As election fever builds, many American Jews are debating which, and whether, candidates will be good or bad for Jews in the US and for Israel. Amid increasing polarization, this election year is a fruitful time to explore big questions about how American democracy is playing out for Jewish Americans today.
This is hardly a new conversation. A century ago, American Jews faced accusations of “dual loyalty” as support for the growing Zionist movement grew. Louis Brandeis, a year before his Supreme Court appointment in 1916, debunked the notion of dual loyalty in his speech to the Eastern Council of Reform Rabbis:
“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism…Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”
Today, we are still asking questions about the intersection of our Jewishness and our American-ness, though the context and the questions are different.
On the one hand, Jews feel at home in America. We have high rates of civic engagement–even more than the average American. We are generally considered by our fellow Americans as “people of the town” (in the language of Mishnah Bava Batra 1:5) – people who share in the civic responsibility to provide for the protection of the community. There is little doubt that most American Jews feel, and are treated, as people who belong in American society.
On the other hand, as a community, Jews have become just as politically polarized as the rest of America. We often find ourselves expressing a stronger commitment to partisan ideology than to Jewish community group identity. Our divisions are increasingly the product of radically different narrative world views that define and explain the nature of the American Jewish experience and that compete over which understanding of America, and whose values are more “authentically” Jewish. This polarization threatens our American Jewish collective identity and the broader American Jewish project.
This challenge is the topic of OC’s second communal learning initiative led by Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Service in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and local congregations. Together, we seek to stem the tide of divisiveness that challenges our ability to be in community. In Jewish Values and American Democracy, scholars from the Hartman Institute will join us as we interrogate our choices about how to understand America and Judaism and how we engage with other Jews who use the same raw materials to come to different political conclusions. By transcending partisan expressions and asking basic questions about what it has meant to be American, about the nature of Jewish obligation to other Americans and other Jews, and about what it will take to strengthen the systems that have enabled us to thrive as Jews and Americans until now, we will collectively seek to create a sustainable framework for building community across differences.
As we get ready to go to the polls in November, we will be well served to reflect collectively and Jewishly on these issues.
Register today for the first of two community conversations on Jewish Values and American Democracy on Monday, May 11 at 7:00 pm at Congregation Shir Ha’Ma-alot. This program is free and open to the public with RSVP at www.JewishOC.org/Rose. For more information contact Lisa Armony at Lisa@jffs.org.
LISA ARMONY IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.