Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Reframing the Journey of American Jewry

Where do we go from here?  American Jews are struggling with three existential issues that impact their identity, status, and beliefs. While these items have been on our docket prior to the 7th of October, each of these matters has taken on an added urgency since that date.

The Zionist Idea: We had assumed that Zionism was equipped to engage, strengthen, and serve the Jewish people and provide an ideology for the State of Israel. Today, we find Israelis and Diaspora Jews, especially among our young, who question Zionism’s capacity to be responsive to this situation. After all, we told our kids to be “universalists”, supporting those who were oppressed, only to find that when it comes to Israel, we expected them to be “nationalists” defending the Jewish State. They are now questioning us and the Zionist idea. In the aftermath of October 7th, how do we possibly reconstruct the case for Zionism, or do we move past it?  How will our younger generations reframe the case for Israel and the the Zionist agenda?

Hate and the Jews: We believed that anti-Semitism was “a thing of the past” only to uncover that it remains very real. How do we explain this phenomenon, and how should we as a community respond?

The very issue of race and whiteness simply was not part of the conversation about how Jews were perceived in the American context, yet today it has become a central tenet of the ideology of the alt-Right and part of the political rhetoric of the extreme left. The “whiteness” of America’s Jews is now a racial barometer of acceptance. For the far right, the Jewish pedigree is defined as non-white and therefore any Jewish aspirations to operate in the political mainstream, as part of the “white establishment” must be rejected. The Alt-Right and others see egalitarianism, globalism, and multiculturalism as Jewishly inspired liberal initiatives that run counter to American nationalist ideas and values. On the left, Progressives are seeking to discredit Jewish (Zionist) participation as legitimate liberal actors on the basis that “Jews are white” and therefore by definition belong to the oppressor class, possessing no claims as authentic political partners on behalf of communities of color. Indeed, if you are categorized as a “Zionist,” then you have no standing! Hate in this moment is driven by social media, emboldened by an environment of cultural distortions, and aided by the emergence of a dangerous new political rhetoric.

In Search of a Political Home:  We have held the belief that Western liberalism offered for Jews a political home. But today, we are no longer so sure, as many of the core tenets of our liberal political tradition are being challenged, questioned, and rejected by those who oppose us, as we face a new illiberalism. The moral “truths” we affirmed are now being challenged by our enemies and even by some within our community.

Where we embraced DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) as a formula for engaging minorities, only now are we finding that such an equation is being employed against Jews. Intersectionality, critical race theory and woke culture identify us as “colonialists”, “occupiers”, and supporters of Apartheid.

Suddenly, without some of our traditional allies, Jews in this country have been taken aback by the silence of support for us or Israel, in some cases by longstanding friends, and in certain settings, the outright hatred that these former allies are projecting on Israel, Zionism and American Jewry. When it comes to finding legitimate partners, how do we move forward from this moment?

Next Steps:

 Over the months ahead, no doubt Jews will be having serious conversations about each three themes. In some measure this represents a transformational moment in contemporary Jewish history, as once again we as a people will need to reset our ideological course and political direction, a notion that resonates with our journey of encountering distinctive challenges.

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.