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An Ideology Many Jews Bought into Fuels Antisemitism

The events in Ferguson, Missouri had spawned a new activist movement, Black Lives Matter, which took the country by storm. The concept of intersectionality, once relegated to gender studies programs in universities, was gaining currency in the activist community on the left, particularly on certain college campuses. 
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August 31, 2021

When I took the reins of a national umbrella group for Jewish community relations in 2016, disturbing ideological trends were afoot. The events in Ferguson, Missouri had spawned a new activist movement, Black Lives Matter, which took the country by storm. The concept of intersectionality, once relegated to gender studies programs in universities, was gaining currency in the activist community on the left, particularly on certain college campuses. 

Progressive activists began to draw the false equivalency between oppression of black people in America and Palestinians in Israel. At rallies, we saw signs stating “From Palestine to Ferguson,” which were later turned into professionally produced videos that went viral on social media. Groups against sexual violence even endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Jewish students wishing to partake in social justice causes were being asked to check their Zionism at the door. Jewish women with rainbow Jewish flags were thrown out of women’s and gay rights marches.

An ideology that many Jews thought would reduce racism and bigotry is now being weaponized against Jews and propagating antisemitism.

Fast forward five years, and we are witnessing institution after institution falling under the spell of this very ideology, from public and private schools to human service organizations to the legal and medical fields.  An ideology that many Jews thought would reduce racism and bigotry is now being weaponized against Jews and propagating antisemitism. Our primary fight is now not against individual instances of antisemitism but against the imposition of an ideology that produces them. 

Five years ago, many in the Jewish advocacy world correctly predicted that the American Jewish community was at risk of losing the left. We were especially worried that we would be at odds with a young generation of black activists, the linchpin of progressive politics. As go young social justice activists, we posited, perhaps not incorrectly, so goes the larger progressive community. We feared that over the long term these activists would turn the Democratic party into an American version of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. 

We had to engage with these activists, and fast, in order to soften their views toward American Jews and Israel. 

I wrote then, “It should come as no surprise that we have little influence on a movement we are not involved with.” I maintained, however, that Jews need not adopt the extreme ideology exhibited by some in the movement:

It will not be easy integrating the Jewish community into civil rights coalitions, some of which hold very different political sensibilities. Young activists routinely invoke phrases like “white supremacy” to describe America’s prevailing power structure, and this may sound extreme to many mainstream Jews. Rather than feeling obliged to use these terms, however, the Jewish community can develop its own social justice vocabulary and come to the table in its own voice.

I was wrong in one key respect: We could not engage these movements without fully adopting the radical ideologies they espoused. Racial justice activists demanded nothing less than complete acquiescence. Many progressive Jews were only too eager to oblige. These Jewish social justice warriors lectured the Jewish community on our supposed complicity in white supremacy; they organized study groups, like newly-trained missionaries, around “holy books” such as “White Fragility” and “How to be an Antiracist”; they put together racial justice committees in Jewish organizations and synagogues with a distinct ideological mandate; and they readily adopted new concepts of “equity” completely at odds with America’s traditional equality narrative. They came to regard America not as an imperfect union that is striving to live up to its highest ideals, but as white supremacist state, rotten to its core. They went all in.

The underlying ideology has gotten so radical, so ubiquitous and so hostile to Jewish interests, that influencing the movement from within has become virtually impossible.

Some of the more sober progressive Jewish activists, myself included, were hoping to leverage their commitment to the cause of anti-racism to influence thinking about Jews and Israel. How we have failed. The underlying ideology has gotten so radical, so ubiquitous and so hostile to Jewish interests, that influencing the movement from within has become virtually impossible. And in trying, we paradoxically give succor to the very movement that harms us.  

Indeed, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that Critical Social Justice ideology is fueling antisemitism. An ideological framework purportedly used to purge society of racism is actually fanning the flames. Its binary oppressed versus oppressor paradigm marks Jews as the oppressors. 

So let us now understand what we did not previously understand. The Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org) recently issued a White Paper, identifying seven ways that the imposition of this ideology spreads antisemitism:

  1. The canard of Jewish privilege. Antisemites have always promoted the canard that Jews secretly control the levers of power. CSJ invites such antisemitic imagery by positing a fixed hierarchy of privilege, which legitimizes notions of “Jewish privilege.”  This portrayal of Jews represents Jews as a self-contained cabal or lobby and doesn’t take into account the innumerable differences within the Jewish community.  
  1. The erasure of Jewish identity. Daphna Kaufman of Reut coined the term erasive antisemitism for the designation of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe as “white.” This racialization of Jewish identity erases Jewish identity in favor of the CSJ binary of oppressed “person of color” versus “white” oppressor. In this ideological framework, Jews are not afforded the status of a distinct people worthy of self-determination. The erasure of Jewish identity also denies antisemitism its unique quality and historicity by falsely equating it with other forms of bigotry.
  1. Intersectionality and Antisemitism.  Intersectionality is the theory that various forms of discrimination interact in ways that create specific and compound problems, constituting an intersecting system of oppression. In other words, groups with “critical consciousness” have a strong incentive to agree with each other on whom to designate as oppressor and oppressed in every system. This ideological framework serves to multiply a false view of “Jewish power” in the U.S. and popularizes a perverse, binary perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
  2. The Anti-Israel binary. The binary nature of CSJ ideology seeks to neatly divide human beings into either the oppressor or the oppressed categories while permitting and even encouraging violence against perceived oppressors. This binary extends to Israel, treating Palestinians as the perennial victims and Israel the perennial victimizer. It props up the most simplistic and crude notions of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  3. Marginalizing Jews in politics. While not explicitly antisemitic, CSJ has rendered and may further render many Jews politically homeless. Large majorities of Jews have historically voted for Democrats, yet the growing number of party officials, platforms and policies supporting critical race ideologies stands to alienate a significant segment of American Jewry, especially as the connections between the ideology and antisemitism become more apparent.

6. Jews and Equity. CSJ ideology insists that the only reason there is disparity among racial and ethnic groups is white supremacy. If white supremacy is responsible for some people being held down, then it is also responsible for others being propped up. In this framework, Jews and other economically successful minorities are deemed complicit in or adjacent to white supremacy. 

7. CSJ undermines Enlightenment principles. Jews have long thrived in societies undergirded by Enlightenment principles of rationalism, reason, logic and debate. CSJ is inherently anti-Enlightenment. It serves to delegitimize these principles as manifestations of “white supremacy,” stifle debate and curtail academic freedom. Unmoored from its Enlightenment values, society will become more totalitarian and hostile to Jews. 

We discuss these ideas in greater detail in the White Paper and recommend a series of strategies for opposing it. It’s time for the Jewish community to correct course. 


David Bernstein is the Founder of Jewish Institute for Liberal Value (JILV.org). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein. 

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