Ideological Antisemitism on the Left

To a former inmate of a Communist country, watching the American cultural landscape succumb to groupthink ideology brings back old nightmares. Reruns of a ludicrous script: the double-speak and double-think; the sycophancy; ostracizing and demonizing anyone who dares to dissent; preaching love while practicing hate. Only this time, the setting is America—still the land of the free, but here the brave no longer feel quite at home.

It is deeply disturbing to Natan Sharansky, a survivor of unimaginable torture in the Gulag: “I am concerned about the ideological environment in the U.S., a global superpower, a beacon of hope for all humanity,” he writes in a foreword to David L. Bernstein’s new book, Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews. Sharansky is alarmed by “the emergence of a dogma—some call it ‘woke’ ideology—not unlike the totalizing ideology I grew up with in the Soviet Union, which has taken the American left by storm and with it many American cultural institutions.”

Antisemitism is but one aspect of this totalizing ideology, the same dangerous narrative that has brought misery to millions. As always, it threatens not only Jews but liberalism itself. “In woke ideology,” Sharansky explains, “if you substitute the word race for class, you will get almost the exact same Marxist-Leninist dogma in which we were indoctrinated in schools that became the basis of the hatred against dissidents and anyone who dared question the party line.” He commends David Bernstein, whose career has been devoted to Jewish activism, for exposing the truth: behind the faux-compassionate clothing obscured by academic jargon lurks the same emperor, no less ruthless for being buck-naked.

But it was not philosophical argument that convinced Bernstein of the dogma’s exceptional virulence so much as its absolute intolerance of argument itself. Growing up and working all his life with liberal people who were not especially ideological, but simply assumed that helping the less fortunate of every color and creed was nonnegotiable, Bernstein had always been liberal but open to debating ideas. Used to arguing “both sides of more arguments” than he could remember with friends who similarly cherished disagreements that only “cemented their friendship,” he believed in “free expression and civil liberties operating under the rule of law.” A self-described classical liberal, he needed no conversion. It was he who stayed put, the culture that moved left. 

So too did its semantics. The term “woke,” for example, was not always pejorative. Rooted in the Black community’s vernacular, back in the 1930s it denoted awareness of oppression. By contrast, the new version is an academic concoction, an outgrowth of post-modernism. Predicated on “standpoint epistemology,” it posits that knowledge is tied to one’s perceived position in society in relation to power,” and flatly rejects alternative explanations. Thus modern woke ideology “shuts down liberal discourse and empowers radical voices” hostile to an America it deems inherently racist.

Watching this ideology (“often with horror”) unfold over the course of over three decades, Bernstein sets out to describe “how the woke absurdities have piled on each other from the ideology’s earliest form on campus” to today. Now Jews like himself are often seen “cowering in fear of being cancelled for saying the wrong thing, because we acquiesced—often in the name of empathy—to woke ideological demands.” But not only is this patently demeaning, which would be abhorrent enough. Unsurprisingly, an attitude of appeasement that “will enable more and more hostility toward Jews, and undermine our democratic system” to boot, is glaringly counter-productive.

Adding insult to multiple injuries, the dogma itself is manifestly self-contradictory. The putative fight against racism is conducted by reinstating racist categories, albeit in modified form. As color becomes conflated with power and privilege, both are associated with “whiteness.” In turn, these constitute unassailable evidence of moral culpability. But wait, if color alone is determinative, who counts as “white”? “In woke ideology, there are good identities and bad identities”—privileged vs. unprivileged. And since whoever does the defining holds the key to power, it follows that that power is condemned by the very people who presume to monopolize it.

The one group guaranteed to count as “bad” are of course the Jews, perennially singled out to accommodate every Cain in search of an Abel. Stigmatized for centuries as money-grubbing and successful, even when barely able to survive because denied the most elementary rights, they are the default scapegoat, tailor-made for a Manichean ideology that bifurcates humanity on the basis of inherited traits like greed and ruthlessness. Whether crass and open or concealed and sugar-coated, the result is still antisemitism.

Bernstein decided that he could not continue “squirming in doublethink.” He would devote his professional life to help others like him, disillusioned “doublethinkers,” find the courage of their convictions.

But some forms are more dangerous than others at different historical stages. Bernstein came to appreciate first-hand the difference between run-of-the-mill Jew-hatred, more common on the Right, and the antisemitism of the Left, which thrives on rhetoric. The former includes “the churlish mockery favored by high school bullies and the brazen acts of violence committed by hardened white supremacists,” but both diseases endemic to the species, unlikely ever to be entirely eradicated. And while the media invariably focuses on the former, Bernstein came to appreciate the far greater, insidious power of the latter, which was “often couched in euphemisms such as ‘Zionists’ and was expressed in ideological terms.”

In 2016, after becoming President and CEO of the prestigious Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), Bernstein published an opinion piece warning that intersectionality was a real and present danger to the Jewish community. “If a group sees itself as oppressed,” he wrote, “it will see Israel as part of the dominant power structure doing the oppressing and Palestinians as fellow victims.” Instead of applauding his candor, however, many of his colleagues were worried that his article might compromise the community’s ability to engage the Progressive left and urged him to recant. He would have none of it. The handwriting was on the wall.

Tensions came to a head in 2020, when the JCPA’s Board sought to adopt a policy supporting equity. Bernstein balked: “Ibram X. Kendi defines equity as when all groups are on equal footing in any institution or endeavor.” Anything wrong with that? he was asked. Responding that “the equity concept runs counter to the traditional American equality narrative, and that it would make everyone worse off,” he warned that “it might be weaponized against Jews and Asians, in particular, whose success makes them appear ‘white adjacent.’” Might? Understatement underscored the sarcasm.

But the terminal nail shut his professional coffin when he protested against the attacks on police precincts and the creation of “autonomous zones” in Portland and Seattle: Bernstein was roundly shouted down. Many nodded in disgust at the mere mention of left-wing violence. “They were willing to give barbarity a pass on the extremes of their own political tribe,” he notes with dismay. Within a few months, he was gone. In February of 2021, he announced his departure, tired of cancel culture:

I should be able to say without fear of reprisal that despite all its faults America is the most successful experiment in pluralism in human history. And make no mistake, people cannot say those things in many settings without risking their livelihoods or reputations or ostracism.  Cancel culture sounds like it would be a raucous affair. But its primary sound is silence. That won’t change until more of us who believe in free discourse speak out.

He decided that he could not continue “squirming in doublethink.” He would devote his professional life to helping others like him, disillusioned “doublethinkers,” find the courage of their convictions. Far more people than dared to admit it, he came to realize, were tired of being forced to agree with outright falsehoods and double standards.

Worse still was being cowed into submission by members of a Jewish elite who fawned upon vapid celebrities, mainstream media, and well-heeled nonprofits, seemingly oblivious to their open hostility to Israel and Jews in general, to say nothing of the Big Satan America. Convinced that American Jews and the country itself were at a crossroads, Bernstein founded the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV), seeking a return to the very essence of both Judaism and the Declaration of Independence.

How did the Jewish community come to vote Democratic almost by default? Why have most Jewish organizations sought to cozy up to Progressives? Whatever the reasons in past decades, Jews are finding themselves increasingly shunned by their traditional allies. Woke ideology “has become so pernicious and so widespread,” observes Bernstein, “that mainstream Jewish leaders have little chance to move the needle on Progressive attitudes on Jews and Israel.” For years, these leaders and their members “had to pay lip service, at least, to woke dogma or, in effect, be cancelled by a philosophy that leads inevitably to more antisemitism and undermines liberal principles.” And to what end? “In the long run,” he concludes, “Jews will be far more damned if they support the dogma.”

That the damnation is self-inflicted makes it particularly egregious. It is one thing to have been oppressed and killed by enemies, quite another to acquiesce to their rationale. Sharansky, a man who barely survived the totalitarian nightmare, reminds us that “the role of the Jew is not to join forces with the ideological fads of the day, but to stand up for independent thought and the liberal principles on which the democracies of the world were founded.” We are endowed by our Creator not only with the right to equal freedom but the duty not to squander it.