Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The Reckoning: American Jewish Liberalism at the Brink

“Politically homeless“ may best describe today the state of many Jewish liberals. For decades Jews in overwhelming numbers found their political home within the Democratic Party.

American Jewish liberalism, which defined the mindset of many within this community, is being challenged today. Many Jewish Americans are increasingly unsettled about our country’s politics. For some Jewish Democrats the progressive wing of the Democratic Party serves as an unsettling reminder of the shifting character of this nation’s politics.[1]

The infusion of a new type of political orthodoxy may best describe the left wing of the Democratic Party.  The assault on Israel and the presence of anti-Semitic messaging by Democratic Progressives adds a specific dimension of concern for liberal Jewish voters. The new politics of cancel culture, critical race theory, and intersectionality serves to create barriers of inclusion for many mainstream Democrats.  As the Economist noted:[2]

The illiberal left put their own power at the centre of things, because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.

 …Illiberal progressives think that equity requires the field to be tilted against those who are privileged and reactionary. That means restricting their freedom of speech, using a caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice.

Associated with this assault involves targeting Jews as part of a wider critique of “white privilege.”  This new reality is generating a degree of political uncertainty on the part of Jewish Democrats about their role and place within this changing and destructive environment.

The Reassessment: Trumpism and More

Today, one finds a round of political pulse taking, as Jewish liberals try to reassess their standing inside the Democratic Party. After all, two out of every three Jewish voters have an affinity for the liberal political agenda. At this point in time, there is also a type of political freeze that defines the limits of choice.  In its current manifestation, the Republican political culture is hardly a choice for moderate Democrats. Trumpism and its troubling manifestations dominate the Republican agenda, thereby closing off this option for many Jewish voters. In my forthcoming volume addressing the impact of Trump Presidency on America’s Jews, we take a deeper dive into the imprint of the 45th President on Jewish political thought and behavior.[3]

Where will mainstream liberal voters find a new political home? As our political culture loses its focus on persuasion, opting instead for ideological purity, such an unsettling scene undermines confidence in government and drives some to reject politics. American democracy thrives when there is a healthy and vibrant political discourse, absent such a condition our republic is imperiled. Unlike other democracies that operate with a multiplicity of choices, the American two-party model provides a minimum amount of flexibility for maneuvering one’s political options.

Why Liberalism?

Stepping back, this moment reintroduces the larger debate and broader political question concerning the state of Jewish liberalism. For decades, this issue has drawn commentary from an array of different quarters. This writer has written extensively on the components of American Jewish liberalism.[4] The question of “why are American Jews liberal?” has intrigued historians, political scientists, journalists and even those who question whether such politics serve the interests of America’s Jews.

For political analysts, one finds numerous publications seeking to unpack and explain this phenomenon; after all, with all other white ethnics, one finds a steady progression away from liberalism as these groups moved away from their Democratic base.  Various theories and predictions dot the academic conversation around Jewish liberalism. For some it is a question of when will this phenomenon end, while for others it provides an opportunity to analyze the nature and character of Jewish liberalism.

Professors Kenneth Wald and Marc Dollinger identified various operating principles in connection with the Jewish liberal tradition. Wald points to a type of Jewish equilibrium that is constantly in play, when he notes:[5]

They (Jews) move against the left when it appears to threaten this regime but move to the left if the liberal polity is endangered by the right.

Addressing this same question, Dollinger observes a similar phenomenon when describing Jewish liberal conduct:[6]

American Jews yearned to create a tolerant, pluralistic, equalitarian country. This would benefit them as a minority group as well as benefitting those being discriminated directly.  Thus, liberal political sympathies served their own political agenda as well as providing support to the oppressed and downtrodden. When commitment with liberalism conflicted with their own interests, American Jews chose their interests over liberal principles most of the time.

The politics of acculturation, the process by which Jews championed unpopular social causes to ease their adaptation to American life, established them as the guardians of liberal America. …Faced with a conflict between liberal politics and their own acculturation, Jews almost always chose the latter.

 For conservatives, there has been an ongoing effort to understand Jewish liberal behavior, seeking ways to convince and engage liberals to see “the truth” (or at least their understanding of the new realities).  Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of the prestigious Commentary Magazine, framed an entire book on this subject.[7]

In societies torn apart by political divisions, racial and social discord, and conspiracy advocates, Jews have historically experienced a form of political anomie, a disconnect from mainstream ideas and institutions. During the centuries of European Jewish life, when Jews were often denied access to the public stage, such considerations as political preferences were irrelavent. Likewise, under authoritarian regimes of the 19th and 20th Centuries, citizens had limited access or input into the governance process. Critics of such regimes, among them Jews, were often eliminated.

Where Do We Go From Here?

 This moment in time might create an opportunity for the Democratic Party to undergo a self-examination where its waring constituencies come together around some common and shared themes concerning governing priorities. In light of its thin majority and the challenges to this democracy that we are facing, the absence of a ruling consensus may be disastrous not only for the Democrats but for this nation. Lacking such an initiative, one may well anticipate an internal rupture, forever destroying America’s oldest political party.

Indeed, others have begun to chart a “third way” constructing Jewish institutional responses designed to create a moderate liberal response while pushing back against the illiberal voices on the Democratic Left.[8]  These efforts seek to align others within the Democratic establishment who hold similar concerns as a way forward.

The current political maize may be the appropriate moment to revisit the value-added of giving American voters more political party choices. Absent such additional options, mainstream voters may simply opt out of this current political circus.

A Closing Assessment:

In this current climate, Jews are facing for the first time in decades a major reality check in connection with their political credentials and their ability to effectively pursue their interests.

This assault on liberalism is raising for many Jews a heightened level of concern. While many Jews remain aligned in their collective opposition to Trumpism and its varied manifestations and expressions, what constructive roles ought liberal Jews to play within a changing and divided Democratic constituency? Are there today alternatives available to Jewish liberals?

How do we best push back against the attacks generated from the Progressive Left on Israel and American culture? Where do we find common ground in connection today with the African American community, and how do we maneuver inside and around the Black Lives Matter agenda? If one believed that this crisis was singularly centered in the Democratic Party, the rise of the Alt Right and its various manifestations provides the basis for centrist Jewish Republicans to also seek out political options.

This represents a new and challenging moment in the American Jewish political saga. The reckoning in connection with how Jews will envision their interests as well as their political future is on the line!

[1] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/unsettled-in-america-the-changing-political-roles-of-american-jews/

[2] “The Threat from the Illiberal Left” Economist, Volume 440, Number 9261, September 4, 2021, pages 9-10

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Impact-Presidency-Donald-American-Israel/dp/161249708X

[4]  https://www.amazon.com/Quest-Power-Political-Behavior-Practice/dp/1499505434

[5] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/unpacking-political-liberalism-the-jewish-engagement-with-the-democratic-party/

[6] https://www.jstor.org/stable/1466412

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Why-Jews-Liberals-Norman-Podhoretz/dp/0307456250

[8] Among such efforts include: https://jilv.org/  https://heartofanation.io/

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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