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A Jewish progressive takes on antisemitic ‘wokeness’

David L. Bernstein’s “Woke Antisemitism” describes how a “social justice” movement collapsed into Jew-hatred.

Protesters in Berlin hold a Palestinian flag and the initials of the anti-Israel BDS movement while then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Germany in August 2019. Credit: Israel Hayom.
Protesters in Berlin hold a Palestinian flag and the initials of the anti-Israel BDS movement while then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Germany in August 2019. Credit: Israel Hayom.
Michael Lumish
Michael Lumish

David L. Bernstein’s Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews enamored me as soon as I read the dedication: “For all the ‘thought criminals’ and courageous people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, whose consciences will not allow them to go along with a totalizing ideology.”

This “totalizing ideology” is American “wokeness,” what you might call “neo-socialism” or simply the “progressive left.” The “thought criminals” are those who stand up to this ideology.

Wokeness exerts remarkable influence on Western politics and culture, including academia, major corporations, the entertainment industry, government and even the military. It is also hostile to freedom of speech and increasingly anti-liberal, racist and culturally toxic.

Bernstein is the founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and has spent his career leading a variety of pro-Jewish and pro-Israel non-profit organizations and advocacy groups ever since he was a young man at Ohio State University. Like most Jewish Americans raised in middle-class homes in the 1970s and ‘80s, Bernstein is on the political left and a Democrat.

With an introduction by iconic refusenik Natan Sharansky, Bernstein’s book discusses his professional experience within the context of the rise of woke politics, which emerged out of academic post-modernism and critical theory in the latter part of the 20th-century. His main point is that the influence of wokeness on American culture is not only illiberal, but increasingly antisemitic.

Wokeness, he contends, significantly contributes to the rise of anti-Jewish violence from Jerusalem to New York City and to antisemitic anti-Zionism throughout the American educational system. He wants, he says, to suggest “a way out of this ideological morass.”

Fittingly, Bernstein launches his discussion by defining terms. This is important because, as someone familiar with post-modernism, critical theory, Critical Race Theory and gender theory, he understands how language is regularly tortured into submission.

“I use the terms ‘liberal,’ ‘liberalism’ and ‘liberal values,’ by which I mean classical, small-L liberal values: freedom of expression, free speech, and civil liberties operating under the rule of law,” he explains. “A classical liberal today can be a political conservative devoted to ‘conserving’ liberal and other traditional values as well as a political liberal devoted to the same set of principles.”

The book does an excellent job of laying out how wokeness shuts down liberal discourse in favor of a toxic radical illiberality that insists upon acquiescence. Many people are forced to choose between bowing down to this ideology or losing friends, social status and even employment.

Wokeness also erases Jewish ethnicity by insisting upon the irrevocable “whiteness” of Ashkenazi Jews. This false distinction between “white Jews” and “Jews of color” pushes the leftist American obsession with pitting “whiteness” against “blackness,” and “oppressor” against the “oppressed,” into the sphere of intra-Jewish relations. In other words, it sets the “Good Jew” against the “Bad Jew.” It sets the “woke Jew” against his religiously-inclined brothers and sisters, even though most Jewish Americans do not fit neatly into either category.

Each chapter is deeply personal and outlines Bernstein’s life and work with anecdotes that describe the struggles of a pro-Jewish and pro-Israel advocate within “diversity, equity and inclusion” and progressive left campus culture.

For example, we learn that his family held Shabbat dinner discussions in which a “devil’s advocate” always played a necessary and important role. He discusses how, as a student of philosophy in the 1980s, “challenging the readings and the professor was de rigueur,” but this was not the case in Women’s Studies. Bernstein struggles against woke ideology because it discourages the free exchange of ideas.

As a Jewish leader, Bernstein saw how “anti-colonial” activists on the left marched alongside antisemitic anti-Zionists who advocate the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state. He saw how American children on campuses chanted for an “intifada” in a manner that was dangerous in its naivete and both grotesque and ironic in the context of a “social justice” movement.

On a day-to-day level, Bernstein witnessed how the claim that “Zionism is racism” expelled Jews from the larger community of ethnic minorities. Referencing U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3379 (1975), which defined Zionism as a form of racism, he poignantly laments, “The American left was being Durbanized.” And he saw the intensity of anti-Jewish racism, usually expressed as a contemptuous anti-Zionism, within woke black activist circles.

Bernstein understands that many Jewish teachers, politicos and leaders recognize that contemporary wokeness is harmful to Jewish Americans, as well as America more generally. Many people, understandably, are skittish about bucking this trend because they do not wish to be harmed socially, economically or physically. Nonetheless, Bernstein implores each of us to “stop the spirals of silence and turn the tide of woke ideology.”

Bernstein suggests that Jewish conservatives, progressives and moderates reengage with the Talmudic tradition of discourse and honest discussion in order to achieve genuine social justice. One hopes that this is an ideal that the most religious Jew can share with the most secular Jewish political activist.

“Aligning the American Jewish community too closely with the progressive movement, especially insofar as such alignment requires conformity to its woke pieties and credos, gives succor to an ideology that will ultimately harm us,” Bernstein concludes.

He recommends against.

Michael Lumish holds a Ph.D. in American history from Pennsylvania State University. He has taught at Penn State University, San Francisco State University and the City College of San Francisco. He is the senior editor of White Rose Magazine.

This article was originally published by White Rose Magazine.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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