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Thinking the unthinkable

The unmaking of the American Jewish experience

Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the oldest congregation in the United States, which was founded by Portuguese and Spanish Jews. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the oldest congregation in the United States, which was founded by Portuguese and Spanish Jews. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller

American democracy is in trouble. Democratic governments here and elsewhere are being tested and challenged. Liberalism as a political and moral ideology based on the rights of the individual, the centrality of liberty and the consent of the governed is particularly under attack, as political nationalism and authoritarianism expand their presence.

In part, the downsizing and questioning of democracies emerged as a result of a number of factors, including the impact of the pandemic, the collective economic and social grievances of various classes of citizens, a growing uncertainty about America, an expanding credibility gap in connection with leaders and a corresponding loss of trust in the capacity of democratic governments to perform.

What does all of this mean for America’s Jews? As I’ve written previously, a level of unsettledness defines this nation’s Jews, creating an internal debate involving many of us: As we shift from a period of American liberalism to a time of political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced, as Jews debate and disagree over what defines their vision for America and how they understand their self-interests in this new political reality.

Today, a new type of angst exists among America’s Jews. It is taking place amidst the rise of a new American nationalism, framed by a nativist populism, an emerging neo-isolationism and a dramatic spike in antisemitism. A portion of this unsettled condition has been driven by external threats that I have described elsewhere, encompassing antisemitic rhetoric and behavior and growing political divisions within this nation. This contemporary state of anxiety is framed around an assault that Jews are experiencing in connection with their love affair with America, reminding one how deeply invested Jews have been in this society.

American Jewish political thought

Jews have understood that their American journey has been tied to a certain set of civic and human rights principles that has served this nation and, more directly, represented Jewish Americans’ interests. Among these core ideas that have shaped what I call the Jewish Contract with America are the civic values introduced by community organizer Walter Lurie in his 1982 “Strategies for Survival”:

  • To promote equality of opportunity, without regard to race, religion, ancestry or sex.
  • To secure freedom of thought, opinion and association.
  • To ensure freedom of religion and separation of church and state.
  • To encourage constructive and supportive relationships among all communities.
  • To marshal public opinion on behalf of justice and freedom for all peoples.

As the value of truth is torn apart and as social media spills out an array of false sentiments, the undermining of political ideals and values core to Jewish sensibilities adds another dimension to the undoing of confidence in this nation. A rational mindset framed this base of thinking, namely that if the government delivered on its promises then this nation’s citizens would in turn believe in and be supportive of these institutions. Since 1970, however, the levels of trust in government have declined, creating in part this current crisis of confidence in our governing bodies and with our political leadership.

Today, some of the principles that framed the liberal perspective are being challenged and/or being reframed. This raises for some Jews deep concerns about the focus and future of American democracy. At this moment, our society is confronted by an organized effort to legislate and litigate over the rights and choices of individuals regarding their personal behaviors and sexual orientation, to impose progressive cultural beliefs in connection with our historic experience, to break down the “wall of separation” between state and religion and to limit the opportunities to assist minorities.

The new political paradigm

The democratic liberal tradition that has framed American political thinking for the past 75 years is beginning to fray, and in its place various competing ideological measures are emerging, refocusing this democracy in new directions. Jews are being identified with this particular brand of American liberalism, with its focus on civil and economic justice, commitment to diversity and multiculturalism, and its emphasis on promoting global democratic values. If in the end Jews are seen as the embodiment of this particular American storyline, then witnessing the unraveling of that liberal canon becomes particularly challenging.

When the cultural and political norms of a society are altered, critics of the status quo see such transformational expressions as an opportunity to advance their standing by introducing competing agendas, while established political players believe such a critique to be not only undermining the greater good but also potentially detrimental to their status. Part of what is unfolding at this moment is a reframing of what those without power are seeking to affirm. In this equation, groups aspiring to achieve influence and access are articulating their grievances, often directed to those whom they perceive as being in control of the instruments of government. As these outliers share their aspirations, their goal is to reshape the political marketplace. It would appear that in this scenario Jews are being politically targeted.

Where normally, such criticisms emerge most likely from one sector of the political arena, at this moment this critique is being generated from multiple players. From the extreme right, one hears an assertion that the American narrative has been lost or appropriated. Here “whiteness,” Christian values and constitutionalism are dominant themes as the extreme right seeks to reframe what is perceived as the “authentic” American story. In this scenario, Jews are defined as  “pretenders” seeking to claim the mantle of power by imposing their values and liberal beliefs on this society. They are seen by their opponents as seeking to acquire “whiteness” and in turn, to “replace” the existing white establishment with their allies.

On the left, “progressive” voices are asserting the need to revisit the flawed American experiment: racially, economically and politically. Elements on the political left have specifically rejected a Jewish presence, labeling Jews as “Zionists,” identifying them as being “white” and powerful, and as a result, no longer able to lay claim to their minority position. Those who embrace intersectionality politics hold to the principle that all minorities, with the exception of the Jews, can rightfully claim their victimhood credentials, whereas Jews have forfeited their place in this constellation as they are no longer identified as victims of this political order.

In the mindsets of these emerging voices, a fundamental reset is required to undo the existing power structure that controls and gives definition to the society. In both cases, the existing political scenario is identified as a failed proposition.

Jews and their liberal expressions are seen as “problematic” by those on both ends of this political spectrum. After all, Jews have thrived and benefitted within the context of the post-Second World War American liberal culture. Further, American Jewry is perceived as politically influential and economically powerful. Yet, beyond the realities of American Jewish success, there is a deeper and more foreboding concern. In an environment of political division and economic uncertainty and in a period of social media influence, there exists an acceleration of antisemitic tropes and beliefs that further feeds and supports the negative notion of Jewish “control” and cultural dominance.

Foreign policy and America’s Jews

Two perspectives are playing out with regard to U.S. foreign policy. Jews find themselves being equated with an elite state network, increasingly identified as being aligned with a white, colonialist and oppressive regime (Israel) and seen as defenders of the existing American power structure. Israel is targeted as an appendage of what some describe as a failed and problematic foreign policy too focused on a post-Second World War construct. The new international realities, according to these critics of U.S. diplomacy, must consider the changing balance of power and the political and economic aspirations of third world nations, while simultaneously failing to address the inequities of the existing globalist model fostered by Washington and its Western allies.

A second reading involving U.S. foreign policy argues that America must disconnect from its international involvements. This isolationist argument, fostered by some on the political right as well as certain voices on the left, suggests that this nation needs to reinvest its resources in its people, forgoing its global connections, or at least narrowing our focus to contend with legitimate enemies of this society. A corollary response here involves an anti-immigrant orientation, where the United States will need to rethink its policies on welcoming foreigners into this country.

Final reflections

Accompanying this assault on America and its political identity is an attack on globalism. Jews, in turn, are frequently identified as “globalists” holding to a belief in the idea that global economic, cultural integration aligns with America’s democratic vision.

The growing trend among many in the body politic is to accept conspiratorial ideas and theories, which further distorts the political realities of the moment. The disconnect between reality and belief creates a further weakening in this nation’s ability to engage in a shared discourse. The undermining of the American political conversation adds another dimension to the growing state of anxiety facing this nation’s Jews. Remembering the Nazis’s ability to effectively introduce and employ the “big lie” serves as a stark lesson that when a society operates outside the boundaries of truth, it is possible to literally upend the norms of a nation, leading to the destruction of Jews and others.

The collective character of these emerging political challenges may test America’s Jews as never before. The unfolding of these ideas, beliefs and movements raises increasing concerns for America’s Jews and brings forward a growing discussion about the Jewish future within the American context. 

Originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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