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It’s time to fight for Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas and defeat DEI

The tragedy of the holiday is that it, like the civil-rights leader’s legacy, has been hijacked by woke ideologues who threaten American liberty and spread antisemitism.

A printed sign that promotes social justice by quoting a motto from Martin Luther King Jr., seen on a storefront window in Portland, Ore., on July 4, 2021. Credit: Tada Images/Shutterstock.
A printed sign that promotes social justice by quoting a motto from Martin Luther King Jr., seen on a storefront window in Portland, Ore., on July 4, 2021. Credit: Tada Images/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

American Jewish organizations should have treated the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday differently this year. Ever since its adoption, Jewish groups have embraced the January celebration of the African-American leader’s heroism as an opportunity to reaffirm their historic commitment to both the cause of civil rights and good relations with the black community. The holiday is commemorated with “Days of Service” in which Jewish community members take part in public projects to benefit those in need and their neighborhoods. It’s also replete with events that speak to their desire to virtue signal their support for “social justice” causes, generally a synonym for liberal political projects.

While this sort of thing is either commendably high-minded—or at worst, largely harmless—MLK Day in 2024 needed to be different. As much as many American Jews may desperately wish to act as if their traditional alliances remain intact, that stopped being viable after Oct. 7. To the shock of many otherwise liberal Jews, the reaction to the unspeakable atrocities against men, women and children in southern Israel by Hamas terrorists committed that day was not a wave of sympathy for the Jewish state but an unprecedented surge in antisemitism in the United States.

At the heart of the problem is a fundamental repudiation of King’s vision of an America where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Yet it is precisely those groups on the political left and in minority communities with whom so many Jews have sought to maintain alliances that are championing the ideas that make a mockery of King’s dream while also granting a permission slip to antisemitism.

The disconnect between King’s ideas and the embrace on the part of contemporary “progressives” of race and racial division as the defining characteristic of all human endeavor has been apparent for many years. But it became glaringly obvious during the summer of 2020, when the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off a moral panic about racism, and the Black Lives Matter riots ensued. At that time, liberal Jewish groups, including those tasked with the defense of the Jewish community like the Anti-Defamation League, were prepared to endorse a movement that was steeped in ideas like critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that were antithetical to equality and Jewish rights. The widespread acceptance on the left of the intersectional myth that the Palestinian war on Israel was analogous to the struggle for civil rights in the United States should have served as a warning that the alliances forged during the 1960s were no longer relevant. Yet many, if not most, liberal Jews and their leaders turned a blind eye to this reality. Then came Oct. 7, and even the ADL and other liberal groups stopped being able to ignore the way their allies thought of Jews.

The spectacle of mobs marching in the streets of American cities and on college campuses chanting for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet (“from the river to the sea”) and in favor of terrorist attacks against Jews both in Israel and abroad (“globalize the intifada”) haven’t just been merely upsetting. It has proved a seminal moment in American Jewish history since for the first time in living memory, antisemitic utterances and activism have been treated as acceptable discourse by corporate media outlets like The New York Times that a majority of Jews had treated as authoritative sources.

Not only have large numbers of their fellow citizens turned out to demonstrate their indifference and even support for the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, but groups that had long been seen as allies had turned their backs on them. Most prominent among them were those representing the African-American community and those who had championed the movement to transform American society via the imposition of DEI rules.

The growing dominance of the woke DEI catechism and its related ideological sources, as well as CRT and intersectionality in American institutions of higher learning and popular culture, and in business and government sectors, is the only way to explain how left-wing antisemitism moved from the margins of society to its mainstream in just the last few years.

The willingness of so-called “progressives” and the intersectional left wing of the Democratic Party, which is largely dominated by minority groups, to join the ranks of those seeking to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend its people against a genocidal terrorist group like Hamas was perhaps to be expected. That has always been the position of the BLM movement and the congressional “Squad,” whose members have done so much to mainstream antisemitic tropes.

But when people like MSNBC host Joy Reid claim that African-Americans identify with the Palestinians, that speaks to the general ignorance on the part of many Americans—and not just members of minority communities—about the genocidal intent of Hamas when it comes to Israel and Jews. It also illustrates how liberal media outlets like MSNBC have helped fuel antisemitism with biased coverage of the conflict that amounts to disinformation.

There are exceptions to the anti-Israel and antisemitic voices that seem to dominate discourse on the left. People like House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who have been outspoken in their support for Israel and against the surge in antisemitism, reflect King’s long-held views in support of Israel and against Jew-hatred. But the gap between the traditional liberal political establishment and the intersectional base is reflected in polls that show Democrats and specifically minority voters opposed to Israel and supporting their terrorist foes.

What we’ve learned in the last 100 days since Oct. 7 is that these troubling trends being fueled by the takeover of America’s cultural and educational institutions by woke ideologues have reached a point where it is no longer possible to deny or ignore the consequences for Jews.

If, as is now apparent, the mainstreaming of antisemitism is directly linked to the very same toxic ideas that now masquerade as advocacy for civil rights in the United States, then what we needed on MLK Day 2024 is not more virtue-signaling but frank talk about the betrayal of King’s vision by those who claim to be upholding it. The woke vision of America is one in which the remarkable progress on civil rights that has been in the United States since the 1960s is meaningless, and the prescription for the future is endless racial strife.

Not just the holiday but the entire concept of the fight for civil rights has been hijacked by ideological snake-oil peddlers like Ibram X. Kendi. He and others have foisted DEI policies on the country in which Jews have been transformed from a fellow minority that has known discrimination and fought for black equality into white oppressors who must be made to suffer for the real sins of America’s past and a fictional present in which “structural racism” is blamed for all society’s ills.

Genuine Jewish leaders would use MLK Day commemorations to confront this dismal reality and to urge the repudiation of woke myths that are tearing America apart and harming Jews. There is little indication that legacy Jewish groups like the ADL have sufficiently absorbed the lessons of the last 100 days to do that. But until they realize that a nation dominated by racist ideas like DEI is antithetical to American liberty or Jewish rights, the day supposedly set aside to honor King will remain a cruel parody of the vision that made him a true American hero.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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