(December 23, 2020 / JNS) Just how far are Jewish institutions willing to go to accommodate the principles of critical race theory and its “cancel culture” view of American and Jewish history? In the case of Brandeis University Press, even that respected liberal institution realizes that identifying American Jewish life as part of the fabric of institutional racism should not go unquestioned. A controversy over the editors of that publishing house’s refusal to include an essay glorifying the Black Lives Matter movement by a historian who claims that Jews are guilty of taking part in “white supremacy” has shined a light not just on a debate going on within the academy. It has also brought attention to the question of whether the Jewish educational world is being hijacked by a radical mindset that sees the community as not merely a beneficiary of racism, but guilty of being part of an irredeemable institutional racist nation.
What happened at Brandeis is illuminating in that the university’s publishing house was actually in the process of putting out a second edition of Marc Dollinger’s Black Power, Jewish Politics, a book that promotes the dubious theory that post-1960s’ Jewish activism was a variant of the same identity politics as that expressed by radical African-American groups in the aftermath of the 1960s civil-rights movement. Dollinger, who holds a chair of Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University, was asked by Brandeis to write a new preface to his book that would relate his study to the events of the summer of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement. What he gave them was a polemic that both praised BLM and accused Jews of “white supremacy.”
According to The Forward, the editors objected to his linking the Jewish community to this blanket accusation of racism. As a result, the book went out with no preface at all. That has led to accusations that Brandeis University Press—and its Jewish history series edited by Jonathan Sarna, the pre-eminent historian of American Jewry—censored Dollinger for telling the truth about Jewish complicity in racism.
Of course, the fact that it published the book at all gives the lie to the accusation of censorship. But, and more to the point, as Sarna said, crediting the success of the American Jewish community primarily to its whiteness and white-supremacist racism is “not only wrong, but deeply hurtful.”
Yet as much as that decision was a heartening and somewhat surprising example of institutions standing up to the avalanche of delegitimizing rhetoric from the BLM movement and its supporters, a look around the contemporary Jewish educational world tells a very different and more dismal story. As historian Gil Troy noted in an insightful essay published last month in Mosaic magazine, the adoption by Jewish day schools of The New York Times’ 1619 Project curriculum is not so much unwise as a case of a community committing “ideological suicide.”
That radical revisionist view of American history has been bitterly criticized by a battery of distinguished historians for its glaring inaccuracies, appalling lack of context and myopic retelling of the nation’s story as one long tale of racism. Nevertheless, the attempt to argue that despite the enormous struggles to rid the nation of slavery and then to advance the cause of civil rights that America is, and always was, irredeemably racist won the newspaper an undeserved Pulitzer Prize. Worse than that, schools around the nation are adopting a curriculum adopted from this biased compendium of untruths and misinterpretations to teach their students the nation’s history.
That’s hardly surprising given the free pass the BLM movement and its desire to smash—both literally and figuratively—American history has gotten from the mainstream media and many in the educational establishment. The popularity of the “1619 Project” explains why cities and states are not just tearing down monuments to Confederates like Robert E. Lee but doing the same to Abraham Lincoln, the man who liberated the slaves. Some of his statues and those of other American historical figures not associated with slavery—are being destroyed and his name even removed from schools.
Yet it is especially troubling to see this trend spreading to day schools—institutions that play a vital role in reinforcing a strong sense of Jewish identity. Support for civil rights and racial equality is part of any ethical education. But essays by prominent Jewish educators, such as the one published by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism by its senior director of teen engagement Rabbi Joshua Rabin, in which he writes that “the problem of racism lies within me,” are deeply troubling. It reflects the critical race theory claim that all whites are racist and that Jews must also label themselves in this way.
The problem with this sort of teaching is that it treats race as not merely important but as the only possible defining characteristic. In its rush to try to cast blame for past discrimination and lingering problems, as well as its determination to label all Americans as guilty, individualism and belief in meritocracy are tossed into the garbage heap of history. The characteristics of American society that enabled immigrant Jews to go from, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, “a bookkeeper in Brooklyn to a Supreme Court Justice” in “one generation” are ignored, if not completely written out of existence. It was America’s inexorable progress towards liberty that enabled Jewish progress, not racism.
Nor can it be ignored that critical race theory is inextricably tied to intersectional ideology, which views Israel as an “oppressor” of indigenous people of color. Intersectionality isn’t just linked to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It ignores the fact that Jews are the indigenous people of the Land of Israel, and that the majority who live there now are people of color whose families emigrated from Muslim countries.
When Jews adopt the fundamentally illiberal attitudes of the BLM movements and the charlatans who promote the theory of White Fragility, like author Robin DiAngelo, or its Jewish offshoot articulated by people like Dollinger, they are trashing their own history. They’re also dooming their children to life in a system dominated by racial attitudes rather than that one in which the successful struggle for liberty is lauded as the right model. No school should be poisoning the minds of its students with the ideological patent nostrums of the “1619 Project,” but that is especially true for Jewish ones. When American ideals are smashed along with the statues, a Jewish community that has thrived because of liberal ideas that are antithetical to the racialism of BLM will inevitably suffer.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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