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How Radical Social Justice Ideology Undermines Jewish Values, Identity and Pride

Unchecked over time, woke ideology will impoverish Jewish life by draining it of its most compelling qualities.
[additional-authors]
January 25, 2023

Adapted, with permission, Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.

Internalizing Whiteness

Whenever I have to fill out a form that asks me to designate my race and ethnicity, I always experience a momentary identity crisis. I am less than 50 percent European—23andMe has me at 50.4 percent Western Asian, owing to my Iraqi Jewish heritage—but the Asian designation doesn’t feel right either. The limited options of a government questionnaire can’t sum me up, yet woke ideology insists that I check the proverbial “White” box because, it claims, my white passing skin color entitles me to the benefits of a white supremacist society. Woke ideology insists that Jews not only benefit from white domination but also are complicit in it. If you think this sounds like an extreme interpretation, consider that the largest Jewish denomination in the US, the Reform movement, describes its diversity training for Rabbis thusly: “This space is for white clergy and will serve as a white antiracist affinity space. A white antiracist affinity space is one where white people can process their emotions and deepen their understanding around race and racism, without burdening or causing additional harm to People of Color (POC).” The URJ education program was designed to help rabbis “better understand our own identities as white Jews,” “learn how to recognize the invisibility of ‘whiteness’ (including patriarchal, heteronormative, Puritan/Christian values) that have become normalized,” and “understand how to disrupt our daily acts of ‘whiteness’ (behaviors and actions we may perpetuate unknowingly as they have been adapted overtime and deemed ‘the standard’ but may or may not be useful to our efforts towards creating communities of belonging).”

This understanding of white privilege demands that Jews declare ourselves white because the power structure thinks of us that way: we took advantage of the privileges and opportunity whiteness afforded us, so now we must acknowledge and disavow those attendant privileges. By accepting the notion that Jews are white, Jews not only downplay antisemitism (“white people cannot really be victims”), they allow others to define them and impose upon them a pseudo-consciousness, and they denigrate and erase the unique qualities endowed by our heritage and the Jewish condition through the ages. It should be obvious that this self-conception of Jewish whiteness is no way to imbue fealty to Judaism and to the Jewish people in the next generation. It doesn’t take a major feat of imagination to see how this ideological trend will run roughshod over Jewish identity and pride in the future. Few young Jews are likely to feel compelled to sustain a tradition mired in the moral taint of whiteness. The former Israeli politician and writer Einat Wilf called this phenomenon—whereby society, or a specific segment of society, cajoles Jews into giving up some key aspect of their identities in order to be part of “the Community of the Good”—paying “a pound of flesh.”

Teaching Jews to Despise Israel

The Whiteness label is not the only way that wokeness saps Jewish pride. A May 2022 poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that 23 percent of Jewish millennials reported that the anti-Israel climate on their campuses had forced them to hide their Jewish identity, 46 percent said it had not, and 11 percent claimed there was no anti-Israel climate in the US. Additionally, 28 percent said the anti-Israel climate on campus and elsewhere made them rethink their own commitment to Israel, while 54 percent say it did not.

The simplistic oppression narrative has already badly battered the connection many younger Jews feel toward the Jewish state. Imagine installing that same ideological software not just in certain elite colleges, as it is now, but in K–12 education, as proponents of the current anti-Racism pedagogy demand. My children’s public school system in Montgomery County, Maryland is now teaching students to “recognize and resist systems of oppression.” Under such an ideological regime, it will no longer be enough to worry just about how Israel is being portrayed in schools. The school won’t even need to mention Israel for the students to see the country through the binary lens—they will have been conditioned to see everything that way and most assuredly Jews and Israel will not be spared. Unless we put a stop to this damaging pedagogy in schools, it will inevitably take a grim toll on how young American Jews perceive Israel and themselves as Jews.

Dissing the Argumentative Jew

Another way woke ideology hurts Jews is it distorts our culture. Woke ideology aims to end debate on social issues, particularly the argument over why different groups…differ. In the woke world view, systemic oppression is the only acceptable explanation for group differences. I simply cannot fathom why so many progressive Jews are drawn to a political sensibility that is so flagrantly at odds with the large slice of Jewish culture that questions and debates ideas, the one in which many of them surely were raised. Judaism’s entire religious tradition is structured around Makloket: arguments about ethical living.

In “The Eclipse of Jewish Cultural Power,” Touro University professor Thane Rosenbaum addresses woke ideology’s specific impact of the creative Jewish persona: “It isn’t that Jews no longer occupy important positions in American culture, to say nothing of other fields. What’s disappearing from the cultural scene is the Jewish sensibility: its essential broad-mindedness, impish irreverence, openness to difference, and its skill in the art of disagreement…. Today, culture-makers fear being charged with plundering the stories of others, instead of being inspired to tell them. The new woke ground rules are ‘Stay in your lane. Do not fictionalize the experiences of people who are not you. Do not write (or speak) dialogue in their voices. Stop imagining the lives of others.” So when woke ideology silences the creative person or the gadfly, it doesn’t only undercut the free expression of ideas, it is an affront to an important dimension of Jewish identity: our essential character as a people who argue with each other and even, sometimes, with God, as the Biblical name of the Jewish people, “yisra-el,” literally denotes.

Invalidating Immigrant Jewish Narratives

In centering politically progressive narratives, some Jewish groups devalue the narratives of Jews who have come to this country from totalitarian systems such as the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Iran, and parts of Latin America. Woke ideology enforced in Jewish settings denigrates the lived experience of these once-oppressed populations. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings undertaken Reform Jewish movement’s trainings in “white affinity” spaces cited above, would strike many immigrant Jews as bizarre and politically extreme, reminiscent, for some, of what they experienced in totalitarian nations of their birth. Ironically, efforts at “inclusion” in the Jewish community offer the most traumatized Jews the least amount of succor. They represent, it seems, the wrong kind of diversity.

Repelling Jewish Conservatives

Jewish political conservatives who participate in mainstream Jewish life have long had to shrug off their politics, at least publicly. But woke hyper-politicization of Jewish life has made such compromises for many increasingly difficult. Jewish spaces can feel like hostile environments for Jews on the center-right, as woke ideology not only politicizes Jewish organizations, but adds a layer of judgment and moral rebuke if they don’t play nice. It has gotten so bad that even political moderates, like myself, feel alienated. A politically progressive nonprofit executive, Jared Feuer recounts the politicization of his beloved Reconstructionist synagogue when a new Rabbi, a known social justice warrior, ascended to the Bima: “The congregation must always be on the side of whomever progressive sentiment declares the oppressed. If a congregant admits they voted for a Republican, voices a divergent perspective, or speaks to concerns about this political orientation, they will be called out as an oppressor. This happened to me when I expressed disappointment about the direction of the rabbi’s d’vars and he tweeted in response: “It’s amazing how much attention the complaint of a single, straight, cis, white man can command.”

In a strangely controversial opinion piece, “Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” prominent L.A.-based Rabbi, David Wolpe laments, “[A]ll we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.” Rabbi Shai Held responded, “Demanding that politics be kept out of shul is like demanding that Torah be kept out of shul.” And therein lies the problem: some Progressive rabbis—religiously liberal but ideologically orthodox—seem to believe that their political views have been handed down to them directly from Mt. Sinai with the authority of the divine word. As Jewish life—particularly the liberal movements (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist)—has become increasingly ideological, the 25 percent of the Jewish community who vote Republican will become increasingly alienated and grow in numbers.

Shutting Down Discussion of Jewish Continuity

Jews have always debated ways of surviving both the external threat of antisemitism and the internal threat of assimilation.  Of course, we have legitimate differences of opinion among ourselves about how best to strengthen and perpetuate the Jewish people. But now even the idea of Jewish survival and continuity is under attack: a woke wing of the Jewish studies professoriate and community activists want to shut down the whole Jewish continuity enterprise that, they insist, was born in patriarchal sin. In the Journal of American Jewish History, Lila Corwin Berman, Kate Rosenblatt, and Ronit Y. Stahl argued that “a Jewish continuity paradigm…treated women and their bodies as data points in service of a particular vision of Jewish communal survival,” and that “American Jewish continuity discourse was embedded within patriarchal and misogynistic structures.” The authors asserted that “telling women who they can and should marry and when and how often they should have children is what we mean by the patriarchal and misogynistic foundations of the continuity paradigm and its apparatus.”

The supposedly ominous “apparatus” that the authors indict is not, however, a totalitarian government forcing people to adhere to some state dogma, or a coercive clergy in a ghettoized community forcing people into submission; rather, it is a set of communal and educational programs such as Birthright Israel, which takes young Jews to Israel in hopes that they’ll fall in love with the Jewish state and each other. The doyens of Brandeis and the American Jewish Committee who advance Jewish continuity never enacted forced fertility programs or put into effect mandated match-making services. In fact, the “continuity experts” that Berman, Rosenblatt, and Stahl rail against have never enjoyed unparalleled hegemony; multiple points of view have always been entertained at Jewish conferences and meetings and expressed in research by a vast range of scholars representing varied perspectives.

I wonder whether these scholars who argued for Jewish continuity programs are right to be alarmed that integration brings about “an enfeebled Jewish future”; or whether such integration might strengthen the Jewish community and expand its ranks; or whether the Jewish community should use scarce resources to invest in the “core” of Jewish life, or the “periphery,” or all levels equally? One would think these are important questions about which reasonable people might disagree.

These scholars and activists are making it harder for Jewish organizations to identify the policies and strategies that strengthen Jewish life—a prime example of how woke ideology makes it impossible to address real world problems and harms the very people it’s supposedly designed to help—in this case, Jews. If this trend keeps up, we won’t be able to speak openly about how best to build a Jewish future. A ban on all talk of Jewish continuity could be the next ideological straitjacket for Jewish organizations, subverting Jewishness and undermining Jewish pride.

Unchecked over time, woke ideology will impoverish Jewish life by draining it of its most compelling qualities. We may not know the full implications of this for years. I’m not suggesting every woke Jew will become a raging self-hater. Obviously, there are deeply committed Progressive Jews—rabbis and Jewish educators among them. Rather, I’m arguing that, left to its own devices, woke ideology is likely to sap Jewish pride and commitment by demanding that Jews think and behave in ways at odds with authentic and longstanding Jewish sensibilities. Ben M. Freeman put it like this: “The question ultimately is: how can we feel pride in our internal identities when society impulses an external identity upon us that does not relate to the truth of who we are?” We don’t have to go along. As Pamela Paresky put it, “We are not required to play the parts that others have written.”

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