There are many reasons why Jewish identity is declining – enough to fill a long book, too many for a short column – but one of them is that political identity is replacing Jewish identity. And political identity is itself changing.
Identifying with a political party or a broad social movement used to be about ideology and values. My mom’s ancestors were conservatives and capitalists because they believed this approach would lead to a better world. My dad’s forebears were communists and socialists for the same reasons.
Today, though, people approach politics less as an expression of ideals and principles, and more to identify with a tribe. We connect as conservatives or liberals – or Conservatives, Liberals or NDPers – not so much because we believe that these philosophies lead to the brightest future, but rather because these identities offer a sense of cultural belonging and social compatibility.
However, contemporary political identities are not just about belonging, they are also about rejecting. We define ourselves as much by who we are not, as by who we are or support. We are on the right because we just don’t fit in with, or sometimes even like, left-wingers, and vice versa. Political affiliation increasingly reflects our social, cultural and class identities, and decreasingly reflects our beliefs in the best vision for our collective future.
Whether we identify with conservative or progressive causes, we easily find welcoming, like-minded, politicized communities. Online, where most of us live our political lives, echo chambers, memes and trolls accelerate and intensify our visceral tribal-political identities. And in this era of politics as never-ending culture war, we are all too happy to put our emotional energy into being foot soldiers for our side.
As we vindicate our side, we belittle the other side. Empathy is unimaginable. Difference is objectionable. We love or loathe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Donald Trump or whomever so much that it consumes our emotional energy. Politicians, especially Trump, cynically exploit this for political gain through wedge politics. And while no one has fixed quantities of emotional energy, there is always less left for our Jewish identity.
As a result, political identity begins to displace Jewish identity, corroding our community’s sense of common destiny and mutual responsibility, particularly when identity politics transposes onto Jewish issues.
You see this all the time. Right-wingers support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the State of Israel so aggressively that they stifle and oppose other approaches to Zionism. Centrist liberals shape inherently universal causes, like gay equality and human rights, as their own. Leftists recast social assistance for the poor as an uniquely progressive concern.
But Canada’s Conservatives are not the party of Israel. The Liberals are not the party of tzedek. The NDP is not the party of tikun olam. And no party – in Canada, Israel or anywhere else – is the party of the memory of the Shoah.
There is no political ideology that maps with Judaism. Such a notion is as impossible as it would be catastrophic. We would be a far stronger community if we all engaged in all these issues, regardless of our political tribe.
This is not to say that we cannot express our Jewish values through our politics. Of course we can, and we should. But in doing so, we must avoid the self-righteous temptation to think that ours is the single, legitimate Jewish perspective on Israel, or human rights, or, for that matter, on climate change, supply management or anything else.
The Jewish experience can foster national, ethnic or religious identity, but it should not foster partisan identity. There is never one legitimate Jewish political perspective, which means that there’s always more than enough room for us all.
All of us must work to welcome alternative perspectives, especially those who have seized a sort of ownership of particular community issues for themselves. That is the Jewish way – and that is the path to becoming a stronger community.