Woke Antisemitism: A Reckoning
In their rationalizations of violence against Jews and Israelis, they’ve outed themselves as the extremists they are.
Before the blood had even dried on the pavement of the Nova music festival in southern Israel, where Hamas terrorists ruthlessly murdered 260 young people on 7 October 2023, the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies (CLES) began posting Instagram memes in support of “Palestinian Liberation.” The CLES is a collection of educational organizations that design curricula for US high schools. They aim to teach students about “critical consciousness” and “intersectional forms of oppression.” One of the memes they posted advertised an upcoming “Long Live Palestinian Resistance” event and another gave a shout out to “The People’s Forum,” which organizes events in New York under the banner “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free.” The academic activists of CLES are not first-generation immigrants from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank; they are largely home-grown ideologues who teach ethnic and gender studies at American universities and are now seeking to disseminate their ideas in US primary and secondary schools.
Even I—the jaded author of the book Woke Antisemitism and founder of a Jewish organization dedicated to countering this growing variant of the world’s oldest hatred—was stunned by their rhetoric. I would have thought that they would say that the murder of civilians was awful, but that Israel had it coming. But there was not even a token condemnation of Hamas’ violence on 7 October. Instead, the decolonizers publicly justified the bloodletting.
And then came the protests. Before a single Israeli bomb dropped in Gaza, the organizer of a gathering in New York’s Times Square celebrated the violent rampages in front of a cheering crowd. Alluding to the murdered festival-goers, he joked, “As you might have seen, there was some sort of rave or desert party. They were having a great time and then the resistance came in electrified hang gliders and took at least several dozen hipsters.”
“And as you might have seen, there was some sort of rave or desert party where they were having a great time, until the resistance came in electrified hang gliders and took at least several dozen hipsters” Speeches held at the ‘All Out For Palestine’ protest outside the Israeli… pic.twitter.com/JXLpPIvW6A— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) October 8, 2023
At a massive rally on the steps of the Sydney Opera House three days after the massacre, protesters chanted “Gas the Jews.” And—among other calumnies on campuses across North America—thirty-one Harvard student groups issued a statement of solidarity with Hamas, pronouncing Israel “entirely responsible” for the terrorist group’s slaughter.
There are two distinct but overlapping camps of the social justice left. The radical decolonization camp is made up of extremist academics, anarchists, and Black Lives Matter activists. It is anti-Western, anti-American, and antisemitic to its core. It would be easy to dismiss these people as ideological quacks—if it were not for their outsized role in US educational institutions.
By “decolonization,” they don’t mean a colonial power extricating itself from a former colony; they mean the process of freeing institutions and spheres of activity from the cultural or social influences of what they perceive as the dominant white Western class. One early leader of the liberated ethnic studies movement, R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, has denounced the United States as a “Eurocentric, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, hetero-patriarchal, and anthropocentric paradigm brought from Europe.” Influenced by decades of anti-Zionist Soviet propaganda, the decolonizers reserve special ire for the “settler-colonial state” of Israel, and call for the “liberation of Palestine,” by which they mean the displacement of the interloper Jews from their homeland. Witnessing the decolonisers’ zeal for obliterating the Jewish state, political scientist Wilfred Reilly quipped, “De-colonization is just ethnic cleansing, but woke.”
Those of us fighting the decolonizers have a golden opportunity to discredit them and undercut their influence in the days ahead. In their rationalizations of violence against Jews and Israelis, they’ve outed themselves as the extremists they are. School superintendents who might have seen them as credible educational partners in the new “diversity” initiatives will now have a hard time justifying their role to school boards and community members.
Then there’s the reformist, DEI camp, populated by people who have been deeply influenced by the same forms of neo-Manichaean postmodern thought, but who seek not to overthrow the capitalist system, but to reshuffle the deck of power. Unlike the decolonisers, their antisemitism tends to be latent. They insist that Jews are white, place them in white racial “affinity groups” and frequently downplay the validity of antisemitic claims as distractions from the important task of combating anti-blackness. They include mealy-mouthed university presidents and school superintendents, who see Muslims as a marginalized community and thus susceptible to “harm,” whereas Jews are a privileged minority and thus immune from such harm. These administrators are often held captive by the commitments and hires they made in the summer of 2020 during the great American racial reckoning. Some of them see Western cultural norms, such as being on time to work, as forms of white supremacy. They issue endless statements about racial justice and rightly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but they found themselves tongue-tied when Israelis were victims of a slaughter, and their Jewish students were in obvious pain. Suddenly, they rediscovered the merits of academic neutrality and free speech. They, too, stand to lose cultural clout in the intensifying anti-woke backlash.
Two and a half years ago, I left my job as CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the prestigious 75-year-old umbrella body of national and local Jewish advocacy organizations across the US. As a liberal lefty myself, I worried that a radical, illiberal ideology was gaining ground in my own ideological backyard, a phenomenon I first wrote about more than twenty years ago, in a 2003 article for Washington Jewish Week entitled “Consistent Moral Message Missing.” In the wake of the George Floyd murder, I watched with dismay as Jewish organizations in my field fell in line with anti-racist pieties, desperate to remain aligned with their civil rights partners, many of whom had long ditched their liberal principles. While still employed at the JCPA, I wrote articles for Areo Magazine and other publications, expressing my concern. As soon as my departure was official, I wrote a widely circulated article “My Cheshbon Hanefesh (accounting of the soul in Hebrew) for Cowardice in the Face of Wokeness,” which sparked much debate in the Jewish community.
In May 2021, I founded the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values to fight for viewpoint diversity and against the encroachment of radical social justice ideology in the Jewish world. That very month fighting broke out in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, and some of the responses to that conflict foretold our current reality. Media coverage of the ongoing conflict since it first broke out in June 2008, and of each subsequent conflict—in December 2008, November 2012, June 2014, and May 2018, and right up until May 2021—unfolded in a predictable pattern. The stories and editorials first acknowledged that Israel must have leeway to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilians. Then, as casualties mounted, the coverage turned against Israel, and, within a few days, the same outlets lambasted the Jewish state for using “disproportionate force.” In May 2021—when the last round occurred—Israel was not given the usual benefit of the doubt. In even the earliest stages of the conflict, Israel was demonized as the oppressor in some quarters. “If you’ve been paying attention to social media over the past week, you will have seen this same attempt to redefine the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as a racial power dynamic, casting Israel as infinitely powerful and Palestinians as completely without agency,” Batya Ungar-Sargon pointed out in a Newsweek editorial. I knew then that the fight against wokeness was not just about preserving free thought, but about combating a variant of antisemitism that grows out of the same ideological conditions that stifle free thought.
I have never been entirely at ease making the case for the growth of “woke antisemitism” in liberal humanist circles. Liberal humanists like me are highly suspicious of promiscuous accusations of racism and bigotry, and oppose dogmatic declarations that only marginalized groups with “lived experience” of oppression are entitled to an opinion on social issues. Such political attitudes are the essence of cancel culture. Yet here I was arguing that the very ideology that produced cancel culture also fueled a new variant of antisemitism that sees Jews as white and privileged. In highlighting the threat of antisemitism, I was concerned that I might be engaging in the same tactics as the people I critique.
From the outset, however, I made it clear that I didn’t regard my analysis of antisemitism as beyond scrutiny. I reject the now oft-repeated claim among some Jews, who, echoing the assertions of minority political activists in other communities, argue that only Jews get to define antisemitism. I sought to discuss antisemitism in liberal, not postmodern terms, encouraging multiple viewpoints about the extent and nature of contemporary Jew hatred. But in the eyes of some fellow liberal humanists, I was still partaking in the identity politics of the day.
Now, in the aftermath of the massacre, I sense a shift. Awakened by the outpouring of Jew hatred in the wake of the massacre in Israel, many liberal humanist friends have expressed their shock. This magazine’s editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann has stated, “I don’t think I ever really understood anti-Semitism until now. And it is frightening.” Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer was exasperated by the hypocrisy of many:
When I left my perch at JCPA, I was immediately regarded as a heretic by a number of former colleagues. Some actively tried to prevent me from giving speeches about the topic in their Jewish communities. But, on this front, too, I sense movement. This past week, I received a surprise email from one of my chief antagonists on Twitter, Paul Hackner, a South African-born Jewish leftist who earlier excoriated me for using the term “woke” which, he insisted, “is about compassion and awareness AND you weaponized to express a fragile need to be comfortable when addressing racism.” After the massacre, he told me: “It’s clear there is a revanchist left in North America that is allying with Hamas. The firestorm of hatred is raging. Hamas is a death cult. Sad to say you were right. Thanks for engaging with me. It helped me find moral clarity.”
Even among Israel’s most ardent Jewish critics, such as Joshua Leifer, a leftist writer and editor for Dissent Magazine, there’s indignation about moral callousness on the left. “There’s also a deep sense that the left abroad has lost the values it was supposed to stand for,” he has stated:
I thought we were leftists because we wanted a world without war, torture, the killing of families and children in their beds I thought we were leftists because we abhor cruelty, detest violence, and believe in the inherent, even divine, worth of all human life. I thought we were leftists because our struggle was for all people to be able to live with freedom and dignity.
Leifer’s discontent might portend greater willingness among American Jews to take on their own political camp.
A local Jewish advocacy organization in my area, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRCGW), tore into the area school superintendent who originally failed to issue a statement of support for Israel and the Jewish community and later released only a tepid one. Much to my chagrin, the JCRCGW had previously actively participated in the school system’s yearlong “anti-racism audit” and subsequent implementation of DEI training and pedagogy. But when their partnership on anti-racism failed to elicit support for Jewish students in the schools in their time of need, the normally restrained JCRCGW lashed out:
We reserve our greatest anger and disappointment for Montgomery County Public Schools … [which has] consistently ignored our agencies’ urgent appeals over the last three days to respond appropriately and sensitively … if our schools can’t call out the brutal murder of Jews right before our eyes, of what use is the Holocaust education and cultural competency that we have worked together to advance?
I believe that this dogmatic version of “cultural competence,” which rigidly ties identity to privilege or oppression, is the source of the school system’s indifference to Jewish life in the first place. But given recent events, it seems unimaginable that mainstream Jewish leaders will continue to deny or ignore the role of ideology in the callousness toward the murder of Jews and the disregard for Jewish concerns. I, for one, will do everything in my power to place the topic on their agenda.
What could really turn the tide is if Jewish donors and trustees at major universities finally use the power of the purse. Marc Rowan, the chief executive officer of Apollo Global Management and the chair of the Board of Overseers of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has taken his own university to task. “While Hamas terrorists were slaughtering Israeli Jews, university administrators were figuring out how to spin it,” he writes in The Free Press:
The responsibility also rests with many of our alumni leaders and trustees, myself included, who have sat by quietly as the pursuit of truth—the ostensible mission of our elite institutions—was traded for a poorly organized pursuit of social justice and political correctness.
“It’s long past time,” he argues, “for donors to take notice.”
It’s long past time for all of us to take notice. Let us hope that the horrors of the moment will not only be a turning point in the battle against antisemitism, but in the larger fight against radicalism and illiberalism in the West.