Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Upending American Jewish security

We are living in a new American political environment, where a war against minorities in general, and Jews in particular, has been launched. This moment represents the single most significant threat to Jews since the Shoah. The scope of anti-Jewish expression is not bound by a broad increase in the number of anti-Semites but rather in the ability of these hate actors to actualize their beliefs and carry forward their plans. In many ways, social media has enabled these players to gain significant media attention and visibility.

Why is this happening? Over the past number of years, there has been a significant loss of trust in public institutions and in the weakening of support for civic leadership. The prime features of democracy depend upon a vital set of public actors. These democratic forces collectively help to create the necessary firewall constraining conspiratorial actors and anti-social forces. We are reminded that political elites help to form the social culture of a society, shaping both its language and behavior, essential for civil discourse to be exercised, while marginalizing problematic elements. When these public voices are weakened or silenced, this void permits the emergence of hate-based actors.

Yet beyond these cracks in the social fiber of this nation, are we seeing Americans give up on America? For the first time, we are learning about fellow citizens raising concerning questions about their status and security in this nation, as they fear that the democratic dream that has been America is beginning to come undone and their sense of personal security is unraveling.

As I have written elsewhere:

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. Intimidation and fear are operating in place of public debate.

When conspiracy and mythology replace reason and meaning, a society loses its credibility and credence. There appear 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 dissonant 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.

Unpacking the Basis of Hate Behavior: Beyond these generic characteristics that define the changing political landscape, it is particularly critical that our community identify the particular manifestations of this new hate. We can identify a three-part challenge:

  • An orchestrated assault on the profile and status of Jewish Americans.
  • Public attacks and criticisms directed against specific Jewish personalities, the State of Israel and high profile Jewish institutions, and
  • Focused criticism on ideas, institutions and individuals who are sponsored or supported by Jews and the institutions of the Jewish community.

As these notions gain credence, there is a corresponding weakening associated with the role and respect for Jews within American society and culture. Two of the manifestations of this social downsizing include:

  • The very success of American Jewry is today eroding the community’s security position, as Jews are identified as “privileged, white, and entitled”. In an economically-challenged environment, any reference given to such high profile “status” is being repudiated.
  • The Judeo-Christian tradition that had once defined the unique and special relationship that Jews enjoyed within the American story is itself being uncoupled, whether through the rise of Christian Nationalism or as a result of extremist notions associated with the marginalization of Jews, these initiatives serve to undercut the credibility of this historically accepted tenant.

Employing various theoretical models may help to explain these new outcomes:

Under the “Middleman Theory” groups such as Jews are often seen caught between the competing interests found within the majority culture.  As a minority, there are certain expectations set for these “middle” players to conform or embrace a particular political construct.  When these groups are seen as problematic or countercultural, such actors are often pilloried for what is described as their anti-social behaviors.

Today, Jews are also seen as “Outliers” defined by their own interests and beliefs. Their behaviors, at least as interpreted by some extreme elements, are classified as an irritant, disruptive to the general tenor of serving the best interests of the nation. Their patriotism is questioned, their loyalties suspect. They are labeled as operating outside of accepted conduct.

Conspiracies abound concerning the extraordinary power of such groups; they are described as having the power to control or manage situations that otherwise might be unexplainable. An old mythological notion has been re-constructed, suggesting that Jews, among other actors, possess demonic capacities designed to control outcomes. The COVID-19 experience has represented one of those moments where Jews were believed to have instigated this pandemic and now have the power to manage its resolution.

At this moment, it would appear that the Jewish community is unprepared to address these emerging threats. Arising from a variety of different political platforms, these new challenges will require our community to invest in developing new strategies and programs for managing its response.

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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