Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Principles of Jewish Political Practice

The Jewish political tradition is rich as it is historic. The principles that define and shape how Jews understand and engage in the political process is drawn from their past, tied to their tradition and built on their encounters with modern political thought and practice.  The materials gathered here are taken from an array of sources, reflective of the many different perspectives about Jews and political power. They represent merely a sampling of both the strategic or operative tools and the policy-based notions associated with Jewish political behavior.

The first ten principles speak to the general characteristics of Jewish political practice:

  1. Preparing the Jewish Polity: Jewish self-government over the centuries encouraged the development of an engaged polity. As a result of their communal structures, Jews were able to assimilate into various cultures, mastering the art of trade and commerce, the practice of civic political culture.[1]  Communal practice helped to frame and prepare Jews for political engagement over the centuries.
  2. Identifying Jewish Ideological Perspectives: Jews have attempted to align their core political values and ideas found within the religious tradition with their broader political identity, shaping their participation. Judaism must be seen as a political ideology.[2]
  1. Shaping Jewish Political Beliefs: Four key factors frame Jewish political thinking and practice:[3]
  • Focusing on Nation-Building: Zion would represent a central theme within the Jewish political tradition. 
  • Maintaining the Idea of Peoplehood: The continuity and wellbeing of community, in covenant with God, represented a central element of the Jewish story.
  • Preserving the Tradition: In facing threats throughout their history, Jews would employ the power of memory and the centrality of ritual as a way to provide a sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Making the World Whole (Tikkun Olam): Universal principles of just behavior and practice would be central values that defined how Jews would see themselves in the world.
  1. Defining Political Liberation: The presence of a national state has altered the political equation for the Jewish people. For the first time in in 2000 years, Jews have the capacity to engage both the resources of their homeland society and their Diaspora communities in shaping their political destiny. Modernity has redefined the notion of Jews and power.
  2. Building Jewish Communal Practice: Jewish Diaspora politics have been shaped by “the intersecting needs of accommodation to temporal authority and obedience to covenantal law.”[4] Living in an array of different cultures, Jews perfected their political skills, developed the means to interact with the general culture, and fostered policies that were designed to enhance their standing and security.
  3. Constructing Tools of Political Influence: The genius of Jewish political influence was constructed around a compelling and shared agenda, an engaged and energized constituency, and the presence of credible leaders. The techniques associated with advocacy and engagement would be developed over time and place.
  4. Emulating the Larger Civic World: Jewish communities take on the political characteristics and practices of the broader societies and cultures in which they have resided. Jewish political behavior will decreasingly reflect a parochial agenda. In its place Jewish political behavior will emulate the peoples and cultures that surround them, increasingly adopting a broader universal political roadmap. Communal politics served as a barometer of the general political and social agenda.
  1. Living with Historic Realities: Over the course of their history, Jews have always adopted differing philosophies and ideas about governance, the role of politics, and the interplay between Judaism and the political order. Jews reflect the diversity of political thinking found within the broader culture.
  1. Articulating Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World: This principle represents one of the core ideas that comprise Jewish political thinking. Built on the notion that humans operate as partners with God, the obligation to assist in the “repairing” of the world operates as a fundamental concept.
  1. Mobilizing Political Elites: “Stadlanim” (spokespersons of influence)[5]  served the community throughout the middle ages and continue to be an essential political feature of the contemporary communal model. Today, this leadership presence is often reflected through institutional representatives rather than necessarily individual spokespersons. Increasingly, we can identify individual Jewish funders who have gained control over Jewish institutions; such access gives these donors a gateway in securing political influence and power both within the communal orbit and beyond.

The next grouping of political practice reflects the American Jewish experience:

  1. Modeling Political Organizing: American Jewish political influence was constructed around securing the support of key influentials in business and labor, politics and government, culture and education, religion and ethnic relations. Primary decision-makers and “influencers” were seen as essential in shaping attitudes and promoting policies critical to interests of the Jewish community. Such voices also were seen as pushing back against prejudice, hatred and intolerance, when and wherever such expressions were evident.
  2. Shaping Political Messages: Toward that end, Jewish communal interests were constructed to be in alignment with American values.
  3. Managing Political Ideas: When Jewish and/or Israeli policies are not seen as being in alignment with core American values or interests, there is a greater possibility for increased anti-Semitism or anti-Israel expression. Conversely, when there was a congruence around shared messages, support for Jews and Israel accelerated.
  1. Building Relationships: Realizing that politics is about negotiated outcomes, creating coalitions and alliances permit Jewish communal institutions a wider political voice and influence. 
  1. Introducing Jewish Civic Practice: As with other American groups, Jews tend to vote their ideological passions in national campaigns, while often expressing their political and economic self-interests in local and state contests.
  1. Creating Alignment: When Jewish interests or Israeli policies are not in alignment with core American values and policies, there is a greater potential for increased tension among the principal actors.  Forces unfriendly to Jews and/or to the State of Israel seek to maximize these differences and to assert policies hostile to furthering the American-Israel relationship. 
  1. Framing Political Beliefs: Jews hold a diversity of political views. “Liberalism” represents but one of several competing political philosophies that define Jewish political behavior: There are numerous theories about the “liberal” character of American Jewish behavior as there are about other political philosophies . Among the ideas associated with liberalism include: (1) the deeply ingrained prophetic, social justice ideas found within Jewish religious thought; (2) drawing on the experience of Jewish history, the exposure to authoritarian and oppressive rule would help to frame a counter political response on the part of American Jews; and (3) the broad base of civic engagement by Jews with liberal American causes would be transferred over to their “Jewish” political activism.[6]
  1. Competing Political Views: Beyond Liberalism, in modern times, Jews have identified with an array of differing political ideas and causes, including conservatism, libertarianism, anarchism, socialism and communism. In different political settings one or more of these ideologies would gain traction with specific Jewish audiences, yet Jews have demonstrated that while specific ideas resonate with significant numbers, diverse political views always remained a distinctive feature of Jewish political practice.

Indeed, Zionism would emerge at the turn of the 20th century and serve as a core political movement in advancing the case for a Jewish national homeland. Within the Zionist camp, one can find a broad spectrum of political factions reflective of the debates and divisions concerning the idea of a Jewish State. Simultaneously, there would emerge political groups who opposed the Zionist model.

 These last two principles speak to contemporary political framework of behavior:

  1. Moving Forward: As we move deeper into a bifurcated political environment, where collaborative action is negated, the Jewish community along with other minority constituencies will face a more difficult time to advance their specific agenda and protect core interests. In other historical settings, we note that Jews compensated for political weakness by pursuing and mastering their economic and cultural interests, expanding their networks of connections. [7]
  2. Dealing with Change: More recently, despite the growing political and ideological divisions within our society, Jews are exhibiting a heightened level of political connection, as funders, candidates and participants. Jews have demonstrated in every society in which they have lived an abiding loyalty. The higher levels of participation reflects several parallel factors: a greater sense of comfort, a growing concern about civic challenges, and a heightened commitment to particular core outcomes. As Jews have witnessed in other societies, as the demographic landscape undergoes change and as new constituencies grow their base of influence, Jews will represent a decreasing voice of influence on the political stage and in turn will seek other avenues for political expression and social access.

Closing Notes:

Jews are today central political players, and as such, have a stake in the welfare of the democracies in which they reside. They perform a variety of political roles, as voters, government leaders, advocates and funders. How they perform and what they believe reflect not only personally held convictions but also incorporates the ideas and behaviors of their religious tradition and cultural experiences.

[1] Steven Windmueller, The Quest for Power, (Amazon, 2014), page 51.

[2] Ibid. page 12

[3] Ibid. page 13

[4] Ruth R. Wisse, Jews and Power (New York: Random House, 2007), page 52

[5] Peter y. Medding, “The new Jewish Politics in America” in Robert S. Wistrich (ed.), Terms of Survival,  (London: Routledge, 1995), page 86. “These intercessors utilized their elite connections or influence to plead for the Jews—entreating, requesting, persuading (and sometimes bribing) the rulers to grant them residence, permits, protection, toleration, or reduce taxes, always as a matter of grace or favour.”


[7] Salo Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Volume 1: Ancient Times, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952)  page 31

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an 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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