“I am afraid there will no longer be a ‘special’ relationship between the US and Israel. The state of affairs becomes more difficult from year to year.”
David Bernstein, executive director of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV), believes that attitudes toward Jews depend on “whether the ideological madness will continue” • In an interview, he talks about survey results that show a decline in sympathy for Israel and warns: “We must not reach a situation where American Jews feel a lack of agency at the basic level. The situation may become common.
Bernstein, served as President and Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Relations for five years before starting JILV. He is the author of “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews” and lives in Washington, D.C.
David, in your book, Woke antisemitism: How Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, you talk about your concern about the situation in the U.S. and the intensification of anti-Israel trends on the progressive left in the U.S. What specifically are you worried about, and how does that ideology harm Jews?
“It harms Jews in several ways: first, it treats Jews as part of the dominant, oppressive class that shares white supremacy. Second, it erases Jewish identity by insisting that Jews are ‘white people.’ Third, it conditions Americans to oppose Israel by positioning them in a narrow, binary paradigm of the oppressor and the oppressed. Israel is cast as the oppressor because it is perceived as stronger than the Palestinians. The fourth point is that this ideology polarizes our politics and undermines our democratic values.
“The more unreliable America becomes toward Israel, the more vulnerable the Jewish community (in America) becomes. The last thing is that this ideology undermines Jewish pride among the younger generation of Jews. They are learning to see themselves as partners in white supremacy.”
What exactly is that WOKE ideology that you are talking about?
“The ideology of WOKE, in the language of awakening, holds two core principles: the first is the bias towards Jews is not only a matter of individuals, but it is embedded in the structures and systems of society. Secondly, only those who have lived under oppression can define what oppression is for the rest of the population. The second idea sabotages the discourse because you no longer have a right to participate in the discussion if you are perceived not to have experienced oppression.”
This ideology and its likes are actually a risk on both sides of the political spectrum. What is the difference between the threat from the right side and the threat from the left, and who should Jews be more concerned about?
“The extreme right in American politics is a physical danger to the Jewish community. The extreme right has weapons, and it threatens the safety and welfare of Jewish residents. The extreme left is a political and social danger to the Jewish community. It threatens to deny the rights of American Jews in American society.”
But we also see a social danger on the right.
“That’s right. For example, on the right, there is what is freely called a ‘substitution theory.’ It’s a popular idea on the far right whereby immigrants come to the U.S. and replace the average American worker. Jews are sometimes accused of being the force that is making this substitution. This is an ideology on the right that harms Jews.”
You describe the threat from the right as a “heart attack,” while the threat from the left you describe as “cancer.” Explain.
“The ‘heart attack’ metaphor holds that the extreme right is a tangible and present danger. It could undermine American democracy, destabilize society, and threaten American Jews. The metaphor of ‘cancer’ holds that the ideology of declining slowly but surely corrupts politics and society and the sense of place and belonging of the Jewish community in America.”
The Age of Polarization
To better understand the metaphors you have brought, it is important to understand the sources of antisemitism on the left. I’m not convinced that they are quite clear to the public.
“antisemitism from the left stems from the post-colonial experience, whereby stronger countries oppress countries with less power. It also relies on Marxist thought and has become a more acute threat in the last three years since the murder of George Floyd.
“The problem with antisemitism from the left is that sometimes it is unclear. It hides itself as an opposition to Zionism and the delegitimization of Israel, as well as in the language of social justice, such as the use of the words “power” and “privilege.” It’s not the same smoking gun as the antisemitism on the right.” This is the case, for example, in the Muslim world.
We are not just saying that there is Muslim antisemitism; We trace its ideological origins – to Islamism, to the ideology of jihad, to the idea of the infidel. When we talk about antisemitism on the left, on the other hand, we often talk about a symptom for no reason, as if it came from outer space and landed here one day. But in practice, we have long had antisemitism on the left. We saw it in the USSR in the form of anti-Zionism – but that too was embedded in extreme left-wing totalitarian ideology.
“The left-wing antisemitism that we see undermines the position of the Jews in society. It distances Jews from politics; it does not allow Jews to participate in coalitions for social justice; it brings over time the idea that Jews are a privileged class in society and partners in white supremacy. That’s why it works completely differently; it exhausts support for Israel and reduces the chances that people will support the Jewish state in the long run.”
You mentioned the smoking gun from the right side. Explain.
“Antisemitism on the right is a real and present danger. It can serve people with guns to murder people, as happened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the synagogue at Squirrell Hill. The man who murdered 11 Jews at Squirrell Hill did so because he thought Jews were helping bring illegal immigrants into the U.S. and that he should act immediately to stop it. So this is an example of real danger in the present.
“There is good reason to be afraid of the American right, and many Jews are indeed afraid. This is, as Natan Sharansky wrote in the preface to my book, ‘The role of the Jew is not to join forces with the ideologies of the time, but to stand up for independent thought and the liberal principles on which the democracies of the world were founded.'”
Following the example you gave that antisemitism is real and present, the ADL also backs this up. According to its data, US Jews experience the highest rates of antisemitic incidents in 40 years. Why does this happen?
“America and the West have become extraordinarily polarized. A collapse occurred in the common narrative and in the common vision of American society. In such an environment, people follow simple ideologies and dogmas that explain the world and give them meaning. Some of them are drawn to extremes. These extremist ideologies, whether on the right or on the left, are almost always antisemitic in nature.”
Are you concerned about the different trends you envision?
“What is happening now is that the ideology of youth is taking over institutions at a much higher and faster rate, especially in English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia. In general, Americans have a greater tendency to support democracy in the Middle East; This is a kind of testament to a fighting spirit that is fixed in American and national identity, but unfortunately, in the present day, this is eroding.
“JILV recently published a survey in which we saw a decline in sympathy for Israel. The harsh narrative that Israel is a colonial state is gaining momentum. That doesn’t happen overnight, yet about 30 percent of Democrats see Israel as a colonial and settler state rather than a state defending itself from hostile forces. This is good news and bad news. This shows that two-thirds of Democrats still understand that Israel lives in a difficult neighborhood. Many admire the Jewish state. But it also shows the alarming potential for more Democrats to see Israel differently, and it also depends on how America and Israel develop.”
Rebuild the center
The situation you are describing is troubling on certain levels, and you also addressed it when you participated last week in a strategic conference on US-Israel relations initiated by the Reut Institute, the Israeli Institute for Economic Planning, and the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). How does the current constellation affect Israel’s national security?
“When an ideology of wokeness takes a toll on how America sees itself, it will also affect U.S.-Israel relations. America, which sees itself as an oppressive country, will hesitate to use force in the world and will show less willingness to defend its allies. In doing so, it risks in various countries around the world the rise to power of people hostile to democracy and certainly to the US-Israel alliance.
“So far, this ideology has gained traction in the English-speaking world. I’ve seen no evidence of this ideology in Tel Aviv, but I don’t think Israelis are as sensitive to it and its existence as the Americans do.”
What can Israel do about it?
“For one, Israel needs to understand this ideology. How it affects Israel and to not realize a future that will not depend only on the U.S. It is very plausible that US-Israel relations tomorrow will not be what it is today. We want to avoid such a circumstance, but you must be realistic. If this ideology continues its long march through our institutions – we are going to be in trouble in five, ten, fifteen, or 20 years. You have to be prepared for these kinds of scenarios.”
In practice, what do you expect US-Israel relations to look like in the coming years?
“If the current ideological trends continue, I fear there will no longer be a ‘special’ relationship between the US and Israel. It becomes more and more difficult from year to year. I am afraid that a future American administration will not stand by Israel at the UN or vote for Israel’s interests in the UN Security Council. I am afraid that Israel will not be able to count on America in times of war, as it was in the past. I don’t know if America is more radical than in the past, but it’s more radical than any other point I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.”
What can Israel and the US do to deal with antisemitism and radical ideologies?
“It is important for American Jews and their allies to rebuild the center of American politics. I define a center as people who embrace democratic values and are not attracted and surrender to radical ideologies from any side of the political map. They love America and celebrate its pluralism. They don’t see America as fundamentally oppressive. We need to strengthen this core in America.”
How might the new government in Israel affect U.S.-Israel relations?
“If the new government is perceived as embracing radical forces or racist politics, it will damage Israel’s standing in the Democratic Party and among American Jews.”
Is Netanyahu’s return to power a challenge or an opportunity for US-Israel relations?
“It may not matter much, depending mainly on how the government acts or whether there is a confrontation with the Palestinians or Iran. Netanyahu is not particularly popular on the American left. Still, it will only be a real influence in the event of a significant drama or if, for example, the Middle East flares up for one reason or another.”
“A threat I have never seen before”
From the sum of all your words, there is a feeling that there may be a certain fear of being a Jew in the U.S. today.
“It is important to remember that America is still one of the freest countries in the world and a great place to be a Jew. Most of the time, Jews have nothing to fear. Most American Jews love America. It gives them a feeling of home and a sense of belonging. But this feeling can be damaged when radical ideologies enter the picture. Jews succeed in liberal and open societies and less in closed societies. We have an interest in preserving the institutions of democracy in the United States, which are subject to a threat I have never seen in my life. I don’t think enough people understand that.”
What will the treatment of Jews look like in the coming years?
“It depends on whether the current ideological craze continues or dissipates. If it continues, and if Americans become even more polarized and extremist, Jews will increasingly feel at risk; If we see a stabilization and America restore its sense of self, I think American Jews will get along.”
In some of the possible domino scenarios that you are describing, which part might be harmed first – the attitude towards Israel or the attitude towards the Jewish community in the United States?
“The attitude towards Israel. It is easier to condemn Israel and treat it as the representative of the Jews than actually harming the Jews, so I think the relationship with Israel is more vulnerable in the immediate term.
On the other hand, political forces do not take long to organize in ways that can harm American Jews. This can certainly happen just as it happened at the University of California, Berkeley recently: American Jews have been rejected from being represented in left-leaning organizations and coalitions. This can become more common over time, i.e., a situation in which American Jews feel a lack of agency on a basic level. We must not end up in such a situation.”
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