As Jewish Power Ebbs, A New Form Of Influence?

As Jewish Power Ebbs, A New Form Of Influence?

Power is both illusive and real, but it is never stagnant. 

Possibly never before in American Jewish history could we find Jews as divided around political priorities and even party affiliation. While the majority of Jews remain liberal, there are growing pockets of Republican Party activists, Tea Party members, and political independents.

These political “divides” are present not only around Israel but also impact social and economic policies. The impact of such divisions within the community has led national agencies to shift their agendas in order to capture specific audiences, while jettisoning other issues in an effort to appease key supporters. 

Today, we are literally witnessing the emergence of two distinctive Jewish political camps, one seeking to pursue universal concerns employing a Jewish lens to give credence and definition to their positions, while the second is committed to Israel-based priorities and to core national security interests.

As a result of these political cracks, Jewish influence in America, which achieved a golden era of influence after the Six-Day War, is undergoing new challenges. What are the elements that may be contributing to the unraveling of Jewish influence?

Counting Jews: The Jewish population is in free-fall. This is borne out as Jews continue to marry out, have fewer children, and disconnect from the core institutions of the community. Numbers matter in politics, and the Jewish community is rapidly losing this political edge.

Jewish Connections: Correspondingly, as the number of Jews diminishes, the levels of Jewish affiliation and commitment are showing signs of leakage. Organizations and synagogues are reporting decreased levels of membership, giving, and participation.

Electoral Presence: In comparison to previous periods, we are beginning to see the decline in the numbers of Jewish elected officials. The implications here go beyond merely electing Jews to public service but rather are centered on the importance of having key voices of influence in lending support for Jewish public concerns.

Voting Matters: While Jews continue to vote in overwhelming numbers, exceeding in percentage terms all other ethnic constituencies, the overall presence of the “Jewish vote” has fallen from 4 percent of the electorate to under 2 percent. 

Generations Count: The further removed the community’s generations are from the central stories of the 20th century — the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel — the less connected and identified are younger generations with the collective and shared imperative of being invested in the core public affairs interests of the community.

Money Counts: While Jews remain extraordinarily generous and are present in an array of charitable endeavors, the relative support for internal Jewish and Israel-based priorities has declined in comparison to other “investments” being made by donors.

While these internal challenges will change the social dynamics of the Jewish community, a series of external threats today are also present on the political horizon that have specific implications for U.S.-Israel connections.

New communities of political interest including Muslim Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are entering the fray over United States policy across the globe. At home the growth of neo-isolationist forces will seek to move the United States away from playing key interventionist roles within regional conflicts.

Noting these areas of concern, however, one must be mindful of the resiliency inherent within Jewish life.

“Jewey”: The New Jewish Constituencies: New and alternative Jewish institutions and programs have been introduced designed to engage millennial Jews. In their structure and focus, these organizational models have adopted the distinctive cultural features of this next generation. The question remains whether these groups will identify with the core interests of the communal system and have the political clout to shape policy outcomes?

The American Mosaic: It is not that this moment in time was unexpected where Jews might lose some of their political edge. To the credit of many within the community relations field and the pro-Israel advocacy camp, a number of organizations, realizing the changing political and demographic realities, these groups launched a series of initiatives to build connections with key political elites, ethnic and religious constituencies, and social connectors in promoting the historical and contemporary importance of the American-Israel relationship, along with other essential interests of the Jewish community. Will these political in-roads pay off in advancing the communal agenda?

Israel Re-Imagined: The State of Israel itself fully understands its need to project for 21st-century audiences a different story about its role in the Middle East and the world. This new messaging will incorporate Israel’s story in connection with technology and science innovation, health research and medical care, energy access and conservation, as well as matters of military security. Can Israel and its allies convert these masterful achievements into political gains?

Increasingly today we see a divided and disconnected community, unable to provide coherent positions on an array of key policy items. We are reminded that one of the axioms essential for a minority community is its ability to articulate a shared vision.

When can it be invoked and how ought it to be managed? These questions remain unanswered, in light of the process of figuring out the changing boundaries of Jewish power in an uncertain political environment.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

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