This series of articles were prepared prior to the events of October 7th. The analysis of these ongoing political challenges sadly aligns with what we are currently experiencing.
This article follows two earlier commentaries, one on the current state of our society and its implications for Jews. The other provides an internal Jewish response to these challenges. In this column a set of proposals are introduced for reinvigorating the American experience, where the Jewish community can and must play an essential role.
Our society has experienced the trauma of this pandemic, the impact of the unsettled American street, the economic implications of this moment, and political fallout with its anger and angst. At this time, we must also embrace the needs of our fellow citizens, as we acknowledge that millions of people are experiencing social, psychological and financial pain. The deep cultural and economic divisions that separate us as a society require our response. Across this nation, and worldwide, we are simultaneously experiencing economic instability, climate challenged populations, and politically divided communities.
“We Jews have a profound stake in this nation. We were here from the very beginnings of this experiment in democracy”
There exists a Jewish contract with America is built on a number of key linkages binding Jews with American history and culture:
…The notion of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ were joined together with the traditional Hebrew principles. Some of the Founders applied the Jewish messianic notions of “Zion” and the idea of returning to Jerusalem when describing the uniqueness of the American experience. The introduction of biblical names for American cities gave tangible evidence that America was seen by those fleeing persecution as the “new Zion.”
Our 21st Century Challenges:
We are encountering in the 21st Century a new set of ideological challenges that are impacting this nation. The ideas that are reshaping our society include post-modernism, the dynamics of political power, and the rise of ethnic studies.
Some of the proponents of these ideas are employing these concepts to marginalize, demonize and reject the status and place of Jews in our society, minimizing the centrality and importance of Israel, while rekindling old anti-Semitic tropes in connection with Jewish power and position.
Going more deeply, “Postmodernism is a multidisciplinary movement, characterized by skepticism, relativism and subjectivism…. Through Postmodernism, certain keywords are used in a fluid manner in order, for example, to delegitimize Israel, even though these terms bear no relevance to Israel whatsoever.”
In connection with idea of power, we find that 20 percent of Americans hold the view that Jews have too much power in the United States today. This perception of Jews is a distortion of reality and promotes negative beliefs.
The ethnic studies field has increasingly become a problematic base for the promotion of curricula ideas concerning Jews where such materials has been described as “inaccurate, misleading, and written with anti-Jewish bias.”
In the end, what we are facing is a new storyline where Jews, Judaism and Israel are seen by some as problematic to the American story. As we confront revisionist history, intersectionality politics, and woke cultural behaviors, it will be essential for us to reclaim our role as a faith partner in the building of this nation’s future, while pushing back against the distorted images and untruths being conveyed about us as a people.
What contributions can our community bring to the larger social and political crisis of the 21st Century? The agenda is complex and extensive: managing diversity-equity and inclusion, confronting hate, responding to the loss of trust and renewing confidence in our democratic institutions. Here is a possible roadmap of action:
Rethink Core Elements of our Democracy:
We know that polarization, extremism, and distrust are underlying issues contributing to the current American political crisis. Along with others, the Jewish community can and must help repair and readdress core structural issues and public policy concerns, among these challenges:
Restore Norms: Identifying and cultivating basic civic values and practices that have historically shaped American political culture serve as essential ingredients in resurrecting this nation’s democracy.
Elections and Voting: Assuring citizens that the election process is both fair and transparent represents a core element in restoring public trust.
Governmental Accountability: Ensuring that governmental policies and actions are accountable and beneficial to the public must be seen as an essential ingredient in rebuilding confidence.
Power Sharing: Creating opportunities for grassroots organizing will help empower citizens who may feel today disconnected and uninvolved. “Renewing societal bonds also requires an economy that works for more people.”
Cultivate a New Political Alignment and Access: Promoting ways for responsible ideas and prospective candidates to gain access to the public square by encouraging political parties to reflect the diversity of the American electorate.
Immigration Policies: Formulating bipartisan policies designed to manage and resolve the current border crisis and to construct an immigration plan moving forward that considers the economic, cultural and political values that have defined this nation.
In the Public Square: This is a time for political engagement, requiring of us to reimagine a vibrant and essential community relations agenda, focusing on the core issues of intergroup relations, economic access and social justice, civics education, and much more. This is unique opportunity for our community to build partnerships with other faith, ethnic and racial constituencies. A new American motif needs to be constructed where Jews are again seen as part of the core fiber of this nation’s tapestry of diversity. It becomes essential for us to be present at these decision-making tables not only to advance public policy that is designed to serve all of our citizens but also to defend, advance and protect Jewish interests, whenever and wherever they be challenged.
The decline of social service organizations such as Rotary, Lions, B’nai B’rith and more represents an opportunity for re-introducing citizens to one another and to shared volunteer opportunities of service. This interplay of people with social causes is now seriously missing on the American landscape and is a critical ingredient in preserving a caring and engaged society. Rebuilding the social contract is not only critical to this society but is an essential tool in rebuilding civility. Jews will need to play a key role in rejuvenating such social service instruments.
Managing Diversity: The presence of groups who represent the political extremes in this nation suggests that there are constituencies who feel left out, angry and marginalized. As this society changes demographically, how we engage these sectors will be a test of the resiliency of this democracy. Beyond our community, we must acknowledge racial injustice and economic inequality exist and real historical barriers experienced by our citizens of color must be ended. A new American social contract must be framed that brings the voices of all our peoples to the public table.
Left unchecked, the quality of intergroup and inter-racial relationships will continue to be problematic. It serves our community but more so this nation to repair and rebuild the mechanisms of community dialogue, community organizing, and intergroup communication.
Re-Imagining America’s Cities: We are seeing the shrinking of the American Middle Class, and this too is a threat to our economy and social order. The outmigration of both middle class and wealthy family units from large cities (present in NY, SF, Chicago, and LA) represents a threat to how well large metropolitan areas can effectively manage intergroup relations, solve economic challenges, and manage social crisis of poverty, homelessness, and mental health. The glue to a society is that it has an infrastructure of successful businesses, quality leadership, and an adequate support system of middle- and upper-class households to provide the resources, ideas, and talent to make social systems effectively operate. Jews have thrived in urban centers both here and elsewhere. Cities are core to our lives and important for us in building connections and networks with others.
Civics Education: Along with other concerned Americans we need to launch a new initiative in civics education and American history education and culture. Our citizens must share in the opportunity to articulate their interests and expectations; we need to help re-create trust in our core institutions. This renewal of trust in all phases of public life requires that our citizens assume a renewed interest in and support for the various institutions of this democratic experiment.
The deep cultural and economic divisions that separate us as a society require our response. Across this nation, and worldwide, we are facing economically destabilized and politically challenged communities. New expressions of anti-Semitism and the presence of hate messaging accompanied by anti-social behaviors are contributing to the undermining of civic discourse. Deep cultural, racial, and political divisions have added further tension to our troubled state of relationships.
Coalitional Action: Power in this society is built around shared interests and common action. If we hope to reduce hate, fight anti-Semitism, and push back against racism, this requires a collective partnership of key racial, ethnic, immigrant, and religious constituencies. Alone, none of these groups will be able to effectively manage the war against prejudice and hate!
Moving On from Here:
We have a unique opportunity at this juncture to creatively and constructively impact the lives of our fellow Jews, our larger society and this nation. Few moments within our American Jewish journey demand more of us than now. We need to return to the high-profile roles we have played in America’s civic development.
Our America democracy is being tested as never before. As Jews and as Americans, we have faced challenges before. We have an opportunity to revisit the operational principles in connection with the state of our communal system, to reimagine our partnership with America, and to reconstruct our global role. Our minority status in no way minimizes our moral charge to “repair the world”. Few moments in time permit a people or a society the possibilities to reposition itself in response to the existential issues that are testing our society. Jews must exercise their political clout and moral influence in working to create “a more perfect union”.