Over the weeks following October 7th, I have lost a part of myself as well as my America! As if without warning, I along so many of my colleagues have experienced a series of losses. This past month, I have seen friends disappear; the failure of America’s elite universities to be responsive to the needs of their students and alumni; and sadly, my political party move further left, upending its long-held consensus on the American-Israel partnership.
How could this have happened?
Conflicts and wars, as we know, are ugly and problematic. But most such situations are simply played out as military undertakings, not necessarily impacting one’s core relationships or upending core values and beliefs. In this moment however a whole different constellation is emerging. For many of us, the upending of so many aspects of our lives is as traumatic as it is dramatic.
During the days following Hamas’ assault on Israelis, I expected many of my non-Jewish friends, colleagues and associates to demonstrate their support. Instead I/we experienced a wall of silence, and in some cases, quite the opposite, as various folks immediately embraced the case against Israel. The loss of friendships built over time is particularly devasting.
Some of my Jewish colleagues are telling me that they are feeling bereft, as they recall marching with their circle of friends around an array of causes dealing with civil and human rights, environmental concerns, and other liberal initiatives, only to find themselves today totally alone.
To add to this state of disappointment, I was taken aback when the University of Pennsylvania, where I had completed my graduate studies, demonstrated a level of moral bankruptcy as its campus administration failed to call out anti-Semitism and public hate. But if Penn had been the only violator it would be bad enough. However the reality here is that many of America’s premier institutions of higher education abdicated their responsibilities, as they discounted their Jewish students, faculty, alumni, and administrators. Of the numerous institutions that American Jewry have so generously embraced, these great educational centers were particularly significant. As they abandoned their charge to ensure academic integrity, provide safe and open public discourse, and maintain intellectual inquiry, this represented a most profound and significant loss for the Jewish community.
When talking this week with Jewish students across campuses, one hears the litany of stories of Hillel posters ripped from walls, of school relationships ending, and of professors articulating hateful messages charging Israel with “genocide.”
What has been particularly unsettling involves the fall-out I am experiencing from my political home, the Democratic Party, as we observe the progressive left align with Hamas, rejecting Israel as an “occupier” and as a “white colonial power,” despite the extraordinary leadership of our President. Feeling isolated and separated from one’s political moorings is indeed unsettling, but collectively, all these microaggressions translate into undoing my rootedness in the American narrative.
Even beyond these stark political messages, a broader disconnect appears at hand. What we are coming to realize based on these experiences within the educational orbit and among our younger political activists is a fundamental divide defined by age, ethnicity and race regarding the place of Israel within the American mindset. We are reminded that older citizens have a particular affinity to the Jewish state, whereas younger Americans view the Israel story from a fundamentally different place. The political mantra of the left with its focus on intersectionality, post-modernism, and an alternative understanding of the uses of power has consumed many Millennials and Gen Z’s, including elements of younger Jews. Social media has added a layer of rhetoric that contributes to this generational political divide around Israel. The broader existential question maybe is what happens when in the future there is another crisis demanding American support for Israel and Jews. Where will this nation be in support of its long-standing ally?
In moving forward how does one understand such losses? Over the course of a lifetime, one builds these critical connections. Each of these core ingredients frames an individual’s social fabric, involving lifelong friendships, educational connections, and political ties providing a person with their identity.
But even in the essays that I shared on these pages, prior to October 7th, I had begun to lay out a scenario describing the “unthinkable” new realities that some of us were already feeling ahead of this moment.
…a level of unsettledness defines this nation’s Jews, creating an internal debate involving many of us: As we have shifted from a period of American liberalism to a time of political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced.
Political divisiveness and social instability serve as triggers for such attacks on Jews.
In conversations with my Jewish academic colleagues, we are reminded that in every Diaspora experience Jews have encountered periods of disruption undermining their welfare and state of comfort. At other times, we have experienced those finite endings, a moment of stark reality where the bonds of connection involving the safety and status of Jews are abruptly and radically uprooted. In those cases, governmental policy and actions dictated such definitive outcomes. What might this moment represent for America’s Jews?
None of this is offered without a deep acknowledgement that Israel itself faces significant political challenges ahead, as it confronts its intelligence failings, its policies regarding settlements and occupation, and the steps it will require to preserve and strengthen its democratic character and rebuild its national Jewish identity.
There is rapidly emerging a new type of Jewish resiliency, demanding of each of us to think more creatively, act more prudently, and live more consciously our Jewish experience.
This is an extraordinarily challenging time to be a Jew! There is rapidly emerging a new type of Jewish resiliency, demanding of each of us to think more creatively, act more prudently, and live for more consciously our Jewish experience. We are reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s imperative that “the gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents. We are God’s stake in human history.”
Dr. Steven Windmueller is an 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.