Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Unsettled in America: When Democracy Falters

Are we seeing Americans give up on America? For the first time in my lifetime, I am hearing from some fellow citizens about leaving this country, as they fear that the democratic dream that has been America is beginning to come undone and their sense of personal security is unraveling.

Beginning in 2016 I had occasion to reflect of this subject but from a specific Jewish lens.  I noted then:

Is what Jews are experiencing today in this society simply a momentary blip as part of their American journey or does it suggest that there are deeper, more troubling elements to this current scenario? Jews have been ripped from their place of security in other societies by external events and social unrest. Are we to understand that what is unfolding within this nation around race and class, immigration and religious tolerance represents something equally as unsettling?

Today, these troubling considerations extend beyond religious identity.  The very core of America’s social fabric appears to be coming apart. Civility has left the public square, partisanship has trumped patriotism, and communalism has given way to self-aggrandizement. Sadly, hate and distrust are the new protocols.

When conspiracy and mythology replace reason and meaning, a society loses its credibility and credence. Individuals, especially during a national crisis look to their leaders to provide direction, offer comfort, and inspire its citizenry. Such voices are clearly and sadly missing at this moment.

We are reminded that political elites help to form the social culture of a society, shaping both its language and themes essential for civil discourse. Intimidation and fear are operating in place of public debate.

There appears to be a deafening silence from business and labor executives, civic and cultural administrators and educational and media personalities, all of whom were expected to be contributing partners to the social welfare of this democracy.

When these essential voices are absent, new social messengers emerge to fill the public vacuum, some from the street scene and still others from within social media.  When these voices replace or undermine the legitimate authorities of the social order, the well-being of citizens is being compromised and challenged.

But this story is not only about the failure of leadership, it is as much about the character of its citizens. When many within this society invoke conspiracy ideas, embrace racist notions and hold beliefs that run counter to democratic principles, the core values that bind up a populace are fractured. The street scenes of violence and looting amplify this disregard of civil order.

The welfare of this democracy is imperiled when these five markers seem to be the dominant political characteristics of a nation:

  • Loss of respect for and belief in the legal and civic tenets of a society
  • When citizens no longer believe in the democratic processes of government and its institutions or have lost confidence and trust in their elected leaders
  • When leaders believe that their actions are above the law and take steps to subvert the political order
  • Where reason, law and science are replaced by conspiratorial beliefs, a rejection of legal processes, and the dismissal of facts
  • When bi-partisanship is negated in favor of individual and/or political party gain.

These elements all speak to the centrality of trust essential for  governments and societies to thrive. The political process demands mutual respect amidst its competing voices.

A Jewish Perspective:

As one would expect, Jews, who as a community have been deeply connected to this American storyline, are conveying at this moment their concern. Indeed, a number of specific factors are contributing to these disruptive realities for Jews:

As America’s social fabric is being tested, new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have emerged globally and at home. Jews who were seen for decades as political outsiders are now defined as part of the established power class. Today we are being dismissed as privileged “white” political actors, who are seen by the left as no longer in consort with communities of color and by the right as mere political imposters, seeking to claim “whiteness” as the Jewish entry point into the circles of power.

Jews have a stake in preserving and protecting the inherent qualities of this republic, not only for their own security but in fact for the good and welfare of the broader society. How America moves ahead will determine its fate as a democracy.

Moving Forward:

The roadmap ahead would indicate a continued and growing political divide. This is particularly disruptive to the delicate political balance required for democracies to thrive. This disruption is particularly problematic to America’s minority communities who remain primary targets for racial and religious attacks.

The populace must believe in the value of its civic institutions, just as the political players must be held accountable to protect and advance the interests of the society. Citizens need to believe in the public square and affirm the common bonds that bind them together as a nation. In this moment a nation is craving a sense of direction.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Citizens arise!  This is the moment for the silent majority to assert their presence and their voice. It is a time for coalitions, partnerships and joint action. This is not about partisan politics; this is about the preservation and maintenance of this country! What is needed now is a shared commitment to preserve the institutions and the ideas that helped to create and build this experiment in democracy. Returning trust and confidence to the people and providing support for the institutions of government.

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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