A Wake-Up Call To Counter Woke Excesses
A new group is urging mainstream Jewish organizations not to sacrifice communal interests to placate progressive activists.
“If people feel sufficiently affronted, they’ll stand up,” says David Bernstein, founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.
It’s time for mainstream American Jewish organizations to question seriously whether their efforts to maintain alliances with progressive-left groups are causing more harm than good to our own communal interests and values.
Fully embracing Black Lives Matter, supporting efforts to defund the police, failing to support free speech in the wake of woke opposition, and accepting the notion that Jews are “white adjacent” -- and therefore complicit in white supremacy -- would lead us down a road that threatens the future of the American Jewish community.
Can one raise these issues without being dismissed as a racist?
There are a few brave souls out there speaking up. David Bernstein, former president and CEO of the left-leaning Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), is making the case for a communal pivot, asserting that the increasingly radical ideology of progressives is inconsistent with Jewish political interests and moral principles
(JCPA is the national hub of the community relations network, representing 125 local Jewish community relations councils (JCRCs) and 16 national Jewish agencies, including the four main denominations of American Judaism. The group seeks alliances with other religious and ethnic groups.)
In an Oct. 18 essay for eJewishPhilanthropy titled “A Strategic Reset For Jewish Community Relations And Advocacy,” Bernstein noted that in the last few years, a number of Jewish community relations groups on both the local and national level have sought to strengthen their alliances with progressive groups on civil rights issues. This was based on sincere empathy for the cause, especially after the murder of George Floyd; a recognition that minority groups are strengthened when they work together; and an effort to soften progressive criticism of Israel through deeper personal relationships with activist leaders, tackling the complexities of Israeli society.
“This strategy of engaging progressive activists, I am sorry to say, has largely failed,” Bernstein wrote. “The attitudes toward Israel among progressives have markedly worsened in the last five years. And the prevailing ideological environment has become toxic and fundamentally illiberal.”
He asserted that “aligning ourselves too closely with the progressive movement, especially insofar as such alignment requires conformity to its pieties and credos, gives succor to an ideology that will ultimately harm us. It’s time for the mainstream Jewish community to do a strategic reset.”
Bernstein told me that in response to his piece, and other writings of his on this theme, he has received “a lot of email cheering me on, privately. And I get lambasted publicly by everyone else … I’m being tarnished as a right-wing fanatic.” In a recent tweet, he called on friends who support him behind the scenes to “find the courage” to speak up publicly as well.
Earlier this year, in an attempt to advance “viewpoint diversity” and constructive dialogue in the Jewish community, Bernstein launched the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, whose nine-member board includes Rabbi David Wolpe and journalist Bret Stephens. A key component of their mission is to counter the Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theory that sees society as divided between the oppressed and the oppressors, and asserts, according to the Institute’s definition, “that only the victims of oppression have the lived experience, insight and moral authority to define such oppression for the rest of society.”
Through that lens, Jews and other minorities are often seen as oppressors; CSJ critics insist the theory itself has become a source of oppression and anti-Semitism.
Is there a significant constituency for liberalism in America today? Bernstein believes “the jury is still out,” with the effort to counter CSJ theory still in the early stages.
“If people feel sufficiently affronted, they’ll stand up,” he told me. “The primary strategy is to get more people in the mainstream to publicly express their concerns, and to hope for more freedom and discussion.”
Adding significantly to the discussion, professors Samuel Abrams and Jack Wertheimer published a major piece in the current issue of Commentary titled “The Woke Threat To America -- And To American Jews.”
They cite numerous examples of how the language and demands of progressive activists have ratcheted up dramatically, with “every week seem[ing] to bring new non-negotiable demands; and what was treated as benign yesterday may suddenly cause outrage and ostracism tomorrow.”
The article cites evidence that many Americans “self-censor and regularly silence themselves” -- even though they “despise” cancel culture -- for fear of being marginalized through loss of jobs or personal reputation “if they say the wrong thing.”
The situation is particularly dangerous on campus, where “free speech is under siege,” the article states. “It’s not just a question of who can and will speak, but also about efforts to muzzle what can be said.”
Jewish students who express support for Israel are branded as racists, and worse, and often are banned from participating in support of civil and minority rights, from Black Lives Matter to LGTBQ groups. Just identifying as Jewish has resulted in protests against students running for student government.
Abrams and Wertheimer argue that citing “Jewish values” or “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) as a Jewish rationale for embracing woke ideology is an incomplete and dishonest way of “cherry-picking quotations drawn from a multitude of sometimes contradictory statements by rabbis over the centuries on a wide range of issues.
The authors ask: “Does ‘Judaism’ take a position on ‘equity’ as understood by progressives, or on the stifling of speech or the blackening of a person’s name for holding unconventional views or the tearing down of institutions such as the family?”
They conclude that “if Jews do not wake up to the threat that progressive ideology poses to their way of life in America” on issues like religious liberty, meritocracy, philanthropy, security and civility, “they will find themselves on a steep slope of downward mobility, or worse.
“For Jews, nothing less than their equality is at stake.”
Examples abound of Jews being canceled for holding to their convictions, whether it was the Jewish women ejected from the Dyke march in Chicago four years ago for carrying a Star of David flag, or as recent as the D.C. chapter of the Sunrise environmental group refusing to take part in a voting rights rally in Washington this past weekend because three major American pro-Israel groups were participating.
Exacerbating the problem is that our internal debate in the Jewish community on issues from Israel-Palestine to racial justice has grown ugly. One example is the nasty outcome of a sociological study taken by two Jewish professors in the field seeking to gauge the percentage of Jews of Color in the U.S. They found that the percentage was lower than others had believed. Some progressive critics not only challenged the findings but personalized the attack by charging the professors with racism.
Where do we go from here?
David Bernstein says his institute is making headway with groups in the Chinese, Latino and African American communities who share similar concerns about “the nature of the conversation on issues like equality and social justice,” and the ability to suggest that America is not completely racist.
A primary focus for the institute is encouraging the mainstream Jewish community to engage progressives without sacrificing traditional Jewish values that have resulted in more freedom for Jews in America than any country in history.
Studies suggest that the great majority of American Jews are somewhere in the middle of this great debate. They need to be made aware of the issues and “mobilized,” according to Steven Windmueller, an expert in the field of Jewish political affairs and studies. “The Jewish community is ripe for these conversations that have to be held,” he said recently. “The center of our community is desperate to find voices to say what they believe.”
For information on the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values: https://jilv.org