As one moves around the country, one encounters an array of uncomfortable conversations rarely heard in previous times. Jews in particular are sharing their growing concerns about the state of American society, and more directly the condition of race relations, ethnic prejudice and most certainly the growing presence of anti-Semitism within the country.
Elsewhere, I have written about the general tenor of American society and its politics. Here, however, the focus will be directed specifically to the growing discomfort that seems to be plaguing America’s Jews. Indeed, in the past when Jews experienced such uncertainty, they would find themselves to be in a powerless condition often unable to counter the impact of such hate. Yet, within the contemporary American context, such is not the case, as Jews have achieved a level of political, economic and cultural recognition rarely attained in any other society.
Is this newly formed anxiety only offered in response to the current election climate in this nation or does the current politics of anger operate beyond the political realm? Certainly, a piece of this story is tied to the recorded rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric. The 2014 ADL Audit on Anti-Semitism reported a 21 percent increase over the previous report. Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted a significant rise in hate crimes across the nation and the rapid expansion of extremist groups. Nor can one escape the escalation of racial tension as demonstrated in recent weeks by an array of incidents involving police and the African-American community.
Extracting from our history that growing class, ethnic and racial divides within a society is not a good prescription for minority communities. Ethnic and racial communities thrive best in an environment of social and economic stability.
Understanding forces of anti–Semitism
When examining the rise of anti-Semitism, we note five trigger factors that generate religious hatred. The oldest of these is, of course, linked to religious or theological anti-Jewish practice. Church history is most certainly filled with such diatribes directed against Jews and Judaism.
More common in contemporary times is the use of economic threats and the introduction of negative cultural themes designed to identify the excessive power or influence that Jews possess within a society. Another factor involves the rise of leaders who personify in their ideas and actions a particular hatred or disregard for the Jewish people. The most recent reinvention of anti-Semitism involves an assault on the State of Israel as expressed through the BDS movement and other efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Is what Jews are experiencing today in this society simply a momentary blip as part of their American journey or does it suggest that there are deeper, more troubling elements to this current scenario? Jews have been ripped from their place of security in other societies by external events and social unrest. Are we to understand that what is unfolding within this nation around race and class, immigration and religious tolerance represents something more unsettling?
Even beyond the America’s borders, Jews globally are encountering threats to their security. It is as if the 70 years that separated us from Hitler’s assault on the Jewish people has faded away only to be replaced by a new era of European and Islamic anti-Semitism, where the very ideas of the Nazis are being recast in a contemporary framework.
Exploring the historical context
Whatever may be unfolding, there are specific strategies that Jews in earlier times employed when seeking to create a safety net. Historically, Jews in America understood that they needed to acquire access to key influentials.
Engaging the elites of a society served as a specific and often a successful tactic. Realizing that minority communities are often unable to penetrate the general social culture, it became increasingly important for Jews and other ethnic/religious communities to embrace the nation’s prime decision-makers and power brokers.
Leaders in core areas of this society set the tone and substance of the public discourse essential for this democracy to flourish. Political elites, business and labor executives, civic and cultural administrators, ethnic and religious personalities, along with media and entertainment figures, create the social culture of a society, shaping both the language and themes essential for civil discourse. Accessing these power brokers has ultimately served to calibrate the social order, in helping to marginalize hate while accelerating the common good.
Beyond engaging such influentials, minority communities would construct coalitions as a way to press their common agenda and to articulate their collective concerns. The tripartite theme of “Catholic, Protestant and Jew” would elevate the status of Judaism. Jews would be celebrated as one of the prime religious cultures within the American experience. This phenomenon would be unique to the United States, reaffirming its multicultural traditions.
Other strategies would also be introduced, including educational campaigns designed to inform Americans about Jews and Judaism. At the outset of the 20th century, another approach sought to “contain” anti-Semitic views and practices by “treating” the problem as if it were a disease; in this context Jewish groups would attempt to isolate the strains of anti-Semitism, as a way to minimize their impact within the greater culture.
Assessing the contemporary context
For decades, American Jewry has not experienced this current and unsettling condition. Whether through internet and social media messaging, comments and tweets stemming from the 2016 political campaign, or public acts of vandalism, the escalation of hate has proved to be unnerving and disconcerting to many groups within our society.
On a broader scale, the ethnic and racial tensions within this society find a number of prominent Americans focusing on the need for a national conversation on these challenging questions that seem today to divide this nation. In the end, are some of the tenants that framed the American dream beginning to unravel? If so, how might America’s Jews in consort with others recreate a culture of tolerance and reaffirm the pluralistic traditions that have defined this society?
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, thewindreport.com.