Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The Past as a Prelude: Fighting anti-Semitism in the 21st Century

The “treatment” of anti-Semitism was one of the original terms employed by the “defense agencies” when dealing with hatred and prejudice in the 1930’s. Ideas such as “containment” entered the vocabulary of that era, as such negative behaviors as anti-Semitism were handled as if they were diseases, to be “eradicated”.

The public exposure of anti-Semites was seen as a mechanism to shame them while sending a message to other Americans that “hate was bad for America” and as such had no value or place within the society.  In the 1950’s, as an example, the idea of “quarantine” was employed to isolate the “bigot” by controlling that individual’s access to mass media and the broader public.  Much of the focus during this period was tied to social-psychological factors of what may drive a person to hold anti-Semitic views and/or act on them. The national agencies invested significant resources to study the characteristics associated with what led to someone to hate and to act on those beliefs.

During this era attention was paid to the following strategies:

  • Never repeat the message (isolate the hate)
  • Use prestigious figures to publicly oppose the message (repudiate the message)
  • Do not arouse great anxiety in audiences affected (invoke silence by treating the problem internally)

The core ideology of the community relations agenda in the mid-1950’s was directed toward three strategies:

  • Education reduces prejudice
  • Interfaith work builds understanding and provides vital connections
  • Community elites in government, civic life, business, religion and education must address hatred as “un-American” and in turn, set the bar for what constitutes responsible public discourse!

Considerable attention during this era was directed toward four audiences: schools, social clubs and organizations, the business arena, and the American church world. We should remind ourselves that in the second half of this past century, citizens were deeply embedded in these four settings. During an age of strong affiliation, high levels of voluntarism, and active civic engagement, the public square was centerpiece of American discourse . It should not come as a surprise that agencies such as the American Jewish Committee and the ADL focused a good deal of attention on public education with a particular focus on civics education, history, and comparative religion classes. Beyond the school room, the community relations organizations heavily invested in both intergroup work and interfaith relationship building. The central organizing principle involved the notion that Judaism aligned with Americanism.

What might we take away from these earlier periods of the American Jewish experience that may still have value today? I am suggesting five strategies:

Just as we focused in the past on civics, a consorted effort today would be particularly useful in working with school districts, local and state governments, and national textbook publishers in promoting more available materials and classes on American civics, cultural pluralism, and diversity and inclusion. The data on civics education in this country is particularly alarming as few states require civics education or encourage classes dealing with the multicultural experience.  Today, few Jewish institutions are investing resources in working in the arena of public education. This strategy must also include access to the technology firms managing and controlling websites, social media platforms and other distribution points were ideas are introduced and shared.

With the loss of trust and the corresponding decline in memberships that is permeating much of America’s core institutions, attention should be directed to mass-media projects, not all that dissimilar to the presentation of  “Shoah” or “Roots” some fourty years ago.  This current generation of Americans need to be exposed to historic as well as contemporary aspects of Judaism, Jews and Israel, just as similar initiatives must be introduced to tell the stories of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians within this society.  Educational encounters designed to inform Americans about the multi-ethnic and racial diversities of our society would add another dimension of information and exposure to and about Jews, among others.

The focus of the work of our national agencies after the Second World War was to uncover what produced a Hitler on the world stage. Toward that end, attention was paid to studying prejudice and the rise of such major studies as The Authoritarian Personality (1950). This research was heavily supported and evaluated by the community relations field at the time. Working today with an array of academic research centers that are identifying factors contributing to hate in this nation and analyzing the most effective ways to combat such trends, the Jewish community should be actively supporting  these efforts pertaining to the causes and responses to hate.  If necessary, the Jewish community should commission its own research network to further analyze this phenomenon.

Today, unlike during the earlier decades of the American Jewish experience, our community has multiple institutions dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism.  Yet, there is no centralized mechanism for identifying strategies, monitoring trends, assigning responsibilities, and evaluating outcomes in connection with the growing concerns around anti-Semitism. A systematized framework of communal planning and execution is needed! In today’s setting, working closely with governmental agencies, and police and federal authorities, as well as other ethnic communities will most likely generate the best outcomes.

Educating Americans on the nature and depth of anti-Semitism, racism and hate represents a core mission for this field. In the 21st Century such informational initiatives are core to helping Americans understand the roots of prejudice but also the opportunities available to build partnerships and promote cooperation and engagement among groups within this society. As this country shifts from being a white majority culture to a multi-ethnic nation, how we prepare and educate our citizens will be an essential test for our democracy to survive and prosper. The Jewish community has a good deal at stake in making certain that this republic contintues to thrive. 

The pioneering work done nearly one hundred years ago by our Jewish “defense” organizations now needs to be reconsidered, upgraded and supported.  Acknowledging the fundamental changes within our society, while also applying some of the tools, practices and approaches to the management of hatred in America, has pioneered by these organizations, would seem to be a prescription for success.

What our earlier colleagues came to realize, one cannot eliminate hate/anti-Semitism, but there are strategies and programs that can be effective in managing this crisis and in changing the social landscape of America. The Jewish community has so much at stake in effectively managing this response!

—————————————————————————————-Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish Communal Studies and the interim director of HUC’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr. Windmueller had served both on the staff of the American Jewish Committee and as the JCRC Director (Jewish Community Relations Committee of Los Angeles). His writings can be found on his website,

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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