There are a lot of things wrong with woke culture. While the impulse to demonstrate solidarity with the oppressed and opposition to bad things like racism is, in principle, praiseworthy, the virtue signaling is insufferable. As is the tone of self-righteous disapproval emanating from the woke towards all those that don’t measure up to their standards.
As a friend’s daughter eloquently summed up the problem, no matter how hard you try, “there’s always a woker fish” who will wind up shaming you for insufficient ardor for supposedly righteous causes. That means the competition to out virtue signal and shame lesser beings can lead even seemingly nice people to do and say things that are not only obnoxious, but actually have dangerous implications.
And that is the problem with Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn, assistant rabbi at New York’s famed Temple Emanu-El, the landmark Reform cathedral on Fifth Avenue. “Rabbi Andy,” as he styles himself on social media, seems like a well-meaning young man and posts lots of cute pictures on Instagram. And although he’s just one out of a staff of five rabbis (plus two with emeritus status) at that historic institution, he’s generally regarded as a comer in the world of liberal Judaism. So when he decided to rant on Twitter about something, it provoked a controversy that made news.
As his Twitter account demonstrates, Rabbi Andy is up to date as far as supporting things that woke rabbis should support, like abortion rights, Native American rights, why Black Lives Matter and smearing President Donald Trump’s supporters as anti-Semites. He also knows what to oppose, including America’s Founding Fathers, the Zionist Organization of America and, significantly, a letter signed by famous writers and artists against “cancel culture” and the repression of free speech that it encourages.
In other words, Rabbi Andy, like so many other well-meaning young liberal Jews, is just fine with cancel culture. Indeed, he’s ready to cancel the entire Jewish people, and by implication, Zionism and Israel, to demonstrate his impatience with the non-woke.
As part of his sermonizing about the wrongs of white supremacy and its companion evil, “white Jewishness,” the rabbi is particularly upset with the notion that the Jews are “indigenous” to Israel.
To the non-woke, that is an obvious and self-evident fact. But to Rabbi Andy, it’s an offensive act of “appropriation” on the part of reactionary Jews. As he wrote:
“Let me say this as plainly as possible: Jews are not an indigenous people. It is appropriative to make use of this word when referring to our relationship to the land of Israel, and it undermines the difficult work being done to fix the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples.”
The rabbi goes on to quote from studies from the U.N. Human Rights Council and Amnesty International that claim that the word indigenous can only be used when referring to people struggling against colonial oppressors. Both of those organizations are guilty of vicious bias against Israel that often amounts to nothing less than anti-Semitic incitement. But the key point here is that Rabbi Kahn uses them to bolster a cardinal principle of intersectional ideology that sees the struggle of African-Americans for civil rights in the United States as linked to that of indigenous peoples in the Third World who fight against imperialist oppression.
In this woke version of reality, humanity is divided into two groups: white oppressors and indigenous people of color straining under the yoke of white atrocities. And in delineating this stark division between the bad and the good, Jews must accept that they are among the former and irredeemably white. The only thing for them to do is to admit guilt and to struggle against the systemic racist system into which they assimilated into in the United States.
As The Forward noted in an article about the controversy stirred up by Rabbi Kahn, Israel’s Consul General to New York Dani Dayan, recently noted that both Jews and Palestinian Arabs are indigenous to Israel, and that peace will only happen when the latter finally recognize this fact rather than insisting that Jews have no sovereign rights in any part of the country. By lending support to the idea that Jews aren’t indigenous, Kahn is actually undermining chances of peace in the Middle East rather than promoting it.
The fact that the Jewish people are indigenous to the land of Israel, to which their ties date back thousands of years and were reaffirmed with continuous settlement, as well as prayers throughout the ages, is irrelevant to the woke. So is the fact that the majority of Israeli Jews are not white or European, but descended from people who were forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim worlds after Israel’s creation in numbers that were greater than those Palestinian Arabs who fled Israel during the War of Independence. Yet as far as the rabbi is concerned, Jews who speak of being indigenous are stealing victim status that belongs only to Arabs and other people of color.
Perhaps Rabbi Kahn thinks the semantics here are important because the assertion of indigenous status distracts us from the sufferings of African-Americans or Palestinians. But his scolding of Jews for having the effrontery to claim ownership of this word has implications that go beyond his repellent pedantry and ideological inflexibility.
That’s because telling Jews they are not indigenous to Israel is akin to branding them imperialist colonizers in their ancient homeland. And once you step down that path you aren’t just virtue signaling your concern for the oppressed; you’re also implicitly declaring that Zionism and the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet are illegitimate.
The redefinition of words with plain meanings in order to weaponize them for ideological purposes is key to the Orwellian process by which the woke suppress not only free speech, but the rights of those they consider white oppressors. In effect, what Rabbi Andy is doing when he lectures us about “white Jewishness” and who can be considered indigenous is canceling the entire Jewish people.
The only possible response to such despicable wordplay is to refuse to play by woke rules. There can be no compromise with intersectional canceling. It’s time to make it clear to the self-righteous Rabbi Andys of American Jewish life that we won’t accept their lectures or their politicized language lying down. The alternative is to consent to a denial of Jewish rights whose ultimate purpose is the sort of tragedy that ought to horrify a nice young rabbi a lot more than how to define a word.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.