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Jews must mobilize to save America's democracy

Since America’s founding, our democracy has offered uniquely fertile ground for thriving Jewish life. The commitment to a pluralistic democracy, however haltingly and imperfectly it has been applied, has allowed Jews of all backgrounds and religious practices to pursue meaning, community and success.

Indeed, Jews in America have built a remarkably diverse network of more than 9,000 institutions – synagogues, community centers, social-service agencies, schools, camps and more – forming a meaningful and diverse segment of American civil society. Yet in recent years, amid increasing toxic polarization, an erosion of trust in democratic institutions, and a rise in extremism and political violence, we find ourselves struggling to ensure a healthy democratic future.

This issue is serious and urgent, especially in the aftermath of repeatedly disproven allegations of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election. And in the last month alone, we’ve witnessed events that, regardless of how you might feel about their context and outcomes, set dangerous precedents for our democracy. For example, in Wisconsin, $45 million was spent in a knockdown, drag-out political race for an ostensibly nonpartisan judicial position. In Tennessee, two young, Black state lawmakers were expelled and later reinstated in a display of partisan political theater that briefly left 140,000 citizens without local representation.

This is not how a healthy democracy operates. And although the threat is shared with all Americans, it’s also distinctly urgent, real and familiar to us as Jews. We need only look at the expulsions and state-sponsored targeting of Jews through the centuries, from ancient Rome to the Spanish Inquisition and, more recently, during the rise of Nazi Germany, to see how the erosion of democratic norms and a commitment to the rule of law leaves Jews in danger.

The toxic polarization and seemingly relentless hostility of American politics is also feeding divisions within the Jewish community itself. For American Jews nationwide, simmering political tensions are making it more difficult for our diverse community to find cohesion around a shared future. Students at Jewish schools, for example, are expressing fear of conflict (and self-censoring) in classrooms and on social media as political conversations rapidly turn harmful and destructive – a microcosm of the divides that Jews are experiencing in synagogues and community organizations across the country.

Ultimately, the breakdown in American democratic culture is harming American Jewish communities from within and without – and both instances pose serious threats to our survival. The weakening of democratic norms has never been a positive development for Jews – not historically and not now. The good news is that the American Jewish community is especially well-positioned to meet this moment and to make a distinctive and meaningful impact on the challenges facing our democracy.

From philanthropic organizations to educational and religious communities, our institutions are already laboratories of democracy, instilling in us the skills we need to deliberate and compromise in a complex, pluralistic society.

What we are missing is an ambitious, broad effort to harness and channel this inherent capacity and interest in protecting the democracy on which we rely to strengthen democratic norms and build a more connected and unified Jewish community at the same time.

So what does this look like?

First, we can expand opportunities for civic learning to help citizens develop and apply the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in the democratic process. The Jewish community’s commitment to lifelong learning – including robust touchpoints for every age – positions us well to support this effort. Consider, for example, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, where once a month the Shabbat Torah study group sets aside the parshah to apply its scriptural analysis to canonical American historical documents from the Declaration of Independence and James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10 to Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the 4th of July?”

Second, Jewish institutions can cultivate the practice of democracy by promoting the habits, skills and orientations necessary for self-governance. The Jewish Scholastic Press Association, for example, works with Jewish high schools to develop student journalism, centering important civic behaviors like the pursuit of truth, accountability, sensitivity and activism. Opportunities like these build the muscles of self-governance, nurturing the idea that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves and pushing us to participate positively in our society.

Third, we can promote ideological pluralism – the idea that individuals and organizations can engage constructively with others and find common ground and common goals with those with whom they disagree even on contentious subjects.

As a diverse population united by a shared cultural identity – as well as a Talmudic commitment to deliberative discourse and debate – the Jewish community has the opportunity to help model and recognize the affirmative value of diverse perspectives – one of American democracy's greatest superpowers.

Finally, we can work to ensure free, fair, safe and accessible elections. In 2022, 44 of the nearly 100 founding partners of the Jewish Partnership for Democracy, including national organizations like Moishe House and Repair the World, came together to recruit poll workers and nonpartisan poll monitors, while the network as a whole generated 5 percent of the total volunteer base of the Election Official Legal Defense Network. Ensuring elections are run smoothly and with adequate resources is a shared imperative and one that Jewish communities both local and national are well-positioned to support.

Efforts like these don’t promote any one party or point of view. They need not exacerbate existing tensions or deepen divisions; rather, they can channel those tensions into something productive. They confront our world as it is and build resilience across diverse communities – within the Jewish community, and in broader American society – by focusing on what connects us to each other and bolstering the democratic culture that makes thriving Jewish life in this country possible.

We have a chance to do this work now – before another crisis or contested election from which our democracy cannot recover – and grow a safer, more connected and more unified Jewish community at the same time.

We should take it.

Aaron Dorfman