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Jewish Journal

Rules of Jewish Political Engagement

by Steven Windmueller

August 28, 2012 | 12:12 am

Over the course of history, Jews would operate in the public sector adopting various political behaviors.

In contemporary times, several of these competing ideas remain in play, influenced by different elements of Jewish experience and practice. Five of them are being introduced here:

Nationalist Orientation vs. Accommodational Behavior: Historically, Jews operated in one of two political spheres, either understanding their political destiny as tied to a national (i.e. Jewish) perspective, seeking to create a Jewish state or to work toward sustaining it, or striving for some type of acceptance by making political compromises whereby they would accommodate to the social environment around them. In other terms, we might describe these characteristics, as “going it alone” vs. “fitting in”.

Judaism as Americanism:  Over the course of the 20th century a body of political thought would emerge that would define Jews as full partners in the American story and where “Judeo-Christian values” would frame the social fabric of this nation. This “melting pot” concept would allow Jews full access into the mainstream of the society.

“Be a Jew on the Street and an American at Home”:  Historian David Biale has suggested that unlike the mindset of the Enlightenment where Jews publicly shed their Jewishness, the American context represents precisely the reverse idea, where one can reject the melting pot viewpoint in favor of a Jewish political assertion.

Never Forget: “The commanding voice of Auschwitz” would not allow a Jew to forget his/her historical and political distinctiveness. One may understand this concept best when viewing it in the following terms: “failure to support Israel represents a denial of the lessons of the Holocaust.”

Rule of Marginal Effect:  Jewish influence is centered only in those selected areas, such as Israel-United States relations, where the interests of the community go generally unchallenged by other interest groups or are offset by broader policy priorities of the United States.

These ideas are part of a body of literature on Jewish political behavior and reflect the historical engagement of Jews with power.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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From June 2006 to June 2010, Steven Windmueller served as the Dean of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles campus.  In March of 2009, President David Ellenson named Professor...

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