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How an Old-New Ideology Alienates Immigrant Jews

Unfortunately, efforts to make the Jewish community more inclusive of Jewish diversity have been used to smuggle in an illiberal ideology—often under the guise of racial justice or antiracism.
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January 12, 2023
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In recent years, there has been increasing emphasis on making mainstream Jewish institutions more inclusive to “Jews of color” and others. And for good reason: The American Jewish community has, indeed, been dominated by a one-size-fits-all understanding of Jewish life. Jews have always been much more diverse than the dominant American Jewish culture has reflected and given voice to.

Unfortunately, efforts to make the Jewish community more inclusive of Jewish diversity have been used to smuggle in an illiberal ideology—often under the guise of racial justice or antiracism. This ideology has scrapped the original notion of racial justice from the civil rights movement in favor of a radical version that insists on three ideas. First, racism and oppression are foundational to our society. Second, the world is divided into victims and oppressors, based on immutable factors such as skin color. And third, “whiteness” (which refers to America’s dominant, Western culture) must be entirely dismantled in order to address inequalities.

This ideology distorts the ideals of justice and equality and diverts the focus from addressing racism and other hatred to a particular extremist worldview that fosters division.

In addition to its indoctrinating qualities, this ideology is highly exclusionary of many immigrant Jews. One of the writers of this piece heads an organization dedicated to preserving, perpetuating and representing the history, traditions and voices of Greater Sephardi Jewish communities in America. Another is the son of an Iraqi Jew and works to empower Jews who support liberal values. And the third came to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and runs a nonpartisan, grassroots coalition of 10,000 parents, teachers, and community members who support constructive ethnic studies curricula.

Our own experiences and those of our peers tell us that countless immigrant Jews, considered a separate race or nationality before emigrating, were oppressed by the very kind of race-essentialist ideology now being promoted under the banner of antiracism. These immigrant Jews have heard (and lived) this ideology before, and they are concerned about the long-term implications.

The idea that Jews benefit from a presumed system of oppression paints them, in the prescriptive victim/oppressor ideology, as privileged oppressors. This notion, which should be offensive to all Jews, is downright insulting to many immigrants who were often severely oppressed in their home countries. For example, Middle Eastern and North African Jews were “otherized” at times by legal restrictions and by informal yet widespread discriminatory practices. Jews from the FSU suffered overt, government-led oppression that explicitly kept them out of universities and workplaces and sent them to prison or labor camps for so much as learning Hebrew. Defining them as “white” in the binary model where all white people are considered oppressors erases their identities and imposes a worldview completely at odds with their lived experience.

This notion, which should be offensive to all Jews, is downright insulting to many immigrants who were often severely oppressed in their home countries.

Too often, American Jewish organizations have misguidedly embraced this ideology themselves. One Jewish denomination offered a four-part “learning” on race and racism for rabbis and cantors, proclaiming, “This space is for white clergy and will serve as a white antiracist affinity space.” Such ideological pronouncements and trainings (disturbingly similar to “re-education” campaigns that many suffered through) are anathema to immigrant Jewish communities that oppose the familiar revolutionary concept of dismantling systems, rather than making incremental progress in the very nation and system that has attracted refugees from all over the world. Indeed, for all its flaws, America remains the number one destination in the world for immigrants, voting with their lives to attain the unrivaled freedom of the U.S. Constitution, which ensures that the American system can evolve and that individuals can define themselves and make their own opportunities.

If the Jewish community listens, it will hear an immigrant chorus that is in equal parts dismay and horror. Dismay over the reality that most American Jews cannot recognize the extreme ideological and antisemitic undertones of what is happening right in front of them. And horror over the fact that by the time American Jews come to their senses, it may be too late. These Jews are far more likely to feel alienated rather than supported by these well-intentioned, ideologically charged efforts at making the Jewish community more inclusive. Such efforts do not, in fact, make Jewish life more inclusive. They make it more exclusionary. They shut out Jews who bring to this country all of their high hopes—as well as their traumas.

Jewish Federations, human services organizations, advocacy organizations, and congregations who worked so hard to bring Jews in from all over the world must ask themselves if they are really prepared to alienate a large swath of the immigrant Jewish community.

Being inclusive doesn’t require adopting a specific ideology like racial essentialism. It requires an open mind to varied perspectives on addressing our challenges, a welcoming attitude, and a commitment to Klal Yisrael—the entirety of the Jewish people—in all its diversity and beauty.


David Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and author of Woke Antisemitism. Jason Guberman is Executive Director of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF). Elina Kaplan is President of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies (ACES). 

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