Years ago, while speaking at Rutgers University, Natan Sharansky was greeted with a pie in his face. Today, instead of engaging with Zionist speakers, many campus groups simply bar them from appearing. So much for open discourse and free speech.
Jewish students who might take a different approach—Hillel members for example—are ostracized and harassed. Others are abused simply because they are Jews, presumed to share in Jewish collective guilt for Israel’s sins. This is all in the name of woke ideology.
As former Labor Knesset member Einat Wilf wrote that we’re at the point where “a Jewish student who does not show herself to be an ally of Students for Justice in Palestine, or does not agree that ‘Zionism equals racism,’ or that Zionism is a form of apartheid, and Nazism and white supremacy, and whatever other supreme evil will be identified next, cannot be considered a good Jew.”
The ADL reports that on American college campuses, there is a “radical activist movement which places opposition to Israel and/or Zionism as core elements of campus life or as a prerequisite for full acceptance in the campus community.”
As a result, “Jewish students who publicly expressed affinity with Israel’s existence were more likely to have a difficult time being accepted in many campus spaces, especially in progressive and left-wing circles. Some students may feel forced to hide their connection to Israel in order to be accepted in such spaces.”
Nor is this woke condemnation of Zionism confined to college campuses. More and more, it’s the price of admission to non-academic progressive circles, as American liberals take a woke view of the Middle East. Just ask Rashida Tlaib. Recently, she declared that one can’t hold “progressive values … yet back Israel’s apartheid government.” Note that she has also taken Israel off the map in her congressional office. Or ask the earnest young members of IfNotNow, for whom Tlaib has become a leader.
As Gerard Baker wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “The embrace of critical race theory and woke ideology in the cultural and political establishment, like its more traditional Marxist forebears, neatly reduces all tensions in human relations to a simplifying narrative of oppressor and victim, only this time not on the basis of economics but race.”
Thus, progressives manage to see Israeli self-defense “as part of some grand global historical pattern of white-supremacist aggression.” As Tlaib says, it’s all the same system of oppression, “from Gaza to Detroit.”
So how can a Jew be an open-minded liberal Zionist and a progressive? David L. Bernstein tackled that question in his courageous new book Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews. Bernstein drew on three decades of experience as a liberal, left-leaning Jewish leader, showing how woke ideology, initially an obscure academic phenomenon, has come to dominate many of our mainstream institutions. He detailed how it has corrupted those institutions, threatened liberal Zionist identity and encouraged progressive antisemitism.
Bernstein recounted his own unsuccessful efforts to push back against the coercive diversity training he was made to attend while working in progressive groups—training that required him to accept rigid notions of collective white guilt. Moreover, he was told that he too suffered from congenital white racism, even though he is “the swarthy son of an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who never saw himself as white.”
Later, Bernstein found, the ideology of that diversity training “had seeped into progressive political spaces and multi-ethnic coalitions.” Where leaders used to talk about opportunity, they now talked about oppression. Eventually, Bernstein saw a connection between diversity ideology and the growing antisemitism that followed the hate-fest of the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism. The post-colonialist ideology of Durban was spreading. “The American left was being Durbanized, and many American Jews were naively helping it along by acquiescing to the demands of woke ideologues.”
Today, Bernstein argued, the progressive left demands “that Jews self-identify as white, then mouth pieties against white supremacy, confess their complicity in it and surrender their critical faculties and their cultural character in order not to be canceled, or trolled, or to suffer other indignities that befall dissenters from woke ideology. Some progressive circles ask Jews to abandon their Zionism and support for Israel.” Anyone who does support Israel is declared complicit in the oppression of Palestinians.
Essentially, woke progressives are telling mainstream American Jews that a central part of their identity is unacceptable. That’s not human-rights advocacy. It’s antisemitism. And the saddest part is that some Jews are buying into it.
Reacting to all this, in 2021 Bernstein “founded the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to supporting liberal principles of free thought and expression, advancing viewpoint diversity, countering the imposition of woke ideology in the Jewish community, and highlighting and opposing the novel but unmistakable forms of antisemitism emerging from woke ideology.”
He’s taken on a real challenge. Some people he’s spoken to say they support him, but “explain that their work or social situations don’t allow for intellectual honesty.” Of course, that underlines the bullying and intolerance that go along with woke ideology. The “central task, then, is to bring these believers in open discourse out of the proverbial closet.” Bernstein suggested several ways to do that.
Writing about these issues, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt asked: “What does it mean when the litmus test for inclusion in social justice spaces requires Jews to oppose the very existence of the only Jewish state in the world?”
Well, what it means is that liberal Zionists need to take back those spaces by calling out the woke fanatics and then becoming advocates for free thought, free speech and respect for the opinions of others. Reading Mr. Bernstein’s book would make for a good start.
Paul Schneider is an attorney, writer and member of the board of directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), an affiliate of B’nai B’rith International.