Author interview

Did US Jews wake up on the wrong side of ‘woke’ progressive politics?

In new book, Jewish community leader David Bernstein argues far-left outlook fuels antisemitism, links Israel to racism and stifles debate, even as many Jewish organizations buy in

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel/File)
Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel/File)

In May 2021, as Israel again battled terrorists in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state was hounded in the press and on social media. Protests erupted in US cities and Jews were attacked on the streets in New York and Los Angeles.

Although this was the fourth major round of fighting since 2008, the backlash felt different this time around, said David Bernstein, a longtime US Jewish community leader. Israel was not given any leeway for self-defense when the conflict broke out, but was immediately demonized as the oppressor in many quarters, he contended.

“The Gaza conflict was a wake-up call,” Bernstein told The Times of Israel in a recent interview, blaming an “underlying ideology” for driving the hostile coverage of the conflict. “I knew that if our society continued on this trajectory we are going to be facing ongoing polarization, disenfranchisement of the Jewish community and growing hostility on both sides of the political spectrum.”

That ideology was the progressive “woke” framework, and the fallout from the conflict spurred him to write a book addressing his views of the issue.

“Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews,” published in October, lays out Bernstein’s view of what has come to be known as the woke paradigm, sketching out its intellectual roots, its current manifestation, and how he believes the US Jewish community should approach the ideology.

The book argues that woke ideology places American Jews on the wrong side of racial politics, links Israel to racism in the US, and stifles debate, even as many mainstream US Jewish organizations align with its views. As evidence, Bernstein cites his experiences in Jewish communal groups waylaid by the ideology, the media’s treatment of Israel, a campus climate hostile to Zionists, attacks on free speech, corporate diversity programs that exclude Jews, left-wing groups shunning Jewish participation, and other incidents.

Bernstein defines wokeness as an ideology with two core tenets — that bias and oppression are embedded in the structures and systems of society, and not just a matter of individual attitudes; and that only those with the lived experience of oppression can define it for the rest. It divides the world into oppressors and the oppressed, blames societal ills on a deeply ingrained imbalance of power, and grants moral authority to the have-nots by dint of that status alone.

David Bernstein. (Courtesy)

“This ideology that holds that there are oppressed and oppressors in the world has really caught on in many institutions, and that oppressed versus oppressor binary increasingly is defining Jews as the oppressor and Israel as the oppressor, and that to me is highly problematic,” he said.

In Bernstein’s telling, proponents of woke ideology see this framework as the only acceptable explanation for inequality, quelling opposing viewpoints as lacking legitimacy to even be heard.

“I think the American Jewish community has a huge stake in protecting what I call traditional liberal values of freedom of expression and open discourse,” he said.

“Jews fare better in open, liberal environments, and less well in closed, illiberal environments,” he added. “There is nothing inherent about illiberalism spawning antisemitism, but there is — given Jewish history — something inevitable about it.”

Bernstein grew up in Ohio surrounded by his mother’s politically conservative Iraqi Jewish family and his Ashkenazi father, a staunch civil libertarian. In an early formative experience, he sided with his father and the American Civil Liberties Union in the defense of the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977, despite the city’s large population of Holocaust survivors. He defines himself as a “small-L” liberal, supporting freedom of expression, free speech, and civil liberties operating under the rule of law.

He led the liberal Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the David Project, a now defunct pro-Israel campus group, and held a senior role in the American Jewish Committee. He split off last year to found the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values as he became disillusioned with mainstream institutions. The institute aims to support classic liberal values and bolster a diversity of views in the Jewish community, while opposing far-left antisemitism. (He has also written on The Times of Israel’s open blogging platform.)

Illustrative: Anti-Israel protesters call for an intifada at a protest in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/ Flash90)

Over the past three decades, Bernstein has watched the social justice ideology develop from a remote academic discipline rooted in postmodernism to an international post-colonialist movement and campus fad, even as the term “woke” has become pejorative to critics of the movement, he said. The framework now guides corporate diversity programs and is a dominant ideology in many mainstream US institutions, including Jewish ones.

He started connecting the dots between the ideology and antisemitism after the United Nation’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which was marked by relentless criticism of Israel. The Israeli and US delegations withdrew, saying the attacks had veered into antisemitism. In many ways, woke ideology is an outgrowth of postcolonialism when applied to the US domestic scene, he argued.

The ideology gained ground in the US with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mid-2010s, he says in the book. Some progressive activists linked racism in the US to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and engaged in radical rhetoric, such as calls to abolish police and rebuild American institutions from scratch, that he viewed as problematic. The ideology gained mainstream purchase with the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020.

Racism is a scourge, but the woke movement’s overwhelming focus on the issue as the source of society’s ills is dangerous and counterproductive, he argued.

“Problems may have been at one time a function of systemic racism, but not all of them are today. There can be multiple factors in explaining why we have disparity, and if you insist that it’s only one factor — systemic racism — then you’re ruling out some of the best solutions,” he said. “We have to be honest about that or we’re not really solving those problems, and I don’t think going to the extremes on this is going to bring along the larger public. I think the best change movements in this country are highly inclusive.”

“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t real problems that need to be addressed.”

Pro-Israel demonstrators in New York, March 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The ideology also claims to know the absolute truth about societal disparities and therefore attacks debate, stifling free speech. The assault on open dialogue is a departure from classic liberalism, which has no over-arching theory, but aims to help the less fortunate in various ways. It also undercuts the centrality of debate in Jewish tradition, he said.

“Woke ideology sees itself not merely as a social movement to end racism but as a complete worldview that supersedes the existing white supremacist order. The ideology 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,” he writes. “Woke ideology prescribes only one voice and thus forces two choices: adopt the ideology or be part of the problem.”

In the book’s foreword, prominent refusenik and Jewish leader Natan Sharansky likened the woke ideology in the US to the “totalizing ideology I grew up with in the Soviet Union, which has taken the American left by storm.”

“I am concerned that many of my good friends in the American Jewish community, who, for all the right reasons, want to be part of the human rights and social justice movements of their time, do not fully recognize the danger of this ideology,” Sharansky wrote in the foreword.

Bernstein predicts that the movement will continue to intensify, saying, “Dogma begets ever more extreme forms of dogma,” as believers “one-up” each other to gain social advantage. The ratcheting rhetoric on the left further fuels extremism on the right in a vicious cycle, he argues.

Bernstein does not discount right-wing antisemitism. But he argues that most American Jews, like himself, live on the left side of the political spectrum and extremist right-wing figures, such as Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, and their ideology do not have sway inside most US Jewish communities.

The US State Department’s antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt has compared far-right Jew-hatred to a tornado and far-left antisemitism to climate change, acknowledging that violent danger currently comes mostly from the far-right. She and other commentators have pointed out that each political camp is quick to identify antisemitism on the opposing side, but not among its own ranks.

“Even if the threat to democracy is more serious on the right than on the left, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the threat on the left. Someone has to fix the gaping pothole on your street even when there’s a more serious water main break across town,” Bernstein said.

Peter Beinart, a prominent progressive Jewish commentator, said much of the difference boils down to how antisemitism is defined. Antisemitism on the right is more widespread, and more often characterized by traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes, such as the belief that Jews hold too much power, while the left is more focused on Zionism and Israel, he said.

“Even though people on the left can be more critical of Israel, they’re much less likely to have these kinds of negative stereotypes about Jews than people on the right, according to the research done by Eitan Hersh at Tufts, and other studies,” said Beinart, who said he is familiar with Bernstein, but has not read his book.

The argument against progressive antisemitism “is based on the idea that there’s a lot of antisemitism on the left. Unless you define anti-Zionism as antisemitism, which I don’t, you actually don’t find a lot of antisemitism on the left, compared to the amount on the right,” he said.

It exists on the left, just like other bigotries exist on the left and elsewhere, but proportionally it is smaller than on the right, outside of anti-Zionism, he said.

Peter Beinart (L) speaking at a J Street session on July 26, 2016. (JTA/File)

He also said that, just as anti-Zionism can spill into antisemitism, Zionism can also accompany anti-Jewish stereotypes.

“Just look at Donald Trump. Donald Trump, clearly a Zionist, also a serial trafficker in antisemitic stereotypes. So you can’t ask the question, ‘When does anti-Zionism bleed into antisemitism?’ without also asking the question ‘When does Zionism bleed into antisemitism?'” Beinart said.

He called for distinguishing more clearly “between Jewishness and the State of Israel.”

“It’s okay to protest in front of the Israeli embassy. It’s obviously not okay to protest in front of a shul because the people in the shul are not responsible. But the problem is that often the American Jewish organizations themselves and the Israeli government often don’t make that distinction between Jewishness as a religious and ethnic identity and Israel as a state,” Beinart said.

Bernstein also argued that the progressive movement is a threat to Jews because of its binary, zero-sum view of societal disparities between different groups that considers Jews white and beneficiaries of white supremacy and privilege, despite the community’s minority status and its many people of color. Other “white adjacent” groups, like Asian Americans, are in the same boat. The movement’s conception of equity, instead of equality, demands equal representation in all fields, instead of equal opportunity, which will harm successful minority groups, he argues.

“With equity, any group on average that’s below the mean is necessarily a victim of oppression and any group that’s above the mean is complicit, so Jews are viewed as complicit,” Bernstein said.

But Jews, who have largely found success in America despite historical oppression, threaten that conception.

“They see us as being over-represented and privileged, so in a way, we are a living challenge to the dogma itself and that probably gives rise to resentment,” he said.

Illustrative: New York police secure a Jewish community event in New York City, May 19, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The ideology’s formula for discrimination is “racism = bigotry + power,” he said, meaning if you have power, you cannot be a victim of racism, and if you do not have power, you cannot be a racist. It therefore dismisses antisemitic attacks, even though Jews are the number one target of anti-religious hate crimes in the US, according to the FBI. In one prominent example of that view, TV host Whoopi Goldberg caused an uproar earlier this year when she said the Holocaust was not about race, but two groups of white people “fighting each other.” She doubled down on the incendiary claims this week.

Viewing Jews as privileged white people also cuts Jews out of corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. Equity contends that all groups should be equally represented, meaning that US Jews, making up around two percent of the population, should only be that proportion of an organization, occupation, or university.

The book cites as an example a Jewish friend of Bernstein’s who grew up poor, lost his father, was discriminated against and struggled with dyslexia, but still managed to haul himself up the corporate ladder. Despite his participation in the George Floyd protests, his employer fired him due to DEI restructuring.

“The woke concept of equity can implicate Jews in the oppression of other minorities,” he said. “Woke ideology insists that Jews not only benefit from white domination but are also complicit in it.”

Pro-Palestinian activists hold a ‘Globalize the Intifada’ protest against Israel and in support of Palestinian security prisoners in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90/File)

Beinart said that many US Jews are in fact viewed as white, but that does not negate antisemitism.

“Being a beneficiary of white privilege doesn’t mean you can’t also experience discrimination. A gay man who is white is going to benefit from white privilege, but might also face discrimination for being gay. The two things are not contradictory,” Beinart said.

“Most Eastern European Jews, if they walk down the street and someone looks at them, they may not know they’re Jewish, but the person will see them as white and that has implications in the United States. I don’t think that saying most American Jews are perceived as white is antisemitic,” he said.

On Israel, progressive ideology views the Palestinians as the perennial victims, and the Israelis as the victimizers, with no room for nuance, Bernstein argued. Intersectionality has brought the conflict home for US Jews, as far-left activists push the Palestinian narrative and exclude Zionist Jews.

There are rampant examples — Zionist students have been banned from campus support groups for sexual assault survivors; far-left activists have assaulted Jews on city streets; UN investigators traffic in antisemitic tropes and demonize Israel as a colonial oppressor; and anti-Israel activists have repeatedly harassed Jewish groups while they are celebrating holidays or Shabbat, to name a few.

Nonetheless, mainstream Jewish groups have gotten on board with the ideology, he accuses. Non-Orthodox US Jews, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, have longstanding ties to progressive groups and want to be in the progressive tent, even if they do not believe in all its tenets.

“Today’s progressive left extracts its ‘pound of flesh’ by demanding that Jews self-identify as white, then mouth pieties against white supremacy, confess to their complicity in it, and surrender their critical faculties and their cultural character, in order not to be canceled, or trolled, or to suffer other indignities,” Bernstein writes. “Mainstream Jews who align yourselves with woke ideologues, it’s time to face reality: they’re just not that into you.”

Spectators at the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, May 22, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Within Jewish groups, the ideology shuts down debate by demanding conformity, he said, describing harsh outcry against two scholars who questioned data on the number of Jews of color in 2020. The woke movement’s fixation on language and terminology also bogs down progress with endless debate about minor rhetorical points, he argued.

Bernstein called for Jewish groups to “rebuild the center” by forming new alliances, acknowledging that it will be a painful process, akin to “moving to a new city and making a new group of friends.”

He believes this new political center should focus on preserving traditional democratic values and combating extremism, highlighting organizations like Israel’s non-profit Reut Group, and Free Black Thought, which advocates for free speech, pluralism, and civil rights.

He also encouraged the ideology’s Jewish opponents to fight the urge to conform, speak their mind, write opinion pieces, and cease donations to the organizations with which they disagree and tell them why. The woke agenda is less popular than its amplified voices make it seem, he contended, meaning a small number of opponents could also turn the tide.

Only 6% of Americans, mostly young and white, identify with the progressive left, but it is the most politically active group in the Democratic coalition. The much larger and more racially diverse groups in the camp mostly do not agree with the far-left’s demands for structural change and its allegations of systemic racism, and are more open to compromise, according to a Pew Center survey last year. Only 6% of Black Democrats identify with the progressive left, and it is the only political typology in the US in which a majority believes an individual’s success in life is largely outside of their control.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel/File)

A survey by Bernstein’s Jewish Institute for Liberal Values this year found that 78% of progressives and 81% of very liberal voters believe white Americans, including Jews, have “unfair advantages” that need to be addressed. Close to half of progressives said Israel is an “occupier/colonizer” and only 16% saw Israel as the historical Jewish homeland.

A majority of both progressive and very liberal respondents said they had “canceled” a friend or family member due to politics, while the rest of the electorate indicated they see cancel culture as a problem.

Republicans and independents were more sympathetic to Israel, while Democrats were more supportive of the Palestinians by a margin of 25% to 32%. Overall, voters were more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians by a wide margin, but younger voters were far more likely to be hostile to Israel, indicating a trend away from support for the Jewish state. The survey queried 1,600 likely voters in July and August and had a margin of error of 2.5%.

Bernstein said the situation is improving in some ways and getting worse in others. Woke ideology has made little headway with American voters. There is also a growing chorus of opponents, making it easier for others to speak out. At the same time, the ideology has become entrenched in many institutions and is being implemented with measures such as DEI rules and school curricula, he said.

“We’re in a spiral of illiberalism now and we have to go back and find our center of gravity and build a constituency around it,” Bernstein said. “I think that would be a very powerful role for the American Jewish community to play in American society — to help ignite commitment to a new American center that is both pluralistic and patriotic.”

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