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Ethnonationalism is a grave threat to democracy

As a rabbi, scholar of American Jewish history and communal leader, I look through these prisms and see a grave threat to democracy and am very worried.

Ethnonationalism is surging around the world, fueled by economic dislocation and the pandemic and accompanied by rising antisemitism. In the United States, this has taken the form of Christian nationalism closely intertwined with racial supremacism. All Americans, and especially Jews of all persuasions, must be part of the civic fight for democracy and against Christian nationalism. This is at once an act of self-preservation against erasure and for a pluralistic vision that makes space for all kinds of voices, all kinds of lived experiences. In this struggle, particularistic Jewish values — most significantly, the concept that every individual is created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God—are invoked toward the universal end of freedom and autonomy, both individual and collective.

Scholars of democracy lay out practices that foster a vital democratic state: recognition that one party will not win every election and agreement that the losing side will remain committed to the system as a whole and the winning side will not exploit every advantage to maintain its hold on power. These practices map robustly onto pluralism, which affirms the existence of diverse and changing political and religious views and varied lifestyles. The subversion of these practices can kill democracy, stifle the well-being and aspirations of minority populations and diminish the vitality and potential of the majority culture.

Liberal Jewish practice, especially in the welcoming environment of America, mirrors and extends the multi-vocal conversation that makes up democracy. With no centralized religion and with all the potential suggested in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, America has been a hospitable place for Jews to experiment with new formulations and novel proposals on how to balance the needs of the individual alongside those of the community, the pulls between ethnic and religious expressions, cultivation of the particular alongside an embrace of the universal. Overall, Jews have flourished in America, most especially in the years after World War II. That monumental conflict fused the championing of democracy and repudiation of antisemitism into one and paved the way for unprecedented Jewish acceptance in postwar years. This acceptance now feels threatened, along with rights and gains achieved by people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and, with the Dobbs decision, women and people able to bear children who are seeking bodily autonomy, due in no small part to a political-religious vision that elevates traditional Christian values to binding governmental practice. In addition to making a majority of citizens feel diminished as “full Americans,” this imposition violates the religious freedom of Jews and other minority religions. Jewish law, for example, permits and even mandates abortion in some cases, if the life of the mother is at risk.

I argue forcefully for the preservation of democratic norms — for the sake of Jews and also for the well-being of every minority group, every minority individual. The intertwined threat to democracy and pluralism is demonstrated by the widespread promotion of a totalizing Christian nationalist ideology that limits the autonomy of anyone who is not white, straight, cisgender, evangelical or Catholic, or some other version of orthodoxy, or male. It is also demonstrated through silence. In the last several weeks, we have seen repeated public expressions of antisemitism, most notably from Ye (Kanye West) with little full-throated condemnation from leading public figures or only the most reluctant action from companies associated with him to hold him accountable. As the mid-terms approach, many political campaigns are shot through with dog whistles that sometimes break out into unapologetic antisemitism, including in my home state of Pennsylvania, where non-Jewish proxies of an overt Christian nationalist running against a religious Jew dare to question Josh Shapiro’s religiosity, and in Georgia, where Marjorie Taylor Green refuses to apologize for comparing Joe Biden to Adolf Hitler. Whether through articulation or silence, these democracy-killing developments are chilling.

Many of us are deeply pained by the state of America—at the Dobbs decision eliminating a federal right to choice; at rising gun violence and spiraling crime; at rampant inflation. All of these are disturbing. All require attention. Undergirding it all, the very fabric of American society is actively being unraveled. Democracy is the basis for universal rights, the means to address discord and to generate shared solutions. The Hebrew word for “voice” is kol. Powerfully, it is also the word for “vote.” This election season, we must all raise our voices as loudly as we possibly can to defend democracy and vote for candidates who do so.

About the Author
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism.
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