Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?
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The conversations we Jews will need to have

We are in a new time! The Jewish world will require a reset button that allows us to enter a new phase of dialogue and engagement

The beliefs that many of us had constructed about our community, this nation and ourselves appear to be coming undone! For the baby-boomer generation, these defining assumptions appear to be no longer valid:

  • For many of us the prophetic tradition provided us with the framework and inspiration for promoting a more progressive society.
  • We envisioned our Judaism and our Americanism in consort with one another. 
  •  We believed that each generation saw itself building upon the next.
  • Finally, we held to the belief that anti-Semitism, especially in the United States, was relegated to another era. 

Today, the question may be whether any of these four propositions are valid. Within my generational cohort, the principles themselves may not necessarily be shared.  For younger American Jews other parallel ideas most likely have defined their generational beliefs.

Reflections on our Past: How We Arrived Here?

This past century may well have been the most transformative for the Jewish people in our long history. Indeed, at one moment in time we would be witness to the extremes of terror and death directed against our people, as we would see the blessings of the birth of the Jewish State. Our creativity and contributions as individuals in science and medicine, literature and the arts, political philosophy and social activism, religious thought and spiritual inquiry would be extensive and profound. Just as the 20th Century symbolized the centrality of the American story, the one hundred year period, 1918-2018, may reflect the most significant in our long and arduous journey.

As we look back over a lifetime of extraordinary historical moments, we observe these particular outcomes:

Over these past fifty years, America’s Jews have had a profound impact on this nation. And in some interesting measure, what has unfolded within our community created the impetus for changing America itself. Because of their economic and social standing and their individual and collective achievements, Jewish Americans have disproportionately contributed to this nation’s cultural messaging, imprinted its social behaviors, and helped frame its political conversations. We had come to an understanding that nothing happens in America that does not impact American Judaism. Simultaneously, we could argue that Jewish ideas and values would penetrate the public stage in ways that we could never have imagined.

American Jewish political culture is deeply linked to American history.  Jews were here from the outset and as such would enjoy a unique place in how this nation embraced western religion.  “Protestant, Catholic and Jew” must be understood more than just a tripartite religious equation. It would symbolize the equal status of Judaism with their sister religious communities, something unknown previously in western societies.

The American Century:

In the decades following the Second World War, we would begin to observe how collective action and globalism transformed our society and reinvented our economy.  Internally, patriotism and civic engagement would be central ingredients in defining the American century.

During the postwar era, the United States would be a central player in promoting regional models of collective action, whether through military alliances or economic trade arrangements.  The genius of the Marshall Plan and the success of NATO have come to symbolize the American model of global engagement.

Media, but more directly, television would bring the world into our living rooms. And in the process, many of us would become globalists. The human rights revolution would allow us to speak out not only for Soviet Jews but also on behalf of others denied their religious and civil liberties.

Globalism, human rights, and progressive values would define and shape our understanding of society, and more directly our place in the world. Themes, such as multi-culturalism and pluralism would help to frame the American story of the 20th Century. These were the ideas that provided us with a common framework.  Yet, within these past several years, each of these value propositions has begun to unravel. These central ideas around which we constructed our lives are now being challenged and reshaped.  As social media and “fake” news replace the centralized sources for news, we observe a new, more disruptive form of political discourse emerge.

The New Beginnings:

During the 1990’s we would begin to see the collectivist orientation of the Jewish communal agenda begin to collapse, as well. Just as our vision of globalism would diminish, we would move from this communal character of our identity to a personalized Jewish model.  The sovereign self would replace a unified sense of Jewish destiny. We would awaken to the reality that we no longer could speak of a shared Jewish vision.

As we move forward into the 21st century, a number of external factors not only reshaped Jewish life but also contributed to the undermining of the social norms that defined and shaped this nation:

  • With the rise of an aristocratic class, the economic divide has contributed to a deepening of cultural and political tensions.
  • The loss of confidence in civic institutions is reflected in the down turn in voter participation. Nothing is more dangerous to a minority community, such as ours, when a society gives up on its public square.   When Americans no longer believe that our civic story or political system is responsive, then the institutions of our republic will become the solely owned province of special interests. This does not serve us well.
  • Consumer preferences are reshaping how individuals understand and relate to institutions and to the idea of community and even to religion.
  • The Anglo-Saxon whiteness that defined much of American history is giving way to a multi-racial majority, and more directly, creating a new debate over race and culture.

A Look Inside our Community:

The unifying forces of citizenship and community that framed our lives and identities are similarly faltering.  This sense of civic loss can also be applied to Jewish communal and religious sphere, as an increasing number of Jews disassociate from the institutions that had once provided meaning to their parents and grandparents’ generations.

Today, we are a people in search of itself. The idea of peoplehood seems distant, if not totally displaced.  The ability to engage fellow Jews in a civil discourse on Israel or carry forward a conversation on America and its politics has all but been lost.

How will we define ourselves as Americans and as Jews in the generation ahead?  My sense is that for many we will operate in the coming decades through a series of defused, distinctive yet separated communities of faith, no longer held together by the power of history, the bounds of denominational loyalties, or a shared agenda. Absent a sense of common purpose and disconnected from a shared vision, we will be seen as religious wanders and seekers.

On the Jewish communal stage, we are also witnessing profound and unsettling change. The greatest Jewish generation has seemingly given way to a leadership cohort that at best might be described as functionaries in service to a class of self-centered Jewish aristocrats, who rule by money and by political intimidation. A Jewish wealth class, emblematic of America’s 1%’ers, is increasingly controlling the instruments of Jewish decision-making and power. Individual Jewish entreprenaurs are grabbing the reins of institutional leadership reframing these organizations into their personal base of influence. A new era of ego-centered power brokers are using the instruments of Jewish life to expand their influence and grow their power.

Sadly, as a corollary to their drive for control, the “Me Too Movement” is calling out these financial elites for their inappropriate behaviors. We appear as well to be living through a new Gilded Age, this time being chartered and led by a generation of “Gilded Jewish leaders” who are employing their political and financial prowess to reconstruct Jewish life in their image. The once proud communal infrastructure with its array of interlocking networks and a shared collectivist agenda served as a distinguishing symbol of the Jewish century.  That communalism model has all but disappeared, only to be replaced by a set of competing silo-based, institutional voices.

Increasingly, we seem unprepared as a community or as a people for what may be ahead. As we enter a different moment in the American Jewish storyline, we are simultaneously experiencing a new set of political realities being played out both in Washington and in Jerusalem.

Looking Outside of Ourselves:

The political moorings that helped to shape this nation are coming undone. New political equations are present concerning the alignment of power and money, of ideology with pragmatism, and a radical shift from global initiatives to nationalist pursuits.

In this nation we are confronting a new political crudeness, the upending of bipartisanship, a changing set of cultural norms, and a reframing of American nationalism. Of particular note, the tearing of the American soul may take decades to fully repair.  Civility has left the stage as an ugly form of political warfare unfolds.  If nastiness defines the political mood, then the electoral contest set for November will be centered on defining America’s identity and our society’s national values.

As a community with significant interests at stake, we are experiencing for the first time in our American journey a level of discomfort, as we are encountering at both ends of the political spectrum attacks against our social standing. As a result, our Jewish claims of whiteness are now being challenged both by the extreme right and the political left. Many of our enemies accuse us of being a part of the white power structure, thereby forfeiting our claims as petitioners or social activists. Others describe us as “deceptive” whites, seeking to impose our agenda on America. Speaking to us from the extreme political right, these forces rail against us, threatening us and now even killing some of us. These political divisions have opened spaces for both the rise of white nationalism and Israel rejectionism, as America’s political environment has given sanction to a new wave of anti-Semitism.

The Changing Israel Story:

Beyond America, we see a fundamental reshaping of the Jewish national story. The ascendency of a different Zionist national vision is unfolding before us. A changing set of political realities awaits implementation. Israel’s very identity and composition are being reset by the prospects for annexation. How as American Jews will we respond? What will be the impact of these on-the-ground realities on the state of Diaspora-Israel dialogue? How might we envision an American Jewish conversation with Israeli leaders in unpacking these new political outcomes? What, if any, are the possible options and opportunities for shaping a new Palestinian-Israeli conversation? Our very understanding of what a Jewish, democratic state might mean is seemingly coming into question.

Over the past seven decades as Diaspora Jews, we constructed our own idealist version of the Israel story, involving a series of propositions that we created about what a two-state solution might look like, how Palestinians would interface with Israelis, and with peace and security assured for the Jewish State, what might the Middle East become?

Resetting the Jewish Conversation:

We are in a new time! Inside the Jewish world we will require a reset button that allows us to enter a new phase of dialogue and engagement. Rather than minimizing our political and religious differences we require a conversation that enables us to acknowledge and bridge many of those disagreements.

How do we engage with those who discount and marginalize Israel? Or are these divides so deep that conversations around statehood, democracy and human rights, will no longer be productive with those who have declared war on the Jewish State?

Can we create these vital and essential discussions advancing the necessary Jewish ingredients?

A Conversation With America that Jews Must Have:

Jewish Americans have a stake in the preservation of our core civic institutions and the strengthening of our basic national values:

  • Protecting Civil Liberties and Personal Rights
  • Managing the Safety and Security of Individuals and the Community
  • Reclaiming Trust in Institutions and Leaders
  • Focusing on “Truth” by Confirming the Value and Importance of an Independent and Free Press
  • Reclaiming Bi-Partisanship as a Critical to Political Discourse

These value propositions have served our community well in the past and must now be seen as essential to preserving the American future. As a community and as individuals, we must again assert the primacy of these political norms. Are we prepared to join other Americans in carrying forward this conversation focusing on the political ideals that have bound us together as a society? 

We Require a Conversation Around American Judaism:

Beyond articulating and acting upon these American values, we most consider adopting a set of principles that will drive the American Jewish future:

  • Encouraging Creative Jewish Learning and Inquiry
  • Promoting Avenues for Communal and Intra-Jewish Dialogue and Engagement
  • Creating a National Jewish Conversation Focusing on our Broken Conversations around Religion and Politics
  • Opening a New Chapter in Diaspora-Israel Relations and Global Jewish Connections
  • Reimagining the Jewish Communal Structure, the Roles and Responsibilities of its Leaders and the Expectations of how we as American Jews Operate in this New Condition.

Upon Reflection:

Change is upon us. The test will be whether we as a people are prepared to initiate these necessary conversations around renewing our contract with America and re-envisioning the Jewish future.  The former ought to be seen as essential to the welfare of this democracy. Without the latter, events and issues may well overwhelm us, making our communal voice irrelevant and leaving our institutions out of touch with the emerging demographic realities and cultural shifts that will dominate this century.

Absent a serious remapping of the Jewish communal agenda and a collective refocusing on the structural and organizational framework that will be required to sustain and serve 21st American Jews, we will likely not be prepared to deal with either the external challenges or internal demands that are emerging before us.

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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