One Voice or Many?

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January 1, 2012
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An Exchange of Letters
Steven Windmueller & Howard I. Friedman

Dear Howard,

In prior conversations, you and I have discussed the story of American Jewish “exceptionalism” and agreed to disagree. We both acknowledge that the Jewish experience in American society has been unique within the annals of our history and we agree that opportunities afforded Jews in connection with American democracy have contributed to the flourishing of American Jewry. We seem to disagree on the issue: “Is it still essential for Jews to advance their own self-interests?” Concepts such as “the Jewish vote” or the articulation of “a Jewish position” on behalf of a particular cause appear to represent for you ideas whose time has passed.

You, I believe, would hold to the principle that Jews need not be seen at this point on their American journey as articulating their distinctive political interests with one voice. I would contend that we, as a community, possess core political interests and that we are best served by introducing these priorities in a way that conveys our collective focus.

Among the essential elements of democracy is the notion that groups can and should advance their political agendas. Where those specific interests merge with the priorities and considerations of other groups or with the leadership within our society, all the better. Even if we were the only party to be defending, for example, Israel’s political and territorial security, would that not be our obligation to our community?

In articulating the particular, we also contribute to the general welfare of the society, enriching and promoting discourse around our world view. That process of engagement itself is wholesome and essential for democracies. If we withdraw from the public stage or offer conflicting messages, we do harm to our credibility and undermine our core interests, in addition to weakening our capacity to participate forcefully within the public square.

Today, in the absence of a shared political agenda, one finds an angry social divide that defines the political state of American Jewry. In the absence of a common focus, a divided and inflamed polity has permitted itself to become embroiled in controversy and discord; civility has given way to partisanship. For some of us, this current reality portends a serious crisis.

I am particularly concerned about the dilution of Jewish influence. Our historic journey ought to remind us that access to and influence within the circles of political power has been a rare commodity. Even now, as we feel secure within the American environment, we would be making a serious tactical error to assume that such access or opportunity will remain a political certainty.

Ethnic communities operate within a particular framework of influence and credibility. When their power is understood to be compromised by internal discord, the capacity to be politically effective is proportionally reduced. If I understand you correctly, Howard, you welcome this reconfiguration of power, suggesting that this moment in time reflects the maturing of our community, where diversity of opinion should be welcomed and embraced.

I look forward to your perspective on these ideas.

Sincerely,

Steven Windmueller

•••

Dear Steven,

I welcome this opportunity to continue our dialogue, albeit in a form that should provide greater discipline in our mutual expressions than vocal dialogue affords. Indeed, I fear that my own imprecision in our past off-line discussions may have contributed to a certain blurring of your perception of my position.

The heart of our inquiry relates to the nature of Jewish power and influence in the open American society and whether internal differences of opinion among Jews dilute or derogate from that influence.

First, I believe that one must understand in the American pluralist ethos what it means when groups pursue their own political interests. Though, as you indicate, it is true that America has afforded unparalleled opportunities, the primary function of that openness is to benefit American society. The American insight into pluralism is that groups are not only tolerated but encouraged to pursue their group interests, provided that they do so in a context that seeks to relate the particularistic group interests to the interests of the larger society. Hence, what is required for the successful exercise of influence and power is the ability to persuade the larger society that its own interest is best served by pursuing the particularistic interests of the affected group.

Of course, Jews and all other groups are not only entitled to pursue their own self interests; they are obliged to so do within the larger frame of reference that I have just described. Jewish power in that kind of setting is not a function alone of electoral or financial clout. The Jewish numbers on either score are not significant enough to produce the required result. It is only when the pursuit of Jewish interests resonates among others in the society that success can be achieved. Hence, the real source of Jewish power and influence is the power of ideas.

On most political questions, there is no core political Jewish position. Most public questions generate a reasonable range of opinion, which speaks to the internal Jewish reality as well. It is incomprehensible to me why Jews should not have the same range of differences of opinion on most public questions as do others. And, indeed, I believe that increasingly they do. Even on the most fundamental issues relating to Israel, the community is divided on numerous vital questions. That division bespeaks maturity and influence rather than derogates from these qualities. I simply do not accept your assertion that Jewish power is “compromised by internal discord.” Instead of reducing Jewish influence, that difference of opinion adds to the credibility of the community in its various expressions of political conviction. In short, we are more credible because of our internal differences than if we are perceived as monochromatic.

While I believe that the history of American Jewry is an eloquent testimonial to the “exceptionalism” of America itself, I do not believe that Jewish positions on various matters represent ideas “whose time has passed.” To the contrary, they have never been more appropriate.

I suppose the primary point of difference between us is how one views the surrounding society. I view it as an embracing and supportive structure welcoming our participation as a group and expecting that, as all human beings, we will have differences of opinion. That is something to celebrate and not deplore.

I hope that this helps establish the nature of the playing field on which we will continue our dialogue.

As a backdrop to our next exchange, I would be interested in how you evaluate the growing division within the Jewish community on Israel-related questions, with the overwhelmingly positive and apparently increasing support of the broader American populace of all political persuasions. Isn’t there a disjunction between internal discord and an assumed consequential unsuccessful result in the larger society — at least on that subject?

Kindest personal regards,

Howard Friedman

•••

Dear Howard,

I found your letter most thoughtful, with your comments eloquently stated. The core element of your case is framed around the principle that one ought to celebrate the fact that we hold differences of opinion, as this ought to be seen as the essence of American democracy.

In your closing paragraph, you challenged me to explain the credibility that Israel enjoys among Americans, despite the internal discord one finds within Jewish circles. I view this positive engagement with Israel as a political reality totally apart from the internal debate within our community. Israel merits American commitment, and this fact is fully embraced by key stakeholders and opinion makers across the political landscape. Clearly, our community has worked diligently over many decades to articulate and interpret the case for Israel. In my view, the depth and breadth of that support is framed around the shared interests of these two democracies.

You state: “In short, we are more credible because of our internal differences than if we are perceived as monochromatic.” I would question this assumption, as I am uncertain that this is a valid proposition in any political framework and most certainly within the annals of Jewish history. A divided constituency leads to a paralysis of agreement and action. I think political elites seek clear signals from interest groups as a way to gauge their own options.

Further, you noted that the articulation of Jewish policy positions “have never been more appropriate.” I would offer a cautionary observation. Jewish institutions need to be selective and focused regarding areas of their political engagement in order to maximize their influence and credibility. Why would you assume that the policies and ideas being advanced by our community today are “more appropriate”? Are you suggesting that we have some unique or distinctive wisdom not present elsewhere?

I look forward to your response.

With all good wishes, Steven

•••

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your comments. I must say I think your comments totally confirm the premises that I articulated in my original letter. For example, I quite agree with you that the American support for Israel in its depth and breadth is framed around the shared interests of the two countries. But the critical question that you do not respond to is whether or not a more unified American Jewish community on Israel would contribute to a strengthening of the American resolve. It can hardly be doubted that there is a sharp division within the Jewish community on Israel-related questions. I would contend that the very existence of that divided opinion strengthens the power of the pro-Israel argument emerging from the Jewish community. This is not the only time in Jewish history when division of opinion has contributed to Jewish credibility rather than weakened it. The division between Marxist and Friedmanesque (Milton) economists is a perfect example. Each has been persuasive in certain segments of the general community. That the community speaks with different voices adds credibility to each of the voices. It is when the community speaks with one voice — as though it were a special interest group, like Latvians or certain minority groups — that its credibility is at its minimum. Another example is the sharp division, historically, between the Zionists and Marxists in European societies. Major voices reflecting each point of view represent a powerful contribution to public dialogue. And yet, the existence of the countervailing point of view, I submit, did not undermine whatever persuasion the other point of view carried. It is when Jews are seen, as they are in America, as constructive contributors to public dialogue that their influence is at its maximum.

I certainly do not suggest that there is “unique or distinctive wisdom” in the Jewish community that is otherwise not available. But I do suggest that Jews bring a special historical and cultural experience to bear when they contribute to the public debate. And it is that historical experience that provides a certain perspective that the American polity reaches out to receive. And indeed, as a community with varying views, we have interests in almost every public question. Read the agenda of the Commission on Social Action or the Social Action Committees’ agenda of most synagogues and they are hardly models of restrained advocacy as to subject matter or passion. They could be confused with the platform of the Democratic Party in most cases. I believe that more Republican Jewish voters would enhance Jewish influence.

What we’ve been talking about are the elements that make the American Jewish experience “exceptional.” It is not that the Jewish community is so “exceptional” — it is that the American ethos, in embracing the vitality of such input, is “exceptional.” I do not find in your letter anything that really challenges the foregoing.

Let’s keep up the dialogue.

Kindest personal regards,

Howard Friedman

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A retired lawer from the firm Loeb & Loeb in Los Angeles, Howard I. Friedman is chairman of the board of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. He is an honorary national president of the American Jewish Committee, which he served as president from 1983 to 1986. Friedman is the chairman of the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies.

Steven Windmueller holds the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Windmueller writes extensively on contemporary Jewish affairs. His book You Shall Not Stand Idly By was published by the American Jewish Committee. He previously served as director of the School of Jewish Communal Service (now the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management) of HUC–JIR.

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