My Cheshbon HaNefesh for Cowardice in the Face of Wokeness

Seemingly overnight organizations have changed the language they use in describing the power dynamics of American society.
March 26, 2021
Photo by georgeclerk/Getty Images

The first time I remember hearing the term “woke” was at a gathering of Black and Jewish activists in New York City in the fall of 2016. It was also the first time I encountered Black Lives Matter activists in person. I was the head of a Jewish organization that builds bridges with other ethnic and religious communities and advocates for a more just society. And this was a moment of great turmoil in race relations. In 2014, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in response to the killing of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer. During those protests, three women coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which spread like wildfire and sparked the civil rights movement of our time.

In August 2016, an offshoot of the loosely-knit movement, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), issued a platform, which, among other things, denounced Israel for committing genocide. Jewish leaders accused the authors of anti-Semitism, and Black lives activists countered by accusing Jewish leaders of “decentering” the Black experience and distracting attention from their claims (a charge I would hear over and over again). Even as we reeled in response to the rising tensions, many of us were intensely curious. Who were these unnamed Black Lives Matter activists? And could we unite behind a common cause?

When a group of Black Jews organized the meeting with Black Lives Matter activists in New York, I  jumped at the chance to join it. I was initially denied entry because of an article I had written earlier that year that was critical of intersectionality, the theory that various forms of discrimination interact in ways that create specific and compounded problems. But after lengthy discussions with a proxy for one of the organizers — in which I was told I needed to “do the work” — and me issuing a mea culpaas the price of admission, I was finally allowed in. This was the first of several compromises I made to my own liberal values and for which I now make amends.

The white Jewish leaders who attended the meeting were told in advance that they were expected to come and listen, to be seen and not heard. There would be a time to ask questions in small groups, but we were not allowed to challenge anything we heard during the main discussion. They were authentic voices of the marginalized, and we were to behold their words.

There were many firsts that evening. It was the first time I heard Black Jews say white Jews had benefited from white supremacy and needed to “shed your whiteness,” or the cultural identity that afforded whites advantage. White Jews, they told us, had taken full advantage of white privilege and their proximity to the white power structure. I later came to understand that like other privileged ethnicities, such as Asian Americans, many Jews were “white adjacent.” We were expected to acknowledge our complicity in white supremacy.

Many American Jews define white supremacists as racists who parade around with tiki torches and white hoods. For the Black activists at that meeting, however, white supremacy describes the fundamental organizing principle of America and the West, a system meant to uphold white domination. Many of us at the meeting were unfamiliar with this use of the term white supremacy. But I didn’t dare ask questions, let alone challenge what I heard.

Our role moving forward, we were told, was to acknowledge our own guilt, “make space” for and “lift up” Black voices. This was not your father or mother’s civil rights movement. It was certainly not a dialogue, and I doubt the organizers would have described it as such. We were complicit in the oppression of Black people in America and of Black Jews. We “had work to do” on ourselves and in the larger society.

At the end of the meeting, one of the organizers drew the Black participants into a circle. She preached “I was blind but now I am woke.” The participants repeated the chant and proclaimed Amen. I have always been moved by the spiritual effusiveness of the Black church. It feels to me that through gospels, hymns and professions of faith, churchgoers possess a deep, authentic connection to the divine spirit that I myself could not access. But I was initially confused when witnessing that same fervor during what was understood to be a political program.

What I later concluded was that the call to be woke was, in fact, a profession of faith. To be woke was to see the light of racial domination and all that it entailed. It felt like I was witnessing a religious revival in service of a new spiritual, political and social movement. Wokeness sees itself not merely as a social movement to end racism but as a complete worldview that supersedes the existing white supremacist order. It has its own internal logic. Its own vocabulary. Its own history, philosophy and conception of morality and law. And it carries, like all religions, a dogma that is not to be questioned.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, to an Iraqi Jewish mother who came directly to the United States in 1963 and to a U.S.-born, third-generation Ashkenazi father. When I was three, my grandmother came from Baghdad and moved in with us. Three years later my grandmother’s sister and her 14-year-old son moved in with us from Iraq and took my brother’s bedroom for three years. The house was bustling with high-pitched laughter and arguments laced in colorful Arabic swear words and a screeching parrot named Bibi. My father, who spoke no Arabic, often took refuge in the bedroom. I spoke to my grandmother and great aunt in a Jewish dialect of Arabic. It always struck me as odd and not a little exclusionary that American Jews thought all Judaism was Ashkenazic. Why was corned beef a “Jewish food,” I wondered, but not Kubbah, the farina dough dumplings filled with meat eaten by Iraqi Jews? Every Sunday morning, the smell of searing cumin woke me up as my grandmother made kitchry, the Jewish rice and red lentil delicacy. I appreciate the dish now more than I did then.

When I first heard about the identity category of Jews of Color that included Mizrahi Jews like me, I was puzzled. It never occurred to me to see myself as a Jew of Color. One Black Jew told me, much to my horror, about her experience in synagogue when an older lady presumed she was “the help.” It was not the first and only time it happened. Certainly nothing like that ever happened to me. We do have a responsibility to be a more inclusive and welcoming community.

Raised by an immigrant who practically worshipped the United States, I embraced the narrative of an America that is constantly striving to live up to its ideals. The America I grew up in was not racist but had racism in it. I still hold by that narrative today. The woke claim that America is white supremacist strikes me as both wrong and dangerous. For all its faults, America is the most successful experiment in pluralism in world history. Immigrants with black and brown skin still flock here, and my eccentric family was proof of the opportunity that lies at its doorsteps.

Five years after the meeting in New York, I am astonished to see how the woke faith has insinuated itself into mainstream opinion and institutions. Its appeal grows out of the profound (and rightly felt) collective guilt of white society. From what I saw, wokeness insists that only Black people have the right to enunciate their experiences and claims against society, and that everyone else must abide by their pronouncements. It asserts the same about Jews and other minorities as well. Anyone who wants to be in the good graces of the Black activists, it seemed, would have to adopt these pieties. It turns out that many progressives are eager to be in their good graces.

Five years after the meeting in New York, I am astonished to see how the woke faith has insinuated itself into mainstream opinion and institutions. Its appeal grows out of the profound (and rightly felt) collective guilt of white society.

While I was initially bewildered by the gathering in New York, I came to understand that beneath the power play was deep-seated resentment at the way some Black Jews felt about their place in the Jewish community. The Jewish community had not been nearly as inclusive of Jews of Color as we should have. We had not lived up to our moral billing. We do have cheshbon hanefesh —an accounting of the soul —to do for our lack of awareness and sensitivity.

But does such a recognition disqualify us from having an opinion on race and racism that differs from what I heard at the New York gathering? Must each of us now outsource our views on racism to those with first-hand experience?

As wokeness initially worked its way through college campuses and corporate diversity seminars, few mainstream liberals took the threat of it seriously. Wokeness seemed at worse a trifling annoyance, confined to late night dorm room discussions and occasional company retreats. Few challenged the intellectual underpinnings because… why bother? At that time, people were not getting fired for refusing to adhere to the faith.

But some fringe fads eventually escape into the mainstream. The kids graduate from college and go from being interns to professionals to managers to CEOs to elected officials. They insist that their workplaces take their woke sensibilities seriously. No one wants to look like they are against diversity, and their superiors bend to their will. Unopposed, the idea metastasizes. One day the quiet skeptic wakes up and finds that wokeness enjoys the enthusiastic support of a critical mass of progressives.

Today, much of the established Jewish community has been swept up by the woke tsunami. Jewish organizations have short circuited the usual deliberations, a hallmark of Jewish civic life. Seemingly overnight they have changed the language they use in describing the power dynamics of American society. Advantages became “privilege.” Equality became “equity.” Dominant culture became “supremacy.” Emotional hurt became “harm.” Each of these terms carries ideological connotations beyond their literal meanings.

Seemingly overnight organizations have changed the language they use in describing the power dynamics of American society.

I’m not suggesting that Jewish organizations shouldn’t use any of these terms. Rather, before adopting them, they should gain an understanding of what they mean in the context they are used and deliberate, openly, on whether they agree with those meanings. So far that hasn’t happened. All three non-Orthodox denominations have enunciated their support for critical race theory. No one bothered to ask rank and file members if they believe America today is a white supremacist state. Perhaps the leaders of these movements are scared of the answer they might receive from their own members.

At the altar of woke ideology, not only have some made a mockery of the deliberative tradition, some have even ditched their moral compass. In the name of racial justice and “Jewish values,” Jews, even rabbis, bully other Jews. These “kindly inquisitors” shame and ostracize others for daring to think differently. Some proclaim that we need “to get everyone on the same page on racial justice.” They accuse white Jews of having “privilege” for uttering non-woke perspectives. The normal laws of civility don’t apply. The activist Rabbi Michael Adam Latz informs me that “Civility is the elixir of the privileged… But while Black and Brown people continue to get shot and choked to death in alarming numbers, civility must take a back seat to justice.”

It’s not unusual to hear in spaces I recently travelled in that Jews must perform cheshbon hanefesh for their complicity in white supremacy. I recently left my position heading a national Jewish advocacy organization. And I have some cheshbon hanefesh to do, not over my complicity in our supposed white supremacist state, but for failing to stand up for my friends when they faced bullies and for my cowardice in not standing up for my own liberal principles early or decisively. I now plan on using my voice to right that wrong and defend the liberal values that have been central to the security of Jews and to a free society.

David Bernstein is the former head of Jewish advocacy organizations and currently the principal of Viewpoint Worldwide. Find him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein

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