(June 17, 2022 / JNS) One year ago, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. The movement to recognize June 18th—the date in 1865 when with the arrival of Union troops in Texas at the end of the Civil War, the last enslaved people were freed—was largely driven by the surge in activism that followed the murder of George Floyd the previous year. While the moral panic about racism led to hundreds of violent and destructive riots throughout the nation in the summer of 2020, the notion of turning a regional celebration of the end of slavery into a national holiday was an anodyne project. It was seen as a good way to recall both the sin of slavery and the struggle that ended it, as well as the subsequent triumph of the civil-rights movement a century later.
As with every other aspect of American life, Jews are joining in the observance of the day. For some, that means the creation of “Juneteenth seders” in which the traditional Haggadah for Passover is adopted to speak of African-American liberation. A variety of events will be held around the nation where Jewish communities will seek to show their solidarity with African-Americans or to participate in political events—like the “Moral March on Washington” in which a far-left economic and foreign-policy agenda is promoted.
For many in the Jewish community, this is also an opportunity to highlight their laudable desire to be more inclusive to Jews who are not white, though the notion that all Jews who are not Ashkenazi are “people of color” who should identify as victims is nonsense.
Some of the desire to participate in Juneteenth seems to reflect the peculiarly American Jewish impulse to see their own rituals as only having validity if they are adapted to serve the interests of non-Jewish causes, especially those that can fall under the rubric of “social justice.” But to the extent that this is driven by a genuine desire to oppose racism, it is unexceptionable. Racism is wrong and should always be opposed.
Yet if in doing so, Jews are adopting the language and the ideology of so-called “anti-racism”—a term that has been popularized by those promoting the Black Lives Matter movement and ideas such as critical race theory and intersectionality—and calling on the community to examine their “white privilege” as a way to address the issue, then that is a serious problem.
A desire to comply with the ideological fashions of the day led many Jews and their organizations to endorse the BLM movement. But in joining this effort, they fail to see that they are granting legitimacy not just to ideas that are worsening the racial divide in America but to concepts that are easily turned on Jews and grant a permission slip to anti-Semitism.
Much attention is paid to the question of whether African-Americans and Jews have grown apart since the heyday of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. That is a topic that is an intellectual dead-end that is rooted in myths about the past, as well as incorrect assumptions about the present.
While some Jews played an outsized role in the struggle against segregation, the idea that all or even most Jews were active supporters of the civil-rights movement is largely untrue, even if many were cheering it on from the sidelines. Blacks do not owe anyone a collective debt of gratitude for the fact some Jews did the right thing in that era.
By the same token, while honesty about that subject is necessary, the complicated relationships between some Jewish storekeepers or landlords and African-Americans don’t justify resentment or anti-Semitic invective on the part of some in the black community. Nor does it excuse the fact that anti-Semitic hatemongers, like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, retain a huge following in the black community over and above those who affiliate with his sect.
Jews are rightly concerned by an upsurge in anti-Semitism with much of their alarm focused on violent extremists from the far-right who have engaged in the murder of Jews. Yet many, and especially in the organized world, have been slow to recognize that much of the violence directed at Jews stems from the black community as the surge of anti-Semitic incidents against Orthodox Jews shows.
The fact that many in the black community have embraced the mindset of intersectionality and CRT as a political creed, leading them to regard Jews as guilty of possessing “white privilege” and therefore part of the oppressor class, is also something those Jews eager to attest to their anti-racist loyalties have trouble thinking clearly about.
The problem is not so much political as it is conceptual. This is a product of a failure to understand that the liberalism that Jews embraced as both akin to their own religious beliefs about justice and inseparable from their own community’s acceptance and advancement in the United States is incompatible with ideas like intersectionality and CRT.
Jews in the United States became the freest and most prosperous community in the history of the Diaspora and also were welcomed into virtually every sector of society. That was only possible because of an American mindset that for the most part judged people by their individual merit and not solely on the basis of their race, religion or country of origin.
It is true that Jews did not face the kind of obstacles or hardships blacks encountered. But the idea that Jews are “white,” and therefore privileged, is ahistorical because it both ignores the still active virus of anti-Semitism, as well as the fact that Jewish success was not a product of a traditional elite simply awarding benefits to them on the basis of their skin color.
Jewish success was a product of an American culture that prized meritocracy and equal opportunity. Yet it is those very elements that those who wish to indoctrinate Americans into abandoning in favor of a devotion to “equity.” The DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) mantra that is part of the catechism of those who have adopted the white privilege narrative in the Biden administration and elsewhere should be recognized as a threat to the Jews and to the cause of American liberty. It is one that is antithetical to the idea of equal opportunity and the rights and liberties of the individual that has been the guarantor of American Jewish safety and advancement.
A push for Jews to examine themselves for their privilege and to prioritize a search for racism in a community that has been the victim rather than the perpetrator of such evils—whether on Juneteenth or any other day of the year—is not merely foolish and unproductive. It is something that does actual harm by giving strength to movements that target Jews, and single out Israel and its supporters, for opprobrium, discrimination and threats of violence.
The BDS movement that is now actively engaged in efforts to target Jews for harassment and worse is merely a branch of the same intersectional agenda that seeks to divide all Americans by race and to have us think only of ourselves as being victims or one of the privileged.
As we have seen in the two years since the summer of BLM, traditional political liberalism has proved to be largely helpless in the face of these toxic ideas whose roots are to be found in illiberal Marxism. That is a tragedy and one that those who have faith in the credo of liberalism that stemmed from the philosophy of the Enlightenment should ponder with sorrow. That Jews who have benefited so greatly from the American tradition of political liberty should align themselves—whether wittingly or unwittingly—with a narrative about equity or privilege that seeks to do them harm is an act of self-destruction of historic proportions.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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