Can you feel the center collapsing all around you?
Looking to the left and to the right — politically and religiously, here and in Israel — I see the gap widening at an increasingly rapid rate. The search for The Golden Mean, the desirable balance between extremes in our lives and worldview advocated by the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the 12th-century philosopher), seems unattainable.
The demographic decline at the center of the American Jewish community has been well documented. National and local studies have shown that we are moving in two opposite directions. There is the growth of the Orthodox, and particularly charedim (or, ultra-Orthodox) at one end, and of the “nones,” primarily young Jews with no affiliation to synagogues or Jewish institutions, on the other.
What we think of as “the middle,” the solid core of U.S. Jewry made up primarily of our communal Jewish structure and the liberal denominations, is in decline, aging out and having fewer children who follow their path. Projections for mid-century suggest a much smaller Jewish community, a majority of whom will be religiously Orthodox and politically conservative.
But there is recent evidence that the movement away from the center is even more pronounced; examples abound, starting at home.
The Democratic Party, where Jews have felt so comfortable for almost a century, is moving sharply to the left in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s shattering defeat. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, representing the progressive wing, are in ascendance. Despite their age they are the darlings of the millennials and college youth. And if Keith Ellison, an African-American convert to Islam, is chosen to head the Democratic National Committee, it will be further proof that traditional support for Israel is no longer a given in the party of Truman, LBJ and Bill Clinton.
The issue is not the Minnesota congressman’s race or religion, or even his former association with the virulently anti-Semitic Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Ellison told The Jewish Week that his involvement with the Nation of Islam and its fiery leader was focused on organizing the Million Man March on Washington in 1995, and that he cut his ties with the group when he realized the extent of Farrakhan’s “bigotry” (“Ellison Pushes Back As Critics Press Attack,” Nov. 25). It’s difficult to believe that such blatant anti-Semitism wasn’t obvious or distressing enough to offend Ellison from the outset, but let’s take him at his word.
It’s his political views on the Mideast that are particularly worrisome. While he has voted for funding for Israel and supports a two-state solution, in 2014, he was one of only eight members of Congress to oppose a bipartisan bill calling for $225 million to advance Israel’s Iron Dome missile system when Hamas was firing missiles during the Gaza War. Four years earlier he led a letter-signing effort among Democrats in Congress urging President Obama to pressure Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, asserting that Jerusalem was collectively punishing Gaza residents.
Ellison has also been associated with Islamic organizations that oppose the U.S. and Israel.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, an outspoken supporter of Israel and the next Senate minority leader, favors Ellison for the DNC post. That gives cover to Ellison against some would-be Jewish critics. But it also underscores how dependent the Democrats are on their progressive wing in an effort to regain trust among a new generation of voters after the November election. That could well mean a continuing shift in sympathy from Israel to the Palestinians and more pressure on Jerusalem going forward.
Is the Republican Party the answer? President-elect Donald Trump’s pledges of support for Israel may be appealing on the surface to some, but his lack of understanding of Mideast complexities is vast, as is his track record of reversing course on so many seemingly firmly-held policies. Uncertainty is the operative sentiment for now. And the president-elect’s domestic agenda — including the Supreme Court pick, an immigration crackdown, tax breaks for the wealthy, etc. — leans too far right for centrists.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this week of his hope for a new political and ideological center to emerge and fill the gap between “the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.” He cites a group called “No Labels” that strives to counter political partisanship and bridge the divide between Congress and the White House.
But no one knows what to expect in Washington, including Republican leaders. They are well aware that Trump’s appeal to a frustrated electorate focused on his commitment to take on the Republican establishment in Washington as well as the Democrats.
Consider: To his credit or blame, Trump has dethroned America’s two first families, the Bushes and Clintons, blown up the Democratic and Republican parties, given rise to an alt-right movement that traffics in white nationalist anger and brought low the bar for civility and decency in our society’s public discourse.
“Presidential” once meant “class.” Now “crass” could apply. And angry sentiments, long simmering under the surface, have been unleashed. How sad that in 2016, anti-Semitism is more of a reality and concern than it has been for decades, along with other forms of bigotry and racism against women, minorities and the disabled.
Trump is not solely to blame, but he trafficked in dividing our society between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” giving legitimacy to a white nationalist movement long on the fringes of society. His prompted, pro forma disavowals of racism of late do not convince a riled up segment of the electorate that has learned, better than his critics, to take Trump seriously but not literally. Targeting anyone in his path, from immigrants to journalists to former beauty queens, he fanned the flames of anger and frustration that cannot be contained easily. He must do better.
The flames that swept through Israel this past week were actual fires, believed to be the work of arsonists, their motives unknown. The fires reflected a dark mood in the country where young Arabs continue a persistent form of individual acts of terror, and Jews lash out at fellow Jews for not observing their same brand of Judaism.
This past week in Ra’anana three Reform leaders received death threats at a Reform synagogue, which was vandalized. The threat came through a note in Hebrew with the leaders’ names on it, accusing them of heresy. The note, placed next to a large knife, was addressed to Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement in the U.S., and Anat Hoffman, an Israeli Reform leader and chair of Women of the Wall.
The message made reference to the holiness of the Western Wall, suggesting that the threats were tied to the effort by liberal movements to hold egalitarian services at the Wall.
The act was condemned widely, from the prime minister to Orthodox leaders in America. But as Hoffman noted, “This is what happens when members of the Knesset, ministers of the state and prominent rabbis make almost daily speeches condemning Reform Jews as heretics, dogs and any other insult you can imagine.”
As we all know too well, words have consequences, and sometimes lead to acts of horrific violence. We must ask: What holds us together as one people when we turn on each other in the name of God?
As Jews we should take pride in a foundation that gave the world the belief that each of us is created in God’s image. As Americans we are ever grateful for a nation founded on that principle, pledged to uphold high standards of human dignity and equality. But shaken by the ugly election campaign we’ve just endured and the bitter struggles among our co-religionists here and in Israel, we are forced to recognize that our freedoms and values are not assured; they must be preserved.
As Maimonides wrote (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, v. 1-2): “We each decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us … We are responsible for what we are.”