An Unsettling Jewish Environment

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

Posted on December 8, 2014

Written by Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.


At times over the past number of years a McCarthy-like atmosphere has existed within the Jewish world. An environment of distrust and anger has defined the Jewish landscape involving discussions on Israel and its policies. On a number of occasions, name-calling, labeling, and the marginalizing of groups has replaced a focus on policy discussions concerning Israel and its future. Yet, the events covering the past several weeks involving the Government of Israel’s proposal to alter the national definition of the Jewish State provides an opportunity to create a new framework for a Diaspora-Israel conversation.

Who defines the attributes of being a “friend and partner of the Jewish State”? The Jewish political right within the United States has questioned in the past the legitimacy of its counterpoint, the political left, arguing that the activist efforts of those who seek to press Israel to pursue negotiations with Palestinians, to cease settlement construction, or to define the Jewish or Zionist character of the State are operating outside of the boundaries of acceptable and responsible discourse. Do individuals and groups, operating outside of the Jewish state, have the right to define its political and security agenda or question its policy options? The Jewish political right would contend that such policy matters ought to be left to the government and citizens of the State of Israel.

The Jewish left has charged that the actions and statements of its opponents on the right are designed to limit, or worse, drive out political dissent. They describe the current environment as one where only “politically-correct responses” are entertained. A “loyalty-test” they would argue currently defines the conversation around Israel. Operating outside of this acceptable frame, liberal groups and their supporters are labeled as being “disloyal” to the Jewish enterprise.

The left has contended that Israel is the living expression of the Jewish body politic, and as such, Jews collectively have a stake in its policies and decisions whether they reside within the state or not. As caring citizens of the world with a particular allegiance to the welfare of the Jewish people and its national aspirations, they believe that they are entitled to speak to such matters impacting the character and content of the state.

The Jewish left, in turn, has been accused by its opponents as being morally righteous in its stance, viewing its positions as beyond reproach. “Name calling” and “labeling” are charges not limited to the right, as some in the peace camp have been accused of minimizing their opponents, by dismissing their credentials or affiliation, thereby creating guilt by association. Some on the Jewish right view the “intellectual snobbery” of those within the left as being dismissive, ruling out of hand their opponents’ perspectives.

This past May the vote conducted by the Conference of Presidents regarding the admission of J Street to its ranks would further accelerate this debate concerning the quality and the status of Jewish conversations being held by Jews around the question of Israel as well as the broader issue of “who speaks for American Jewry?”

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