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In the Wake of October 7: Reflections on the American Jewish Community

 
Filed under: Operation Swords of Iron, World Jewry

In the Wake of October 7: Reflections on the American Jewish Community
“March for Israel” rally in Washington, D.C., on November 14, 2023. (Ted Eytan/Flickr/CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Everything has changed since October 7” no longer merely represents a slogan. American Jews are experiencing a fundamental repositioning of not only how they see themselves but also how others perceive them.

While this conflict is being waged on the ground in Gaza, it is having a profound and fundamental impact on Jews in the United States. No doubt, the impact of this crisis on Jewish Americans has changed over the months since the 7th of October, creating various ripple effects on this community. A fundamental recalibration of the American Jewish experience is underway.

This is a new moment in time for Jews in this country:

It refers to a series of ruptures in Jewish life whose effects are only just beginning to be felt. They include seismic shifts in their relationship to Israel, how they form political alliances, and their way of being Jewish in a world that feels scarier, lonelier, and, in some surprising ways, more Jewish than ever.

The Stages: Since early October 2023, this community has moved through a series of distinctive emotional and political experiences, with each phase being distinctive and challenging:

  • Trauma and Shock (The first several weeks following October 7)
  • Mobilization and Unity (Culminating with the demonstration in Washington on November 14)
  • Questions and Challenges (Since the Ceasefire, November 23-30)
  • Uncertainty and Concern: (Some of the glue of unity is now coming undone as the possibility of a wider war may be on the horizon)

Psychological Impact: We realize the profound imprint that this moment has had on individuals. As Jews unpack their emotions and reactions, only now are they able to identify the scope of what this ultimately may mean. Diaspora Jewry continues to experience, along with Israelis, the trauma of the events surrounding October 7, as we remind ourselves:

More Jews were murdered on October 7 than any single day since the Holocaust.

The New Anti-Zionism: This spring, American Jews awoke to a coordinated assault on American universities as pro-Palestinian groups orchestrated a set of demonstrations and demands designed to remove U.S. involvement with Israel and to disengage higher educational institutions from any academic or financial connection with the Jewish State.

I had occasion to observe recently:

Today’s language of the street, with its distortions of Zionism, misrepresentations of Judaism, and outright dismissal of the Jewish people, is both unsettling and troubling, as these players are attempting to rewrite the Jewish narrative concerning who we are and what we represent. As with the Nazis and other enemies of our people, the messages being conveyed by these activists seek to deny both our presence in the land of Israel and our historic connection to this holy space. Our opponents in this moment are calling for our genocide, comfortably aligning themselves with those in prior periods who were committed to seeking our demise.

Anti-Israel protestors at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Anti-Israel protestors at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

One People? As the events of October 7 unfolded, we were reminded about the centrality of peoplehood, as Diaspora Jews reconnected with Israel and as Israelis embraced the global Jewish community. Are we prepared to create the tools of reconnection, exploring Zionist thought and Israeli history, and introducing other avenues of Jewish learning and engagement? As the weeks and months move forward, our sense of Jewish unity has come unraveled as today we experience a deep and challenging divide.

A Financial and Cultural Breakthrough: The Jewish community raised more money to support Israel over these past months than at any point in the history of the State’s creation. Further, we are experiencing an outpouring of poetry, music, and liturgy designed to provide context and comfort, as some of these literary expressions address our community’s divisions, anger, and unsettledness.

The Awakening: Similar to June 1967, we are experiencing a “return” as significant numbers of non-affiliated and disaffected Jews seek to reconnect with the Jewish people. Whether out of concern for Israel or born out of their own fears concerning the rise in antisemitism, this phenomenon ought not to be dismissed. Community leaders report inquiries by folks seeking to connect, learn, and engage! Are we prepared to embrace these individuals?

Political Homelessness: While American Jews were already concerned about the rise of antisemitism on the political right, as reflected by the 2017 gathering in Charlottesville on August 27, 2017, we are confronting anti-Zionist assaults on Israel and antisemitic attacks on Jewish individuals and institutions driven from the progressive left. Our whiteness now defines us as privileged; our Zionist credentials make us unwelcomed; and our Judaism labels us as “the other.”

Where we embraced DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) as a formula for engaging minorities, only now are we finding that such an equation is being employed against Jews. Intersectionality, critical race theory, and woke culture identify us as “colonialists,” “occupiers,” and supporters of apartheid.

Not only are we experiencing a world that has limited room for Jews, but we feel that politics has rapidly become a zero-sum game; either a person is with us or, more readily, they are against us. There appears to be no middle ground at this point.

Suddenly, without allies, Jews in this country have been taken aback by the silence of support for us or Israel, in some cases by longstanding friends, and in certain settings, the outright hatred that these former allies are projecting on Israel, Zionism, and American Jewry. When it comes to finding legitimate partners, how do we move forward from this moment?

No doubt, there will be a variety of Jewish political responses to this moment. While many Jews have adopted a heightened and engaged position of defending Israel, others have become more critical and challenging of Israeli policies and military actions.

All these outcomes are occurring against the backdrop of what will be the most challenging political year in modern American history. So, where do we “go” politically as we confront these new realities?

The Jewish Voices Outside: Even beyond the notions of “Jewish unity,” we are confronting those Jews who sit today “outside,” blaming Israeli politicians and policies for all of this, and who, in some cases, feel that in this moment they have no real “Jewish” home? This includes some of our college kids and other Gen Z and Millennial constituencies, as they push back against Israel and, in turn, direct their anger on the American Jewish establishment, major Jewish organizations, and pro-Israel spokespersons. In some settings, these critics feel we have failed them, having provided them with what they now view represents a false, problematic narrative of Zionism and Israel.

The Day After, Victory or Pushback? What if this war does not produce all the outcomes that Israel has articulated? Should this war be declared a tie at some point, what will be the response of Israelis and Diaspora Jews? Will some see this as the failure of the IDF to achieve its goals, or will there be a great psychological relief? What will be the potential fallout should the hostages not have survived this ordeal? And finally, what if this war is expanded beyond Gaza?

Jewish Trauma: A new type of Jewish angst appears now to be present.

We acknowledge that some of our community members are scared, uncomfortable, or possibly unwilling to be in Jewish public spaces. For some, the negative pushback and acts of hate that we are experiencing have generated a feeling of being under assault, moving them to adopt a militant position where the need for self-defense has become apparent as they fear for their security and that of their community. And yet, for others, there is a conscious effort to disconnect from these threats and, in turn, their Jewishness by removing themselves as active participants.

The Economic Fallout: In the aftermath of October 7, numerous communal, synagogue, and organizational groups delayed or even canceled their fundraising initiatives, realizing that this was not the moment to seek support from their traditional donors. As a result, a portion of the American Jewish infrastructure is experiencing serious financial pressures. In the wake of this war, as donors shift their giving priorities to meet the humanitarian crisis facing Israel, some of our social service, educational, and religious organizations are being economically challenged.

Jewish nonprofit execs celebrate this outpouring but are quietly anxious. As priorities shift to defending and supporting Israel, what will happen to the bottom line of the schools, social services agencies, cultural centers, and other Jewish institutions that don’t have a prominent Israel portfolio?

One of the outcomes of this crisis involves our religious and communal institutions as they weigh the issues of security and the associated costs of managing the safety of those who enter our Jewish spaces.

Reflections:

In the end, we are reminded how these past seven months have profoundly altered our beliefs and actions. Just as Israel is undergoing a significant transformation, many American Jews are feeling personally and collectively the impact of these events on their lives.

How we see ourselves as part of America, as well as how we understand our connections with Israel and the global Jewish community, are being refashioned. We are now redefining our identities as we revisit our political standing, communal priorities, and cultural moorings.

We are encountering a totally different moment in our Jewish consciousness. Physically and emotionally, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable and uncertain place as we awaken to the full impact of this tsunami of hate and political disruption that is transforming the Jewish people.