The decision by Temple Israel of Miami to cancel an invitation to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) to speak at Friday evening services appears to be in response to the objections and threats of an influential Republican congregant. This sideshow may have signaled the beginning of the 2012 political campaign within the Jewish community.
We are likely to see the deep and angry political divide that we know is present within our community surface in multiple ways over the course of the next five months. In 2008 we would document an array of political attacks and counter attacks launched by Jews against their co-religionists over party politics, candidates and even Israel. Four years ago, the focus of many of these political actions occurred, as did in this case, in Florida, where the Jewish vote will again clearly be in play during this election cycle.
The idea of hearing different political viewpoints or creating conversations around candidates and their policies in recent years has given way to the silencing of voices with whom we disagree. For Jews there is an added layer of political tension. Once the issue of Israel is introduced into the mix, one finds a sharpening of lines among the players, as J Street and AIPAC adherents are likely to tangle with one another. Passions run high in our community, not necessarily a bad indicator, but when we leave no room for a shared dialogue, then the atmosphere moves from the prospects of thoughtful debate to a contest of personal invective.
The Schultz Affair however points to another dimension to what is happening within Jewish life, the growing disconnect between Jewish liberal expression as articulated frequently by our institutions and its leadership and the growing voice of Jewish conservative dissent. It is becoming increasingly more complicated in the course of Jewish political and communal expression to suggest that there anyone can “speak for the Jews”. Indeed, a significant majority of Jews remain liberal in their social values, a fact borne out by last week’s Workman Circle’s study (http://circle.org/wcnationalpoll2012/) on Jewish political attitudes, yet for those who do not find themselves in this camp, there is a growing frustration over “who speaks for me?” As a direct result, it is not surprising to see a significant number of national agencies and community federations, pulling back from asserting public policy positions.
One of the casualties associated with this freeze on Jewish social engagement will be the dismantling of key ethnic, racial and religious relationships that have evolved over decades of community outreach. This network of contacts is an essential tool of organizing for any community and in the course of our community’s apparent effort to reposition itself politically, it would be a costly and problematic outcome related to our core interests to have us unilaterally disconnect from these partnerships. Recognizing our collective and shared interests related to ensuring Israel’s political support with key influential players and communities in our society, such efforts to uncouple us from these significant connections will over time be fundamentally detrimental to our foreign policy priorities.