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Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The wars among the Jews: Reflections & recommendations

There are two “Americas!” Indeed, there most likely are many “Americas” based on how citizens see themselves in relationship to one another and to this nation. Similar to this larger reality, the political divisions within the Jewish community both emulate the sharp partisan divide one finds within the broader society but also reflects the distinctive controversial Jewish battle lines.

We note that friendships have ended over political disagreements, and conversations exclude many of the difficult and divisive topics.

Correspondingly, organizations have been pressured to adopt or avoid policy positions as these wars intensify and sharpen. Civility and consensus have given way to name-calling and political separation.

Putting this in context, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) that the heart of religion was not its belief system or even its moral code, but its ability to generate collective effervescence: intense, shared experiences that unify individuals into cooperative social groups. Religion, Durkheim argued, is a kind of social glue.[1]  As we have noted, that glue is no longer holding our communal order together.

Jews reflect the American political storyline, and this can be readily seen in the partisan divide that defines this community. Some 26 percent Jewish Americans identify as conservative or Republican and another 64% align with liberal or Democratic Party politics, while an additional 9% of Jewish Americans describe themselves as “Independent”.[2]

The value propositions of consensus and nonpartisanship, long held as operational Jewish values, are today being challenged and often rejected.[3] In its place a major Jewish political reset is underway, focusing on domestic affairs, foreign policy considerations and the increasing diversity that reflects this state of discord. The communal enterprise reflects this growing diversity of thought, while accounting for the changing demographic character and composition of our community. Across the Jewish spectrum we identify new voices and alternative institutional expressions designed to modulate and reformulate the political options and choices in managing liberalism and in opening the Jewish community to new policy realities around diversity issues, gender politics, religious differences, and geo-political considerations.

These political wars can be seen leaking as well into synagogue politics, rabbinic hiring, the determination by rabbis over sermon themes and language, and by congregational leaders becoming overtly sensitive to programmatic optics. We can identify similar practices involving organizational practice. One finds ideological “boycotting” as audiences intentionally disassociate with particular brands of speakers and controversial Jewish organizations, often defined as “anti-Israel” or worse. Uncomfortable issues around race, sexual orientation or partisan politics have been removed from institutional agendas, out of a concern that organizations might lose donors, members, and their institutional standing.

In every sphere of communal life, one finds the imprint of our political dysfunctionality. As an example, the publications one reads often reflect specific ideological proclivities and political beliefs. Mosaic, Tablet, JNS (Jewish News Service) among others represent the emerging conservative perspectives on Jewish affairs, whereas The Forward, Tikkun, Lilith among a number of others, comprise liberal journalistic expressions.

The Evolving Communal Order:

The arrival of new organizations on the communal platform reflect a counter-cultural response to these heightened tensions around how we manage domestic policy considerations, Israel-based issues and gender and race-defining questions. We see, for example, new communal reactions in response to the rise of the progressive wing within the Democratic Party and its impact both on such issues as culture and race and in connection with recent policy challenges in connection with US support for Israel. The growth of conservative Jewish think tanks, publications and educational programs point to the changing character of the American Jewish landscape.

The emergence of some of these types of institutional models provides, for example, moderate Democrats and liberal Jewish audiences with alternative avenues by which to articulate and advance their interests.

Heart of a Nation represents one of these new expressions of political organizing. Its mandate is framed through its mission:[4]

Liberalism is under assault in the United States, Israel, and around the world. As the progressive impulses in Israeli and American societies are challenged by darker forces, American progressives are drifting away from Israel and Israeli politics is just a shadow of its progressive roots. The acceleration of these trends will harm both countries, as well as advancements toward equality, justice, and peace. For these reasons, uniting in common purpose the progressive communities in the U.S., Israel, and Palestine is more urgent than ever.

Indeed, we have seen similar expressions at previous moments when the political environment appeared less friendly to Jewish audiences. The rise of the neo-Conservatives in the 1970s represented a counter-cultural response to some of the policies and proposals that had been identified at that point with particular leaders within the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party.

 Jews as White Folks:

The emergence of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (https://jilv.org/) has been launched in the aftermath of a liberal Jewish response acknowledging that Jews are white, privileged and by definition, racist. In opposing this collectivist reaction, the Jewish Institute has called for a more nuanced approach when studying and responding to issues of race and identity:

 Americans have work to do in curtailing racism and inequality… Critical Social Justice — the idea that there are hidden systems of oppression in America and that only marginalized people have the standing to define them—is a rising phenomenon in the organized Jewish community. It tends to stifle alternative views and prevents due consideration of such issues as racial justice and gender identity. Absent a balanced discussion, CSJ can corrupt the core values of many institutions and lead to cultures that restrict free thought. Such absolutist sentiment is a threat to the country and the Jewish community and fans the flames of antisemitism.

Similar to the more generic fight over inclusion and representation, the Jewish communal echo-system has witnessed the emergence of such institutional responses as Jews of Color Initiative (https://jewsofcolorinitiative.org/) committed to promoting a new leadership program to expand the role and presence of Jews of color within the established communal system:[5]

‘Leadership of Jewish community organizations today simply does not reflect the diversity of the Jewish community itself.’  To change this, we need to support people and nurture their professional growth at the earliest stages of their careers…

Countering antisemitism:

In response to the re-emergence of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish expressions, we can identify the growing presence of alternative initiatives in dealing with antisemitism.[6] Here, the operational challenge is centered on how best to manage and respond to the contemporary forms of hate as well as how we define the character and substance of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment.

Several of these emergent models are seeking to counter the ADL’s organizing principle of seeking to contain and minimize anti-Jewish hate as well as the liberal-orientation that represents the League’s operational identity. Among the current voices include both established and emergent organizations, Stand with Us, FCAS: the Foundation to Combat anti-Semitism, World Jewish Congress, and the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America). We need to remind ourselves that “hate” is itself big business, as it draws significant financial resources in promoting efforts to contain and defeat such expressions and practices.

The organizing principle here suggests that where there are significant social divides over how best to manage a political issue, one finds the emergence of multiple organizing initiatives designed to provide strategies and programmatic tools in respond to the attending issue. When a political issue is seen as both relevant and drawing public attention, new institutional voices enter the communal platform to compete not only in seeking to be responsive to the issue but also in capturing the available marketplace financial resources. The heightened visibility of an issue draws a corollary infusion of new operational responses, generating media attention and communal recognition.

Revisiting the Jewish Marketplace:

 The political divide speaks to a set of questions that Jews must consider:

  1. Does the liberal Jewish mainstream share any common political ground with its more politically conservative co-religionists?
  2. The political divide around Israel is a central element in the battle over the Jewish future. As American Jews what should be our relationship with the Jewish State?
  3. Who is permitted to critique Israel? The political right would argue that the prerogative of criticism belongs only to the citizens of the Jewish State; its counterpart, the Jewish progressive community, has argued that Jews across the world are partners in the task of building and defending the State of Israel and as such ought to be able to participate in a conversation concerning the nature and character concerning the Jewish State’s policies.
  4. How do we negotiate the racial and sexual perceptions and divisions that are present within our society and can also be found as core to our community?
  5. Finally, what does it mean to be “Jewish” in a 21st century environment where the scourge of antisemitism, racism and ethnic hatred has re-emerged? In light of this uptake in political antisemitism, will Jews find common ground in order to unite in this battle?

“Community” implies a set of shared values and common goals. Little today binds America’s Jews together. The underlying question would naturally be whether such deeply entrenched political and social divisions will permit a community to achieve its shared interests? Can we even be defined at this moment as a community?

The pathways of Jewish history would suggest that Jews have been constantly in contention with one another. Some have argued that this has been our asset, as contentious debate and controversy has stimulated creative responses, great literature and thoughtful commentaries, as well as significant Jewish heroes and leaders. Experiencing such messy and divisive stuff has emboldened Jews, bringing to the fore creative outcomes. Others view these divisions with concern, judging our historic infighting as being destructive over the centuries to our people’s wellbeing.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave special attention to this question, when he commented:

Recent history – the Holocaust, and the sense of involvement that most Jews throughout the world feel in the fate of Israel – has convinced us that the Jewish destiny is indivisible. We are implicated in the fate of one another. That is the substantive content of our current sense of unity. But it is a unity imposed, as it were, from outside. Neither anti-Semitism nor anti-Zionism, we believe, makes distinctions between Jews. Hence our collective vigilance, activity, and concern. But from within, in terms of its own self-understanding, the Jewish people evinces no answering solidarity. External crisis unites Jews, internal belief divides.

In this robust, noisy and contentious state, our task will be to draw upon the sparks of creative energy in the midst of these disagreements and tensions, generating innovative steps designed to reconstruct dialogue, promote debate and introduce confidence measures committed to realign our fractured status.

Let the conversation commence!

[1] https://aeon.co/ideas/religion-is-about-emotion-regulation-and-its-very-good-at-it

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/jewish/party-affiliation/

[3] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/principles-of-jewish-political-practice/

[4] https://theheartofisrael.org/

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/new-program-for-jews-of-color-aims-to-diversify-us-jewish-organizations/

[6] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/when-anti-semitism-arises-a-study-in-jewish-communal-behavior/

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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