns that we are facing. We need to construct a series of on-the-ground discussions centered on the primary issues critical to our community and the larger society. These facilitated conversations need to take place around the dangers of our political divide, the Israel-Diaspora relationship, and the denominational divisions that separate us as American Jews.
- But just as we strategize on the communal level, we must also retool nationally with the establishment of a Jewish public policy think tank that can analyze social patterns, political trends, and community organizing models.
- Developing virtual educational programs, similar to “America at the Crossroads” created by two grass roots organizations in Los Angeles, would seem to be essential. This on-line initiative draws in excess of 5,000 participants from across this nation for its weekly one-hour conversations involving prominent newsmakers, authors, academics and analysts as they explore the issues central to our democracy. This might well be a role for JCPA to perform in partnership with other institutions.
- The Roadway Forward is a mapping initiative that communities ought to pursue, first by identifying existing and emerging Jewish civic efforts and their primary actors, in addition to cataloging the broader community’s ethnic, religious and racial organizing infrastructures. With whom ought we to be in conversation? Who are the emerging political voices in our own communities, and how do we best engage them?
- The Jewish community relations enterprise must be seeded in the world of Jewish learning as there is a natural and essential partnership with such institutions as Hartman, Pardes and others in embedding the work being done in public policy and social justice with Jewish texts and historic content.
In the End:
Even, as we find ourselves today, in some measure paralyzed by internal Jewish wars. We need to remind our detractors and our allies of the essential importance of a Jewish voice of conscience. Absent a coordinated and engaged Jewish presence, our community will most certainly lose credibility and access. I hold to the premise that devoid of a formal Jewish political presence, the wellbeing of our community will be compromised. Since this republic’s inception, Jews have sought to be a part of the political equation, not only in defense of their self-interests but in advancing a broader civic agenda. We are more than an ethnic community seeking its place at the table, we are the inheritors of a great tradition of law and justice, culture and community.
We were made for this moment, even as we encounter new external threats and learn to manage the wars amongst us, we find ourselves as part of the fourth American Jewish generation, facing a major demographic transformation. Can a people whose history was marked by the absence of power, fully appreciate and benefit from the uses of power once it is theirs to facilitate?
Against the backdrop of all these transformative elements and the swirling challenges facing us, we would remind ourselves of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s imperative:
We own the past and are, hence, not afraid of what is to be. …We were summoned and cannot forget it, winding the clock of eternal history. We are God’s stake in human history. …The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents.