For Jews, politics is not a mere avocation, it is the centerpiece element of their story.
As we approach the November elections, we find the emergence of two distinctive political camps within the American Jewish world. If Jonathan Woocher’s notions of an “American Jewish civil religion” held measure during the decades of the 1960s to the 1980s, then a new iteration of a defining Jewish political culture has emerged in these initial years of the 21st century.
Woocher’s notions were tied to a number of defining elements of our political past that informed how Jews saw political power and their role in shaping Jewish destiny.
Today’s revival of this culture is divided along two countervailing political ideologies. One narrative is about framing a national Jewish political identity. “Traditionalists” see Jewish interests aligned with four core principles: Israel’s security as paramount; America as a defender of Western interests and values in the face of an unsettling and uncertain course of events within the Middle East and Southwest Asia; a lack of confidence in and support for global institutions and multilateral commitments; and a belief that there are limits to the role of government within the domestic arena.
This camp, comfortable with its political convictions and dedicated to growing its political voice, is readily prepared to align itself with allies that in the past Jews would have rejected. In many ways this community of belief feels itself on the ascendency within the Republican Party.
The second political camp, the “Progressives,” hold to the universal principles of liberal political activism and the Jewish mantra of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Its adherents have endorsed the notion that the changing political realities unfolding across the globe will require an American commitment to support multilateral initiatives and international institutions. Despite existing in an uncertain Arab neighborhood, Israel must seek a two-state agreement with the Palestinians.
This camp blends its foreign policy concerns with its domestic priorities of refocusing America on rebuilding its core infrastructure of education, health care, and the economy. For progressives, the principles of church-state separation, gun control and a woman’s right of choice remain social values. In building its coalition, it finds common ground with an array of immigrant and minority communities that have had limited connections with Jews. Deeply imbedded in American political scene, the Progressives view themselves as the inheritors of a long and rich encounter with the Democratic Party.
Throughout history, diaspora Jews would struggle with defining their agenda as a “nationalist” one, opting to pursue self-interests, or in the case of the second perspective to “accommodate” to the existing culture by playing off of it. Both constituencies would ask how best can Jews advance their interests? This historic tension is not particularly different from the current contest between Traditionalists and Progressives.
No doubt, there will be Jews who will find themselves partially at home in both camps, identifying with specific interests or priorities.
If in the past Jews saw the Democratic Party as the gateway to political engagement, today an increasing number of Jews view the Republican Party as responsive to specific Jewish interests. Minorities seek several outcomes when entering the political arena. Initially, they want and need to be accepted within the broader culture, and secondly, they explore the best ways to promote their political interests. Today, both parties have served as pathways to acceptance. Now it is no longer the first criteria that remains in play, but the second, namely identifying the best direction to achieve a community’s political priorities.
Some American Jews, however, claim that the “special interests” model of politics for our community has past its day. Arguing that today many Jews are part of the fourth and even fifth generation of their American journey, they no longer need to approach the political arena as petitioners with defined agendas; the presence of Jewish interest groups, them, has little merit in this current setting. They believe Jews have become central to the American experience, and that as individual citizens they hold standing, without the requirement of labels.
This nation has a fascination and regard for its Jewish citizens, borne out of our successful encounter with this land of opportunity and promise. Today, the unfinished issues associated with Jewish political behavior reside internal to the community rather than as the questions or challenges imposed by others.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College. He teaches on the Jack H.Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. To read more about his views, see www.thewindreport.