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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Beware the 1619-ing of American Jewry

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Look closely. Parts of the American Jewish community are silently committing ideological suicide. Most American Jews have long embraced a liberal American dreamism that allowed many to live well while doing good. They celebrated prosperity and liberty while voting liberal and donating generously. It works surprisingly well for them — so why abandon this effective survival strategy so quickly?

That’s what happened this summer. In a matter of weeks, leading parts of the mainstream Jewish community joined the media, major corporations, and their neighbors in swallowing the 1619 Project’s perspective of America — that racism is systemic, ineradicable, and programmed into the nation’s DNA. This indictment is not only contestable — it also denies the expansive American identity and American Jewish identity that built the United States and American Jewry.

The 1619 Project was a series of New York Times essays pivoting American history around the first major consignment of slaves to arrive in the British North American colonies rather than the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. By repudiating America’s defining historical narrative, the project questions America’s core values. Jews are not targeted here, but American Jewry’s narratives and values have become collateral damage.

Many schools are already teaching 1619’s dogma. But if Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions surrender to this worldview uncritically, they will eviscerate whatever Jewishness remains within them while erasing the proud Americanism that has made American Jewry rich, proud, free, and happy.

Noble intentions spurred this act of ideological self-destruction. Following George Floyd’s brutal murder in May, many Jews tried understanding African-American anguish. Mainstream organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, offered educational materials to fight racism. But the anti-racist links they shared peddled this one re-interpretation of American history based, broadly, on a rigid reading of American racism. Clicking on the sources establishment Jewish organizations provided in email after email, I did not find one article offering a liberal perspective — or any alternative viewpoint. Instead, the 1619 orthodoxy has apparently become the New Blue American Gospel — and the New American Jewish Gospel, too.

Joshua Griffith looks out towards the street as he awaits the start of a candlelight vigil in celebration of George Floyd’s 47th birthday on October 14, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

American Jews must not sweep racism under the rug. It’s time to shine a light on racism in ways that are thought-provoking, not propagandizing, empowering for all Americans, not identity-shattering for most. We need healthy debates about racism that are complex and multi-dimensional, not judgmental or suffocating.

We need healthy debates about racism that are complex and multi-dimensional, not judgmental or suffocating.

By analyzing the anti-racist dogma objectively, American Jews will realize their core identity messaging is under a well-meaning, yet debilitating, attack. Rejecting the false choice between the “God damn America” version of history and the “God bless America” version, they should seek the constructive middle ground. No serious educator today peddles the cartoonish feel-good U.S. history our grandparents imbibed — so there’s no need to overcompensate.

As a history professor, I strive to transcend partisanship, encourage analysis, and free students from the presumption that every moment from yesterday must be exploited to demand change today. Studying history involves assessing, contextualizing, weighing, and wondering: how central are race, slavery, and other sins in understanding America, how do we assess our progress, and what deeper understandings of America’s ideals emerge? In caricaturing America too harshly, 1619 neutralizes the most effective tools Americans used to make America better. These include faith in American ideals, trust in their fellow Americans, and hope that America can continue to become that “more perfect union.”

A new balance — acknowledging racism and racial progress, David Duke and Martin Luther King Jr. — will allow us to preserve our story too: emphasizing that Jewish immigrant success was rarely on the backs of others, usually by the sweat of our brows. The American Jewish story is about being accepted (more than less) and about exploring, often expanding, America’s pathways to progress, individually and collectively. We don’t deny anti-Semitism. And we shouldn’t ignore racism among Jews. But we should view everything in perspective. And we celebrate Jewish distinctiveness, not because we’re better than others, but because we become better people when we also study our values, continue our traditions, and build our community.

A Racial Reprogramming

In August 2019, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project, which claims that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” The Pulitzer Center spread educational kits nationwide. This PR campaign created an instant spin for a growing anti-racist movement characterizing America as white supremacist.

“1619” now so symbolizes the new backlash against American history that Donald Trump enjoys bashing it. But even leading never-Trumpers critiqued 1619: Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, who drafted (with Brenda Wineapple) a petition of 750 historians endorsing Trump’s impeachment, joined other historians in cataloging the project’s inaccuracies. Northwestern’s Leslie M. Harris reported in Politico that she fact-checked 1619 and debunked the claim that the patriots fought the American Revolution to preserve slavery; the 1619 Project still published the claim. (The New York Times has since published a note on the fact and belatedly changed the original text “to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists,” not all.)

A headline from the 1619 Project

Nevertheless, many Jewish community resource lists promoted the 1619 articles, curricula, and podcast uncritically as “Resources for Discussions about Racism, Inclusion and Justice.” Leading organizations invited Jews to “Engage in Racial Justice,” making sure that you’re “doing the work,” that you begin “listening better.”

While the pain of the testimonials about racial discrimination is searing and demanding our attention, and while some of the essays were more hopeful about healing, many of these materials were not invitations to thoughtful discussion, but to a reprogramming. In one source, for example, one interviewee deemed America irredeemably racist, finding many Jews guilty of “white privilege.” One recommended curriculum admitted, “there’s no neutral” here.

Some of today’s dominant anti-racist activists decree that racism has “been purposely built into the system.” The Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson claims that immigrants’ “whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity … opened the Golden Door.” Jewish communal bulletins echo Michelle Alexander’s charge that “Criminal Justice is the New Jim Crow,” equating today’s lamentable abuses with the sweeping, systemic infrastructure of Southern segregation that oppressed millions for decades. And, in the Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 best-seller “How to be an Anti-Racist,” reinterprets American individualism as seeking a “constitutional freedom to harm” — epitomized by slaveholding. Kendi concludes that today’s murderous individualists refusing to wear masks prove, as the title states, “we’re still living and dying in the slaveholders’ republic.”

These ideologues — all promoted on Jewish communal websites — keep reframing American history to attack “Whiteness” as a defining identity that bestows “privilege,” meaning “unquestioned and unearned … advantages, entitlements, benefits,” that greedily seeks to perpetuate that power through “White supremacy culture.” This analysis popularizes the three-decade-old critical race theory questioning “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and principles of constitutional law” and the half-century conversation about identity politics — “focusing upon our own oppression.”

These tendentious articles, books, and worksheets often come packaged in heavy-handed curricula. One popular syllabus that three activist-educators drafted, “Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources,” starts with “Contact” — when “folks” are “confronted with active racism or real-world experiences that highlight their whiteness.” It builds to “Autonomy,” where learners have “done the work to recognize their own identity, so that they can effectively be anti-racist.” This stage offers 22 tests of your “solidarity,” including becoming “a disruptive presence in white spaces,” “challeng[ing] your country’s values…. denounc[ing] our current president,” endorsing “costly reparations,” accepting “black rage,” and being “suspicious of predominantly white institutions.”

The Privilege Checklist, the Harvard Racial Bias Test, the Anti-Racist Educator Self-Examination Questionnaire, and other recommended gut-checks monitor individual compliance because you “either reinforce the dominant education structure or fight against it.” Meanwhile, the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard tallies up assigned authors’ racial, gender, and sexual diversity. The scorecard’s scale ranges from Culturally Destructive — which “likely centers White or Eurocentric ideas and culture” — to Culturally Responsive, which is “is likely humanizing, liberatory, and equity oriented.”

In fairness, important insights spawned each politicized slogan. “White privilege” and “White fragility,” for instance, highlight whites’ invisible advantages in a society still struggling to eliminate racism. But, when weaponized, the concepts become toxic and illiberal, silencing some individuals and ideas, privileging others.

This gloomy Europeanized reading of America is Hobbesian at heart, assuming most lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It sees zero-sum power games everywhere. But America, at its best, was always Lockean and Jeffersonian. John Locke transcended Hobbesian despair, trusting a democratic “social contract,” legitimized by “the consent of the governed” to guarantee individuals’ “life, liberty, and property.” Americans cheered Thomas Jefferson’s leap forward — despite his ownership of slaves— transforming “property” into “the pursuit of happiness,” affirming that “all men are created equal.” That’s why Americans traditionally focus on ideas more than power, on opportunities not limitations.

This optimism, this culture and politics of possibility, was one of the great gifts America bestowed on Jews and millions of others. Sadly, the Africans who arrived on slave ships received the opposite. But as Robert F. Kennedy taught, Americans do not “see things as they are, and ask why,” but “dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

American optimism, this culture and politics of possibility, was one of the great gifts America bestowed on Jews and millions of others.

Teaching American Jewish Self-Loathing not Self-Esteem

As my inbox swelled with Jewish communal “resources” on race, I started wondering how Jewish day schools would now teach American history. The Forward confirmed that some Jewish schools were teaching the perspectives raised by 1619. “Can Jewish schools meet the challenge of Black Lives Matter?” one headline asked — “the” again assuming unanimity. The article raised other questions: “How do you teach students to understand themselves to be both a part of a historically oppressed minority and, in America, beneficiaries of a social and political system built on racism?” In that piece, Professor Ronit Stahl asked, “Where is the antiracist education that focuses on a reckoning with the Jewish role in American racism?” Asking around, I discovered that many day school administrators felt pressured to “woke” up.

Reinterpreting American history as one long white attempt to suppress Blacks robs American Jews of pride in their own achievements and delight in America’s welcome. Imagine attending Jewish day school today. Your older siblings studied America’s paradoxes in history class. They learned about immigrants who succeeded and who failed. They studied the anguish of being Black in America — and the improvements by 2020, compared to 1920 and 1820. They graduated appreciating individuals’ power, motivated by America’s expansive ideas, to improve themselves, their country, and their world.

They nodded approvingly at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statement during her 1993 Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings that her grandparents “had the foresight to leave the old country, when Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and denigration of one’s human worth. What has become of me could happen only in America. Like so many others, I owe so much to the entry this Nation afforded to people yearning to breathe free.”

Your history class, however, takes 1619’s cue. Stewing in the legitimate grievances of Blacks and others, you may be made to feel guilty because you live in a nice house, and your parents can afford to send you to day school. How will that affect you politically, culturally, Jewishly? Now, you may risk being programmed to scoff at Justice Ginsburg’s delightful riddle: “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and a Supreme Court Justice… one generation.”

As a historian, I find the inaccuracies and the simplistic, censorious interpretation dismaying. As a Jew, I find them terrifying.

American individualism has facilitated Jewish material success along with Jewish dignity and safety. Jews fall into our own forms of groupthink, frequently talking about ourselves “as Jews.” But at our best, this solidarity becomes a communal launching pad for the good life, not a collective life sentence to be forever oppressed. Assuming that how you look determines who you are, how you act, and what you believe is untrue and insulting.

Additionally, encasing Jews in whiteness imposes automatic guilt on Jews by caricaturing them as white, rich, and exploitative. Naturally, because they prize whiteness, true white supremacists don’t count Jews as white.

Hen Mazzig identifies as an Israeli Zionist, and a Queer Jew of Color, a Black Lives Matter supporter with grandparents from Iraq and Tunisia. He observes that “conversations that center on white supremacy… put Jews on the defensive” while minimizing the modern surge of anti-Semitism because, in America, racism is always harsher than Jew-hatred.

It’s easier to raise proud Americans and proud Jews steeped in three inspiring, empowering “I”s — individualism, ideas, and improvement — rather than three toxic, paralyzing “G”s — groupthink, guilt, and grievance. The Hobbesian pessimism clashes with the Jewish belief in sanctity, in seeking God, goodness and tikkun olam. 1619’s determinism, which characterizes America as riddled with ineradicable racist structures, contradicts the American Jewish charge to do your best, try getting ahead, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and feel good if you succeed.

Branding whiteness an original sin then claiming immigrants only prospered by exploiting Blacks creates a history of blame and despair, not responsibility and redemption. Jews do not view life as one endless power-play. Morality, spirituality, faith, goodness, hope (Hatikvah!) are not just values in Jewish life — Jews in America and Israel often activated them as constructive historical forces.

Americans All? Americans Still?

Growing up as the grandson of Eastern European immigrants who reached New York before America started restricting immigrants in the 1920s, I felt we were the Chosen People’s chosen few. Nazis chose Jews as targets. Israeli Jews chose to fight for Jewish independence in the Middle East cauldron. My grandparents chose to make it to the goldene medina – and we benefited from their toughness, wisdom, and good fortune.

As a kid, I loved an already-old book from 1941 called “Americans All: A Pageant of Great Americans.” The list included women like Clara Barton and immigrants like Alexander Graham Bell, but neither Blacks nor Jews. Still, the title welcomed me, a Jewish kid from Queens, into the American experience. My friends and I knew we had won the Jewish history jackpot. Finally, Jewish kids were born in a country where we weren’t threatened; we were free, we fit in, we could even follow baseball like everyone else. Most important, we could “make it.”

Being born into the innocence of “Americans All” is like being raised believing in God or praying wholeheartedly. You’re anchored for life, rooted profoundly, even if you stray or later learn hard truths muddying the picture.

Clearly, racism deprived most African-Americans of that lofty welcome. Today’s long-overdue racial reckoning challenges Jews, as parents, educators, and citizens, to find a nuanced yet patriotic message. But the 1619ers’ declaration that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true” is self-defeating. Ideals not yet fulfilled are not untrue. The red-white-and-blue calls for equality, for liberty, for individual dignity as beacons that many Americans in every generation pursued — and that, decade by decade, we keep coming closer to realizing. Even if it’s not yet Americans All, it’s not Americans You’ll Never Be either. As Jews, as Americans, a nuanced, constructive, vision could be Americans Still, even Americans Despite…

Toward a New Historical Balance?

Jewish educators should consult with historians and establish blue-ribbon advisory boards to develop philosophies of history, teaching strategies, and curricula. Meanwhile, these texts could help reframe the revisionism:

  • Consult Marc Bloch’s “The Historian’s Craft” to reflect on the art of history, warning that “the mania for making judgments” is a “satanic enemy of true history.” The book asks: why teach history — to develop critical skills of writing, research, synthesis, and analysis, or to right historical wrongs?
  • Read The New York Times 1619 essays — along with the historians’ critiques, the warnings that 1619 repudiates American and Jewish understandings of history, and the civil rights activist Robert Woodson’s 1776 Unites, which seeks to “reject victimhood culture.”
  • Examine Zionist texts repelling Jews’ oppressive past without forgetting it. Early Zionists like Joseph Hayyim Brenner detailed the Jewish despair from Jew-hatred while seeking redemption. David Hartmann denounced the “moral narcissism” of perpetual or competitive victimhood. “We will mourn forever because of the memory of Auschwitz,” he wrote. “We will build a healthy new society because of the memory of Sinai.”
  • Consider yesterday’s pain and tomorrow’s opportunities while inoculating against orthodoxies by exploring African-Americans’ internal debate. Pair Ta-Nehisi Coates’ despairing letter to his 15-year-old son, “Between the World and Me,” with Barack Obama’s 2008 speech about race, insisting: “America can change…. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”
  • Finally, ask, what is the end goal? Contrast Martin Luther King’s “dream” of a country where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” with Amanda E. Lewis’s article, “There is no ‘Race’ in the Schoolyard: Color-Blind Ideology in an (Almost) All-White School.”

From Finger-Pointing to Dreaming

Discussing “Black-Jewish relations” usually romanticizes past cooperation while highlighting current tensions. Let’s evolve from one-way finger-pointing exercises between victimized Blacks and guilty Jews to mutual exchanges, wondering how Blacks and Jews fit in — and don’t fit in — as fellow Americans. Piling on accusations alienates; sharing experiences heals and bonds.

1619’s framework inflicts sterile conversations; it indicts but doesn’t explain. Freezing America in the 1619 past while condemning it in the present risks robbing Americans of a shared future. Jews understand how yesterday’s unhealed scars intensify the anguish of bigotry today. As Americans, Jews, educators, our mission is to free our children from history’s traumas, never forgetting what we endured while remembering the progress we all have made. The new world we seek — and have been building since 1776 — requires consensus, not conflict, nuance, not negation, hope, not hatred.

Freezing America in the 1619 past while condemning it in the present risks robbing Americans of a shared future.

It’s a leap — and a choice. Martin Luther King knew he could “react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force.” The choice he made proved constructively infectious — and epoch-making.

I was lucky. I grew up relatively pain-free, envisioning the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court cases that keep refining our freedoms as forming a magical circle, ever-expanding to bless more Americans with more liberty. Tragically, millions of others, especially African-Americans, experienced a noose.

The message of American history — and Jewish history — is that we all benefit when all Americans can imagine this magic circle, working to widen and strengthen it, rather than surrendering to the haters’ hatred or their victims’ understandable, yet often-paralyzing, despair.


Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar in North American History at McGill University. The author of 10 books on presidential history, his latest works include “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” and editing the updated version of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel’s “History of American Presidential Elections.”

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