Will the New American Jewish Orthodoxy Continue to Shape Jewish Life?

People feel a sense of “rightness,” accompanied by social outrage, and consequently work to discount positions held by others.
August 3, 2021
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There is a new American Jewish orthodoxy that has nothing to do with religious Jewish expression. The American Jewish landscape is increasingly characterized by strident expressions of political difference, with debates and arguments between Jews blossoming in both real and virtual spaces. While in some ways these fierce discussions emulate the character and content of the broader realm of political debate, there are certain features that are particular to the Jewish response.

An ideological purity of judgement is seen in all facets of the community, as this practice is not specific to one political faction. People feel a sense of “rightness,” accompanied by social outrage, and consequently work to discount positions held by others. Rather than informed and thoughtful debate, we often find polemical or accusatory statements in all quarters of our communal discourse.

From race relations to Israel, from religious beliefs to cultural representations, these days there are few subjects that are not hot-button topics eliciting angry responses. And among the vast majority of these responses, there is a common pattern. They are all declaratory statements that make sweeping generalizations, foreclosing any possibility for real and meaningful dialogue.

A few examples of such statements include:

    • We must boycott Ben & Jerry’s because of their anti-Israel policies.
    • Don’t engage BLM (Black Lives Matter) because the organization is antisemitic.
    • Progressive Democrats are antisemitic.
    • Critical Race Theory is hostile to Jews.
    • Trump’s policies regarding Israel were harmful and dangerous.
    • J Street is anti-Israel.
    • Former President Barack Obama was anti-Israel.
    • Because X said this about Jews, he or she is antisemitic.
    • One cannot reason with Jewish Trump supporters.
    • Orthodox Jews don’t respect our society’s rules.

Some of these assertions carry elements of truth, but the political environment is far more complex and challenging than one finds with these simplistic assessments. Going forward, how we manage political complexity will be the new battleground for the American Jewish community.

Going forward, how we manage political complexity will be the new battleground for the American Jewish community.

In this tense and uneven political setting, we often feel compelled to offer declarative statements without context or historical connection, and devoid of some of the existing legal, cultural and political complexities that define our society or the issues under consideration. But broad statements that discount completely the potential for legitimate, competing viewpoints are always divisive. They elevate neither conversations nor communities.

In a 2017 publication, I concluded that the “the divide,” at least among Jewish voters, was “less geographical and more ideological,” and offered some perspectives on these Jewish political divisions:

Jewish Republicans Jewish Democrats
Composition: Russians, Persians, Israelis, Orthodox Jews and a selected group of entrepreneurs, among others, comprise the Republican Jewish base. Composition: Middle class Jewish baby boomers, generation Xers and millennial voters represent the Democratic Jewish base.
Issues: Maintaining our national security, preserving core values, fighting terrorism and antisemitism, and protecting Israel.  

Issues: America must be seen as a global partner in advancing human rights, fighting terrorism, and promoting peace.


Israel Factor: Israel’s security is paramount to all other considerations. Israel is a strategic ally of the U.S. and must be supported.


Israel Factor: A two-state solution is an essential ingredient for peace; Israel must be seen as a democratic and Jewish state.



Orientation: The world is a dangerous place and for Jews and the Jewish State. Having a proven friend in the White House is an essential formula in fighting antisemitism.


Orientation: A vital, just society is dependent on the political and social inclusion of all Americans. Jewish Americans need to push back against efforts to marginalize minorities and women.


There are critical questions that need to be considered by Jewish audiences in connection with such political and religious divisions.

    1. Does the liberal Jewish mainstream share any common political ground with its more politically conservative co-religionists? How might we find ways to open such conversations?
    1. The political divide around Israel is a central element in the battle over the Jewish future. As American Jews, what should be our relationship with the Jewish State? Two different perspectives are driving this debate.
    1. Who is permitted to critique Israel? The political right would argue that the right to criticize belongs only to the citizens of the Jewish State; its counterpart, the Jewish progressive community, has argued that Jews across the world are partners in the task of building and defending the State of Israel and as such ought to be able to participate in a conversation concerning the nature and character of the Jewish political enterprise.
    1. How do we negotiate the Jewish religious divide? Will Jews find a way to negotiate shared accommodations in response to their different religious inclinations?
    1. Finally, what does it mean to be “Jewish” in a 21st-century environment where the scourge of antisemitism, racism and ethnic hatred has re-emerged?In light of this uptake in antisemitism, will Jews find common ground in order to unite in this battle? We are reminded that the enemies of the Jewish people do not distinguish between the Jewish left and the Jewish right.

In another piece, I reflected on how we arrived at this point. The belief system regarding our community, nation, and selves to which many of us formerly subscribed is unraveling. For many of us, the prophetic tradition provided the framework and inspiration for promoting a more progressive society. We envisioned our Judaism and our Americanism in consort with one another. We believed that each generation saw itself building upon the next. Finally, we held to the belief that antisemitism, especially in the United States, was relegated to another era.

Today, the question is whether any of these ideas remain valid. Within my generational cohort, the principles themselves may not be necessarily shared. For younger American Jews, other parallel ideas most likely define their generational beliefs about society, culture and politics.

The New Beginnings

During the 1990s we began to see the collectivist orientation of the Jewish communal agenda collapse. Just as our vision of globalism diminished, we moved from a shared communal framework to a personalized, separatist Jewish construct. The sovereign self replaced a unified sense of Jewish destiny. We realized that we could no longer speak of a shared Jewish vision.

As we move forward into the 21st century, a number of external factors have not only reshaped Jewish life but also contributed to the undermining of social norms that defined and shaped the American story.

As we move forward into the 21st century, a number of external factors have not only reshaped Jewish life but also contributed to the undermining of social norms that defined and shaped the American story.

The growing economic divide has deepened cultural and political tensions. I write elsewhere about the emergence of a “Gilded Class” that is reshaping not only our economy but also our political and social order.

The loss of confidence in civic institutions is reflected in diminished voter participation. Nothing is more dangerous to a minority community, such as ours, than when a society gives up on its public square. When Americans no longer believe that our civic story or political system is responsive, then the institutions of our republic will become the sole province of special interests. This does not serve us well.

Consumer preferences are reshaping how individuals understand and relate to institutions and to the idea of community and even to religion. As we observe how different audiences manage “facts” and deal with “truth,” and how younger constituencies employ social media as their default engine for news and opinion, we can more readily appreciate how complex issues are being flattened, even minimized to one-sentence outcomes. The art of debate and the role of critical thinking have given way to simplified answers and to the outright rejection of context and content.

The Anglo-Saxon whiteness that defined much of American history is giving way to a multi-racial majority, and, more directly, creating a new debate over race and culture in our society. Today, for example, we face the new burdens of dealing with questions focusing on so-called Jewish whiteness. 

Stepping Back

The unifying forces of citizenship and community that used to frame American Jewish lives and identities are faltering. This sense of loss can also be seen in the Jewish communal and religious sphere, as an increasing number of Jews disassociate themselves from the institutions that provided meaning to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Today, we are a people in search of itself. The idea of peoplehood seems distant, if not completely displaced. The ability to engage fellow Jews in civil discourse on Israel or have a conversation about America and its politics has diminished.

In this vacuum, we find the emergence of these Jewish wars, pitting us against one another, our community and the Jewish State. Minority communities seldom have the luxury of overcoming such divisions. Instead, their security is compromised, just as their status is undermined.

Finding a constructive road forward will be the task of newer generations of Jews in helping to heal and reframe the essential conversations our community will require.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

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