The story of world Jewry covering the past six decades must be defined as one of achievement and recognition. American Jews have achieved extraordinary success and influence, and Israel, despite threats to its existence, has flourished as a democracy, and absorbed and resettled millions of Jews. Yet, as the world marks the 80th anniversary of the rise of Nazism, the status of Jews in the world seems to be seriously eroding.
During this period international politics was influenced by the powerful motif of memory. The images of past atrocities that tarnished the 20th century created a baseline for moral action. Over time, though, the power and integrity of this historical record has seemingly faded.
Earl Raab, a prominent social scientist and communal professional, once posited that two factors aligned together could create a serious threat to the Jewish people. An unstable economy and a growing set of tensions between Jerusalem and Washington would present, according to Raab, the “perfect firestorm” for potentially accelerating anti-Semitism and in creating a destabilizing environment for Jews in this nation and beyond. Both factors seem to be in play at this time.
The economic dislocation facing this nation and the international community has triggered political and social conflict. Similarly, tensions over policy options with respect to handling the Iranian nuclear crisis have emerged between the United States and Israel. The “storm” before us however seems even more complex and problematic than Raab’s initial scenario. Beyond the current economic crisis and the emerging underlying disagreements involving Israel and America are an array of parallel concerns and a growing set of uncertainties.
As factionalism and the politics of blame have increased in this country, many Americans are fearful of the future, triggering their fury and anger against the current state of this society. A culture of incivility defines today’s political climate. With such levels of discontent one finds an acceleration of social dissonance and hate. We are witnessing in some quarters a call for America to withdraw from the world. This growing drumbeat of isolationism is particularly challenging to Jewish interests at this moment in light of the emerging Iranian threat.
On the domestic side, there are today elements within both the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street that have attempted to align the economic crisis with “Jewish influence and control.” Beyond these voices, there appears to be an expanding number of fringe groups linking the social and financial ills of America with an array of conspiracy theories often identifying Jewish domination.
It may only take one centrist political group or national leader to use the current political malaise to identify Jews as the source of this nation’s problems to accelerate a true firestorm of anti-Jewish feelings.
According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, we are witnessing the undoing of our national social infrastructure. This has particularly profound implications for minorities who are dependent on the greater society to embrace democratic values, to insure the viability of and belief in public institutions, and to nurture and uphold the social contract that binds together the core networks of communication and engagement. Absent these instruments and images of social cohesion, minorities in particular worry about their status and acceptance.
By all measure the levels of anti-Semitism especially in Europe and in other parts of the world represent troubling signs of how the images and lessons of the Holocaust have faded, only to be replaced by traditional themes of anti-Semitism, joined by a new phenomenon: anti-Israelism. Here, the very behaviors and policies employed by the Nazis are now applied to the Israelis, thus making the Jewish state an international pariah. This global anti-Semitism is fueled and embraced by some within the Islamic world. As Muslims play an increasingly larger and more significant role within the European scene, not only is their political clout being elevated on the continent but their encounters with Jews have often created points of intimidation and tension.
Possibly the greatest international challenge is the rise of a nuclear Iran and the threat that it presents to the West in general and to Israel in particular. Tensions surrounding how American policy makers and Israeli officials interpret this growing threat may ultimately represent the core ingredient for weakening and possibly undermining U.S.-Israel relations. Simultaneously, a major fallout over Iran can trigger increased anti-Semitism at home and abroad, associated with the rise of oil prices and the further potential entanglement of American forces in a foreign conflict.
Of particular significance inside the Jewish world is the absence today of a shared political agenda. The once understood communal principle of governing by consensus has given way in these times to the presence of political positions that has divided the Jewish community into ideological camps. In its place one finds a deep, and at times, angry level of discourse that describes the current political state of the Jewish people. As a minority community, it is problematic to be seen as a house divided. When the power of ethnic communities is seen as weakened by internal divisions, the capacity to be politically effective is proportionally reduced.
This internal discontent is directed in part against Jews aligned with Peace Now and J Street or other center-left positions on Israeli policies that are interpreted by the Jewish political right as giving aid to the enemies of Israel and add fuel to the negative and problematic image of the Jewish state in the world. This class of activists has created in effect an Israel loyalty test that defines and measures one’s credentials as a pro-Israel advocate. In this current situation, nuance has given way to a more definitive expectation of support.
Not only are we witnessing the sharpening of the divide within the community but a radicalization of the Jewish political right, accompanied by a corresponding disengagement of the Jewish liberal sector from the Israel discourse; this later group is often unwilling or uncomfortable to participate from what some perceive as a defensive posture. Of equal concern are those on the left who have felt Israel has lost its moral compass and have abandoned in turn their role as defenders of the Jewish state.
Do these observations make me an alarmist or as a realist? Minorities do not have the luxury of merely assessing events after the fact; their status requires them to be able to measure the playing field as they live out their story.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles campus.