Wokeism and the Jews: A Reckoning

Jewish communities, despite their history of prioritizing questions above answers, are not immune to this new climate that discourages diversity of viewpoint and the questioning of certain ideologies.
January 25, 2023

I remember learning about the notion of absolute truth in high school. I went to a private non-Jewish religious school, and so when we talked about absolute truths it was always against the backdrop of beliefs regarding God and theology. The existence of God, we were told, is an absolute truth. But we were also told that an absolute truth is an inflexible reality. It’s a fact that is fixed and invariable and cannot be altered. 

And no one questioned this. Not one student pushed back because, in such a religious setting, who would dare question the existence of God as an absolute truth?

Jewish tradition, on the other hand, has always prioritized the exercise of questioning everything. It isn’t necessarily transgressive to question even the existence of God in a Jewish space, as long as the tone and intent are honorable. One might even say it’s one of the most Jewish things to do—to ask the difficult questions that push against the grain. The value is in the dialogue that comes out of these challenges.

But now, the climate of that high school classroom has entered the mainstream, yet this time the setting is not a religious classroom or community. It’s an entire country and culture. It’s the United States of America. And Jewish communities, despite their history of prioritizing questions above answers, are not immune to this new climate that discourages diversity of viewpoint and the questioning of certain ideologies.

Given the rise of culture wars and increasingly militant identity politics in the U.S., it’s not surprising that the idea of absolute truth, long a component of religion, is being deployed as a way to control not just the dominant narrative but also the actual behaviors and words of people. If you want to know how to control people, look no further than the history of religion around the world. The Spanish Inquisition, spanning nearly 400 years, might be the most powerful (if extreme) example how religion can be mobilized to gain power and control and squash any kind of dissent or difference. Create a religion, harness its potential power over people, and you now have complete control because no one has the courage to push back. But given the Jewish tradition of honoring debate for the sake of debate, it’s concerning that some Jewish communities have embraced the new absolute truth delivered in the form of “woke” ideologies.

In their most extreme iterations, movements and ideologies can start to sound a lot like religions. David Bernstein, in his new book “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews,” addresses this issue and others. In Bernstein’s words, what is commonly known as “woke ideology” purports “to have the absolute truth about why there’s disparity in the world,” and this is where the problem begins.

American culture has become increasingly less religious. We are more secular these days, perhaps the result of too much cynicism and too little faith. Or perhaps it’s because we have been disappointed by organized religion. But try as we might, we are mostly incapable of abandoning paths that lead to dogma and ideology. We crave it. We long for the ease of reading from a script that someone else has written, a script that confirms our moral standing when we read from it. Classical liberalism, which values equality and civil liberties, may have filled this longing for a while. Think about political liberals, who in recent American history have been on the forefront of battles for civil rights, who have waged relentless wars against discrimination and fought for equality. What used to be seen as religious or moral ideals became liberal ideas. The perk was that one didn’t need to be religious to embrace these values. And for a while, it was enough. 

But history shows us that there will always be extremists who rise up to convince us not only that their way is better, but also that their way is the only way.

Why is this a problem? Because, as Bernstein points out, claiming directly or indirectly to have the absolute truth about something implies that there is no room for conversation; it “overrides the need for societal debate” about some of the most urgent matters of our time. While “woke ideology,” or “successor ideology” as Wesley Yang calls it, may claim to be a “successor to liberalism,” the truth is that in the “name of justice” it has hijacked liberalism for its own political agenda. Bernstein writes: “The problem I identify in this book arises because woke ideology crowds out all alternative explanations and theoretical frameworks, thereby establishing itself as the one and only explanation for society’s problems. In so doing, it shuts down liberal discourse and empowers radical voices.”

One problem is that many of today’s progressives believe they know the answer—not one of the answers, but the answer. They have not one shred of doubt when it comes to their reading of justice and equality. I refer often to a novel by American Jewish novelist E.L. Doctorow called “City of God” (2000) in discussions about this topic. It isn’t Doctorow’s most famous novel, but I think it may be his most important for one reason in particular, which connects directly to the problems addressed in Bernstein’s book. In the story, one character, a Reconstructionist rabbi, reflects on the importance of doubt in culture, society and religion, calling it the “great civilizer.” Doubt forces inquiry and analysis. It compels us to seek answers, to engage in a process that we hope will lead us to truth. In the case of Doctorow’s fictional rabbi, doubt is what directs us to a more profound understanding of who or what God is; it reveals to us a deeper knowledge of the nature of religion and theology. Theological uncertainty, then, is the answer rather than the question.

It was a concept that clearly captivated Doctorow, who wrote about it again, using the same phrase, in “Reporting the Universe” four years later:

In the course of my own life I have observed that the great civilizer on earth seems to have been doubt. Doubt, the constantly debated and flexible inner condition of theological uncertainty, the wish to believe in balance with rueful or nervous or grieving skepticism, seems to have held people in thrall to ethical behavior, while the true believers of whatever stamp, religious or religious statist, have done the murdering.

But when we talk about the importance of doubt, it’s not just about religion and theology. Doubt is not important only to religious discussions and inquiries. Doubt, the “great civilizer,” is a necessary component of all authentic ideological discourse. Even scientific inquiry—and science, remember, is in part about uncovering indisputable facts—must contain an element of doubt. Without doubt there are no questions. A hypothesis is just a hypothesis until it is proven. And even when it is proven, it doesn’t always mean that an indisputable fact has been uncovered. When one proposes an explanation for a phenomenon, it must be tested. If the proposed explanation of the phenomenon is confirmed, we have an answer. But what happens if we change a sample size or the environment in which the test was done? What happens if we examine the results differently? Perhaps we arrive at a different explanation, another answer. Without doubt, skepticism, and questions even about what we believe to be true, there is no scientific advancement.

A lack of doubt, replaced by a fixed certainty, is one of the most telling features of the twenty-first century. But nowhere is it more pronounced than in the woke ideology that Bernstein identifies as having taken root in American culture. His book gives us a glimpse into what happens to cultures that replace doubt and the inclination to question and debate (as we do in the Jewish tradition) with adamant certainty.

It goes without saying (and Bernstein points this out) that such an impulse is completely anti-Jewish—this insistence that there is no room for questioning or skepticism, this doggedness when it comes to the “woke” belief that people can only be divided into two categories: oppressor or oppressed. When did people become so simple, so unable to appreciate nuance and gray areas? The ability to function in complexity is one of the traits that make us human. When did we stop being human? More importantly, given that this impulse has taken hold in some Jewish communities, when did Jews stop being Jews?

While the absence of doubt in progressive and woke ideologies is a strong undercurrent of Bernstein’s book, the most important thread is how this phenomenon damages Jewish communities, “undercuts free discourse” and ultimately “foments antisemitism.” 

While the absence of doubt in progressive and woke ideologies is a strong undercurrent of Bernstein’s book, the most important thread is how this phenomenon damages Jewish communities, “undercuts free discourse” and ultimately “foments antisemitism.” It has taken deep root in many of our cherished progressive and liberal institutions (including the ACLU, according to Bernstein), and it’s impossible to avoid. “It insinuates itself into institutions and changes their values and culture, often without ever firing a shot, mostly because those who oppose the ideology never bother to resist.” 

Bernstein traces the rise of woke ideology and its infiltration into American Jewish spaces from the beginning. It’s a quick and engaging read because he grounds his argument in personal stories and carefully shows us the progression of woke ideologies. None of this happened over night. It happened right in front of our eyes. Even those of us who have already heeded the alarm when it comes to the danger of these ideas may not realize that they didn’t begin with the murder of George Floyd. In fact, Bernstein shows us that they were there all along, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, percolating on college campuses and popping up in political spaces. In the late 1990s they would emerge in corporate spaces as well. But most of us weren’t paying attention.

One early example that Bernstein describes is when he was accepted into Leadership Washington, “a cohort of business, government and nonprofit leaders who spent a year studying regional challenges and thinking through how to address them,” in 1998. He writes:

There were about forty of us in the program. Three days were devoted to “Multiculturalism”—what today would be called “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” or “DEI.” I was excited. Multicultural programs were right up my alley. I soon realized, however, this was a totally different approach to diversity. John Butler—the program chair and the head of a Catholic high school in Washington—opened the program, stating that “racism equals prejudice plus power.” I had never heard that formulation before. “I think racism is hatred toward other races, and don’t think power, whatever that is, has anything to do with it,” I told Butler after the meeting. “You can disagree all you want but that’s what racism is,” he said. I wondered who gave him the final word on the matter. Such insistence on being right was hard for me to stomach; this was a demand for acquiescence. 

It wasn’t Butler’s opinion that Bernstein found so offensive. It was his insistence that there was no room for competing opinions, no space for dialogue or debate, that was unconscionable. Flash forward years later, and Bernstein shows us that organizations including the ACLU have also devolved into a similar acquiescence. And it’s that “very slouch to ideological acquiescence” that Bernstein fears is transpiring in the Jewish world today, “much of which is also abandoning its core principles.” His wording here is prescient and precise, and the allusion to William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” is purposeful. Will the center hold? Will things fall apart? If “ideological acquiescence” is the beast toward which we’ve been slouching, how can we stop this path to catastrophe? 

It’s common these days for well-meaning people to read a book or two about which they become passionate and then quickly become an “authority” on the matter. But Bernstein is not such a person. He is extremely well-equipped and more entitled to speak about this issue than most people writing about it. His work in the leadership of American Jewish Committee (AJC), the David Project, an organization dedicated to educating and training Jewish college and high school students to advocate for Israel, and Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) among other positions gives him special insight into how woke ideologies have been growing in Jewish spaces for many years now.

Woke ideology “alienates from Jewish institutions many Jews with divergent political attitudes, by treating their views as bigotry or by otherwise insisting that their politics are beyond the pale. 

Some may wonder why the inclusion of woke ideologies in Jewish spaces is such a bad thing. Isn’t it just another perspective, one that deserves a seat at the table of Jewish opinions? But it’s a moot question given that this perspective disallows the possibility of others. Beyond that, it “short-circuits the deliberative process in Jewish organizations by making it impossible to discuss sensitive topics: among other issues, woke ideology makes identifying problems and solutions to declining Jewish affiliation more difficult, by insisting that such efforts are prejudicial and misogynistic.” Woke ideology “alienates from Jewish institutions many Jews with divergent political attitudes, by treating their views as bigotry or by otherwise insisting that their politics are beyond the pale. And woke ideology inflames both anti-Israelism and antisemitism by spreading dogma that empowers extremists and antisemites.”

In other words, woke ideology makes Jewish spaces less Jewish and less safe. And, Bernstein argues, “if we remain where we are today … we will enable more and more hostility toward Jews.” 

For Bernstein, debating “for the sake of heaven, which is central to [his] identity as a Jew, is worth protecting and nurturing.” He sees this tradition as “being threatened by people who think they have all the answers. For woke ideologues, all debate over social issues is over and everyone should fall in line with the prescribed dogma. And … that dogma begets ever more extreme forms of dogma.” Many of the tenets of woke ideology are “irrational,” and the more we defer to them, “the more extreme and more dangerous those beliefs become over time.” It’s not unlike religious extremism. Those who embrace these ideologies are not as secular as they claim to be.

In the fall of 2016 at a meeting of BLM and Black Jews, Bernstein witnessed the religion of woke ideology for himself: “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 loudly proclaimed AMEN.” Bernstein admits to always having been “moved by the spiritual fervor of the Black church. Through gospels, hymns, and professions of faith, churchgoers experience a deep, authentic connection to the divine spirit that I could not access.” But this moment was different for him, and was prescient in many ways. Seeing the very same “fervor” emerge during what was billed as a political program “confused” him, “until [he] realized that the call to be woke was, in fact, a profession of faith.” Bernstein concludes: “I felt like I was witnessing a religious revival in service of a new spiritual, political and social movement”—a new absolute truth.

Those who see these ideologies as simply part of a social movement to fight and end racism may mean well, but they are wrong, and it’s a mistake that will have troubling consequences for everyone, but especially Jewish communities. It’s a movement that “has its own internal logic, its own vocabulary, its own history, philosophy, and conception of morality and law. And, like all religions, woke ideology embodies a dogma that rebukes all challenges.”

In Judaism and Jewish life, challenges must not be rebuked. They must be welcomed. Ideologies that demand our complete acquiescence are not social justice. 

In Judaism and Jewish life, challenges must not be rebuked. They must be welcomed. Ideologies that demand our complete acquiescence are not social justice. They are designed to divide and conquer, to dismantle the very structure of dialogue and debate that has played a part in keeping the Jewish community intact for centuries. We know that white supremacy is a problem for Jews. Never would we consider allowing it into our institutions and synagogues. But pretending that this is the only source of antisemitism is a farce. As Bernstein says, “those concerned about the resurgence of antisemitism today largely fail to understand and name the animating ideology, one that most assuredly inflames left-wing antisemitism.” 

Are we willing to name it, or will we continue to acquiesce? 

For an excerpt from the book, click here.

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