In the aftermath of the Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7, we sense a different moment in time as a religious community and as U.S. citizens.
This is a new war against the Jews, as Hamas’ assault on Israelis is now being carried forward by their allies on America’s soil and beyond. In connection with the Gaza crisis, we are experiencing a series of challenging moments, setting off complex emotions, triggering new questions and generating an array of both personal and collective concerns.
Correspondingly, in this postmodern age, as much of the world sheds aspects of its religious identity and participation, the Middle East has become the centerpiece of religious extremism and activism. This is a war being fought on multiple fronts. While Israel engages in a military campaign, world Jewry faces a major public relations battle, pushing back against antisemitic and anti-Zionist attacks as it seeks to build a pro-Israel case with key audiences and governments. As we know, a conflict with a non-state enemy (e.g., Hamas) is very different from engaging with a nation-state. Yet, increasingly, the West has experienced such wars against Islamic State and other terror organizations.
We struggle to explain why so many opponents of Israel and those who have never engaged with this issue are now attacking Israel, arguing that Oct. 7 was justified or the natural outcome of “occupation.”
For nearly a month, we have tried to analyze this angry assault on Israel and Jews. Our opponents claim the deaths of Jews are due to the policies of Israel. Their arguments are tied to the progressive left’s ideological reliance on critical race theory, which defines Israel and Israelis as “occupiers.”
We need to point out that behind such responses lies raw, real and present antisemitism. Whether our “friends” are even conscious of their hatred, at the bottom their messaging reflects anti-Jewish beliefs. Sadly, their angry words and threats are not offered in a vacuum, leaving space for others to potentially act out this hatred on Jews here and elsewhere. Indeed, words have consequences.
Israel is identified as “the” global problem. Jews are charged with being white colonialists; Israel is labeled an apartheid state; Zionism is claimed to be racism.
I can readily believe that weeks from now there will be circulating on social media the notion that the events of Oct. 7 never happened; after all, Jews will do anything to advance their influence and power!
In this moment, as we know, our home-based enemies dismiss the events of Oct. 7 as well as the Zionist historical narrative; there is only one storyline here, and it has no room for the state of Israel. “From the river to the sea” implies the ultimate elimination of Israel. The eradication of the Jewish state serves as an extension of the Nazi agenda to eliminate Jews.
No battleground is more pronounced than our college campuses, where Jewish students are being challenged, threatened and intimidated and the case for Israel has been dismissed. The academy is enabling its faculty, students and administrators to deliver hateful political messages designed to discredit Israel and its American supporters.
Critical debate has given way to celebratory demonstrations marginalizing Jews and Israel. Possibly most troubling is our discovery of the profound lack of knowledge about the Middle East and, more directly, the Israel-Arab conflict on the part of key influential leaders in academia. Particularly challenging is the number of Jews opting to support Hamas, as they are prepared as well to identify Israel as “the problem.” These times have motivated some Jews to separate from their own, as they attempt to escape being labeled a “Zionist” or worse.
What will this mean for the love affair that American Jewry has had with this nation’s institutions of higher education, and more directly with some of this country’s premier universities? Will Jewish kids rethink where they will attend college? Will there be a fundamental reshaping of the relationship our community has had with the prestigious academic centers in this country?
Possibly for the first time, we wonder about our status, even our safety. Some of us are withdrawing from public Jewish places, uncomfortable being in those spaces where Jews gather. Others are removing the physical symbols of Jewishness, both personal and communal.
At the same time, for instance, at the grade-school level, we are seeing a transformational moment. Now we have reports of parents moving kids from public educational settings into Jewish parochial schools.
It is the psychological effect that seems most challenging. The “what ifs” are more frequently introduced, especially since we have just observed the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. These feelings are real. In conversations, both private and public, Jews are asking one another: What does this mean?
Even as this moment has generated a surge in Jewish activism and philanthropic support, there is a corresponding feeling of increased isolation. In the aftermath of these events, are we likely to see our community turn inward, no longer feeling fully embraced by the American promise? Could it be that this resurgence of a new type of tribal loyalty is replacing cultural assimilationism?
With the unfolding of these events also comes the question of what types of Jewish leaders we need both here in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel. As our communal order shifted over time away from an Israel-centric agenda during the 1970s and ’80s, framing a personalized, spiritualized and siloed American Jewish focus, do we have the rabbinic and communal leaders necessary to guide, direct and serve us as we confront a public advocacy-driven moment? In what ways do we reenter the public spaces we once occupied? Who will be our future partners and allies, as we revisit the question of where we will find trustworthy communal actors?
By necessity, the unpacking of this unsettling moment will go on for a while, as it must. In the end, we will need to reassess how as a community we will operate in this new reality. How will we rebuild our trust in the institutions that have failed us and our children during these past days and weeks?
Above all, we will find both the language and resources to rechart and rebuild the Diaspora-Israel partnership, affirming its historic centrality and abiding value. T
Steven Windmueller is the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles and professor emeritus of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.