As Americans and Jews, and particularly as American Jews, we’re living in an unprecedented cultural and political moment. Myriad debates are raging on the policy front: tax policy, trade, immigration, criminal justice, public education, environmental protections, health care and affirmative action, to name just a few. These are issues about which reasonable people can and do disagree, and many of us would find ourselves arguing with similar passion and fervor under a President Rubio, a President Clinton, or a President Christie. At the same time, many on the left and right concur that deepening cracks in our democracy transcend these policy debates and represent a genuinely existential threat to America.
By now, many of the statistics are well-known:
- Just 20 percent of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right most or all of the time.
- Only 25 percent of American Millennials express confidence in the democratic system.
- And perhaps most alarmingly, 32 percent of Americans—up from 24 percent just two decades ago—believe that it would be better to have “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”
As Americans, we should be gravely concerned about these phenomena. As Timothy Snyder writes in his 2017 treatise On Tyranny: “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the 20th century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
As American Jews, we have even more at stake. Our vibrant American Judaism is a unique historical phenomenon—distinct from 18th century Polish Judaism or 15th century Spanish Judaism or 21st century Israeli Judaism—that represents a hybrid of “Jewish tradition and culture” and the “tradition and culture of American democracy.” As Louis Brandeis wrote in words that ring as true today as they did in 1916: “The Jewish spirit, the product of our religion and experiences, is essentially modern and essentially American. Not since the destruction of the Temple have the Jews in spirit and in ideals been so fully in harmony with the noblest aspirations of the country in which they lived. America’s fundamental law seeks to make real the brotherhood of man. That brotherhood became the Jewish fundamental law more than 2500 years ago.”
Whether one accepts Brandeis’s argument that Judaism and Americanism are integrally aligned, American Judaism has evolved as an organic synthesis of both. Robust American democracy is as much a necessary precondition of—and enabling environment for—American Judaism as thriving Jewish life is. And it’s not something we can take for granted, not least because history has shown us what too often happens when democracies destabilize.
While some early 20th century Jewish institutions—American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, and others—saw the sustenance of American democracy as an essential part of the Jewish community’s work, the last several decades have seen that commitment erode as Jewish priorities have become simultaneously more parochial and more global. This is a moment to revisit that commitment and to re-engage in collective Jewish communal action in support of American democracy and in response to the forces challenging it.
This is a moment to revisit that commitment and to re-engage in collective Jewish communal action in support of American democracy and in response to the forces challenging it.
There are many arenas in which this work must be taken up: defending the freedom of the press, protecting judicial independence, ensuring the rule of law, sustaining voter rights. Equally importantly, we need to bolster—directly and explicitly—our children’s understanding of and commitment to American democracy over the long-term. Comprehensive civics education is a piece of that puzzle, and educating for responsible American citizenship should be embraced as an essential pillar of American Jewish education.
In partnership with The Jewish Education Project, on Dec. 13 we at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah are producing this year’s Jewish Futures Conference on the topic, “For Which It Stands: How Can Jewish Civics Education Strengthen American Democracy?” in an effort to put support for American democracy squarely on the Jewish community’s educational agenda. Like Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, we believe that, “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”
As Dr. Jonathan Woocher (z”l)—my predecessor at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah—wrote in his seminal book, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, “America has been good to the Jews, making possible unprecedented achievement and success. In turn, Jews owe America not only their loyalty, but their active engagement in the process of America’s self-realization.”
This is a moment in which, to riff a bit on Pirke Avot, we can and must be both for ourselves and for this great country to ensure that it lives up to its highest ideals for us and for all its citizens.
Aaron Dorfman is president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.
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