Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

The Seeds are in Place: July Fourth Reflections

Unfortunately, what we are currently witnessing in this society are the makings of a perfect storm for racism and anti-Semitism. A pandemic out of control, an economy in a tailspin, and a nation facing political uncertainty and social tension, all factors that create an environment conducive to producing hate and creating the seeds for violence.  The seeds of discontent serve to undermine the principles and practices of American political culture.

Writing in 1988, Earl Raab and Doug Kahn, suggested that such a tripartite environment of social unrest, economic dislocation, and political upheaval created the perfect “chemistry” for the escalation of hate (Earl Raab and Doug Kahn, A CRC Manual, the Theory and Practice of Jewish Communal Relations, San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, page 12)

The Target Factor: The raw susceptibility of minorities to becoming a target. How large is the reservoir of popular racism and anti-Semitism which can be drawn on?

The Triggering Factor: The precipitating set of events, which can turn this reservoir of racist practices and anti-Semitic beliefs into an active state.

The Control Factor:  The conditions which inhibit the activating of these forms of social unrest when these triggering situations emerge.

Anti-social behaviors flourish in crisis settings, such as the one we find ourselves, where the mores and benchmarks of a society are coming undone. In the vacuum of collective rejection, racial and religious hatred is given license. Folks, desperate for simple answers and quick fixes, embrace conspiracy notions and racist ideas.

In this current setting, we are witnessing new forms of anti-Jewish expression. The patterns of hatred have changed but the messages remain the same (E Jewish Philanthropy):

  • The shift from individualized acts of anti-Jewish behavior to global forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism.
  • The changing characteristics of modern anti-Semitism, where an assortment of delivery systems are introduced, including the lens of social media and the use of the street involving personal and institutional attacks.
  • The introduction of code words and symbols designed to marginalize Jews, Judaism and Israel.
  • The role of “whiteness” in connection with this new brand of anti-Semitism, where our enemies seek to define us as political imposters claiming to be “white” actors.
  • The introduction of Anti-Semitism simultaneously from the left and the right.

 Building a Response:

In an address to the UAHC Board (now URJ) in 1980, Earl Raab, commenting on the rise of the Moral Majority, noted (UAHC Program Perspectives, “How Secure Are We?” January 1981):

“There will be no serious anti-Semitism unless political extremism prevails.”  He then goes on to pose a question: Should we leave the political stage to our enemies, letting them define what America is or what Israel represents?

In his response, Raab frames a strategy for managing and responding to extremist ideas. “How secure are we?  We are as secure as a strong and democratic America is secure… There is a need for us to promote the idea of America.”

Indeed, we cannot allow our enemies to define us or America. We have a stake in framing the American political story, not only for Jews but for all Americans. “This means we have to actively oppose the deterioration of coalition party politics, oppose the mechanisms of factional politics,” as Raab implored.

What better moment than this national day of celebration to acknowledge the principles of “Americanism” and the corollary Jewish imperatives that inform and shape our democratic values (E Jewish Philanthropy)

 We must affirm the dignity of the individual. Each citizen must be seen as an integral part of this experiment in democracy. The rights and liberties of all need to be guaranteed and defended.

We acknowledge American diversity. Multiculturalism and religious pluralism must be seen distinguishing features of this republic.

We must defend and protect civil liberties for all. The free exercise of speech, assembly and religious expression must be affirmed, while hate and prejudice have no place in our political discourse. We need to affirm the value of a free press as core to our democracy.

We are committed to freedom. Freedom means being free from unfair restrictions on our ability to pursue happiness through independence. But our individual freedoms have limitations, as my rights may not impinge upon another person’s liberties.

We must repudiate racismsexism and antiSemitism. Collectively, we must push back against the politics of hate directed toward any group as a violation of the dignity that we afford to all who claim America as their home. We must push back against any effort to divide our society over class, race, sex or religion. The American story is linked to its extraordinary diversity.

We must embrace the idea of “truth.” The assault on “facts” cannot be allowed to define who we are and what we represent. We may differ over the meaning and intent of these truths, but we are governed by reason in order to make thoughtful and responsible decisions as a nation and as society.

We identify “communalism” as a strong asset of democracy. Americans have stopped becoming “joiners” and at this moment this is particularly troubling, as our society requires vital social activist institutions, be they PTA groups, women and men’s organizations, service clubs, or neighborhood associations. Voluntarism has been one of the defining attributes of American democracy and culture.

We affirm the importance of transparency in government, where honesty and truth are core and where compromise and cooperation remain central tenets for effective governance.

We need to be committed to hearing and to understanding those who differ with our vision of America. A passionate society is built on empathy. We must pursue connections to our political opponents as we seek to learn about their stories and their dreams for this country, just as we would expect that they would hear our vision for this society. To negatively dismiss or to label “the other” is a prescription for promoting an environment filled with discord and separation. We are dedicated to finding “the common ground” turning anger into constructive engagement.

We celebrate the principle of compromise. In connection with our understanding of the “other,” we need to affirm the art of consensus building. The respect for and acknowledgement of differences define democracy.

We are invested in the public square and civic engagement. We know that our democracy works best when all are participating as voters and civic activists, knowledgeable about the issues that consume our cities, states and this nation. We need to encourage the involvement of all citizens in the tasks of nation building. Being a “citizen” places great demands on each of us. Indeed to be an American is an honor, but with it there are corresponding responsibilities associated with citizenship.

We need to understand and appreciate the limits of “Identity Politics.” By definition, groups seek to advance their core interests. But the welfare of the nation supersedes the narrower concerns of specific interest groups. The collective will ought to inform our policies and actions as a nation.

Building a National Strategy:

We need a game plan that celebrates these distinctive and essential American political values and in the process seeks to minimize the impact of racism and anti-Semitism.  The health of this democracy requires that we act on behalf of our interests and the welfare of this nation.

We are reminded of the seminal work of Walter Lurie (Strategies for Survival: Principles of Jewish Community Relations) who laid out a framework for this type of collective activism that ought to represent the American Jewish voice:

“Promoting Americanism” requires us to reassert the values and norms that frame the American political story. Rebuilding the political center has payoffs well beyond defeating anti-Semitism. It reminds us that civility and community are core principles that undergird American democracy.

Coalition: The principle of interdependence drives this notion of collective and joint action, as the American model of aligning special interests in line with the common good.

General Welfare: Jews are better off when America and all of its citizens are likewise doing well. “ ‘History has bred in Jews the deep conviction that such social condition, which accord with ethical and religious values derived from Judaism and Jewish tradition, afford Jews, and all others, the best opportunity to enjoy secure and meaningful lives.’ ” (Lurie, page 17)

Framing the Case:

We require a collective response to these new threats and challenges facing our democracy, Jewish Americans, and our fellow citizens, regardless of color or creed. “Americanism” carries with it the symbolic value of mutual responsibility that celebrates the bonds that frame our democracy and its citizens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.
Comments