Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

In This Uncertain Political Moment: Counting Down

This is an extraordinary period in the American historical journey!  But it is also a transformational moment for the State of Israel.

This fall, Americans will be determining the future direction of this nation, not only in shaping its political voice but also defining its moral compass. What type of a society will we become in our third century?  A confluence of factors is playing out. Is this the American “Spring”? Will the unfolding events surrounding this pandemic, the fallout in connection with the issues of racial injustice, economic dislocation, and social discord fundamentally change our democracy and our civic culture?

Shortly, Israel will be determining the character and content of its national destiny. Will the State of Israel move forward with annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria? And if so, how will such a geo-political act impact Israelis and their Diaspora partners? In what ways will Israel’s neighbors respond, and how will the international community view such actions?

Both of these stories are defining elements in the contemporary Jewish saga. This moment in time is shaping who as a people we are and what we will become.

The American Story:

This November’s election must be seen as referendum about our political culture. This is about the substance of this democracy. How do we understand our national history and are we prepared to revisit some of the troubling practices, values and beliefs about this nation’s past, so that we can tackle racism and racial injustice and the broader platform of what constitutes Americanism?

It represents a test of whether collectively we will be able to reestablish confidence and trust in the institutions of government and its leadership. For some, this election represents a cultural war over competing values, beliefs, and practices that define “Americanism”.

The demographics, the economic realities, and the shifting shades of culture are recreating the American story at its core. If Jews were seen as essential contributors to the social values, educational principles, cultural themes that over the past decades defined and framed this nation’s image and identity, that unique place of influence appears to have all but ended.

I believe a different type of American consciousness is emerging that minimizes the principles of mutual respect, bi-partisanship, and collaborative engagement, values around which Jews found common ground with other Americans.  In its place the shrills of the political extremes appear to dominate the marketplace of ideas. As the political center is being rejected, its messages and values are simultaneously being discredited and challenged. As with other moments from our uneven historical past, Jews are now caught in the political middle, cynically identified by our enemies on the extreme left, as being in alignment with this nation’s racist past and its repressive social practices. By contrast, the political right defines us as being the cultural instigators and intellectual sponsors responsible for the disruptive actions and radicalized messaging of the current political street scene.

This is the perfect firestorm for anti-Jewish expression, where extremists on both ends of the ideological spectrum seek to hold us accountable for this political condition.  Our behaviors and our values are now suspect.  History has captured us in this situation before, and the outcomes have not been positive.

In the aftermath of this fall’s political contest, regardless of the results, we are likely see the emergence of new ideological movements, some of these expressions will be highly problematic to the interests and political tastes of American Jews.

From within the Democratic Party, a progressive political voice, distinctive from the party’s current leadership base, will move to either challenge the established base of power or seek to separate itself from these mainstream liberal principles and personalities that have defined this party. Since the 1930’s Jews have been ideologically and functionally a prime constituency within the Democratic Party. Is much of this political connection about to end?

On a variety of both domestic and international policy questions, the emerging left wing of the Democratic Party is charting a radically different course for America and possibly creating an uncertain and possibly disruptive relationship for many Jewish Democrats.

While within conservative political circles, the contest over the character of Republicanism will be on display as well. Will the Trump vision of American nationalism continue to shape and define the GOP’s political message or are we likely to see the rebirth of a Reagan-inspired conservative agenda, focusing on social values, global leadership, and democratic principles. Here again, Jews will be in search of claiming their political base within this battleground. In the end, how will Jews define themselves politically moving forward?

What is happening now in this nation has profound implications for the Jewish community. Below the surface of this pandemic and within this election cycle, there are these multiple layers of disaffection and dissonance, potentially more troubling and unsettling for Jewish Americans. The public square is riddled today with the seeds of hate and distrust, even violence. Jewish communities do not function well in such unstable conditions, just as the broader political roadmap itself remains in question.

 The Israel Story:

Within the next several weeks, the government of Israel will be considering the annexation of significant parts of Judea and Samaria. This action follows the introduction of the Trump peace plan which gives license to the State of Israel to consider the inclusion of significant settlement blocs within the Jewish State. The critical decisions surrounding annexation are likely to redefine both the character and substance of the State of Israel. Numerous questions abound concerning this momentous set of actions.

What type of Jewish and democratic state will emerge in its aftermath? Will this moment reshape the relationship of Diaspora to Homeland? How Jews, both within the Jewish State and outside of it, respond to the actions taken by Jerusalem will have a profound impact on how we relate to and understand the meaning and significance of Zionism, Jewish sovereignty and nationalism. As some have suggested, in its aftermath, will we see the breakage of the Diaspora-Israel relationship?

In what ways will the international community react to the actions of the Netanyahu Government?  We are likely to see additional efforts by Israel’s political enemies to use this moment to unleash a new wave of anti-Zionism, seeking to further their assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish State? The “conspiracy” of Zionism will be laid out by those who question the right of this enterprise to even exist.

The Jewish Future:

In this sea of American political disruption and in connection with the proposed actions by the State of Israel, will we experience an extended campaign against Jews, Judaism, and the State of Israel? Anti-Semitism thrives in conditions of political disequilibrium, economic upheaval, and social unrest. We are living in this tripartite moment where the seeds of hate are sprouting before us.

This timeframe represents a transformative experience for the Jewish people. There are times within our history, when Jews, or those that controlled our destiny, made critical choices concerning our status, welfare and future. This may be one such troubling moment.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk 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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