Recent events in the Metro Detroit community at Bloomfield Hills High School and Temple Beth El make this event especially timely.
Critical Social Justice (CSJ, also known as progressive politics) may not be a term many Jews are familiar with, yet it is important to know about in light of growing antisemitism. Exploring the complex space where these themes intersect and how they impact attitudes toward Jews, Zionism and the State of Israel is the subject of an upcoming lecture hosted by SAJE (Seminars for Adult Jewish Learning) at The J in West Bloomfield, on March 23, at 7 p.m.
The SAJE lecture, Point Counterpoint – Antisemitism and Progressive Politics, will host Howard Lupovitch, professor of history and director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University, whose most recent book is Transleithanian Paradise: A History of the Jewish Community of Budapest, and David Bernstein, founder/CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and past president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Bernstein recently wrote “Woke Anti-semitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.”
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek will moderate the conversation. One of Starr’s burning questions is identifying the line between woke (ideology) being a positive battle against fascism and woke ideology being a problem.
Recent events in the Metro Detroit community at Bloomfield Hills High School and Temple Beth El make this event especially timely. With these concerns, Linda Cohen of Franklin, a Congregation Shaarey Zedek member, and other community members urged SAJE to consider a program on antisemitism that would present and debate the full spectrum of issues on wokeism and growing antisemitism.
The ability to freely debate ideas using critical thinking is a Jewish tradition that goes back thousands of years, says Bernstein, and precisely what is missing in today’s woke ideology. He says that debate is so central to Jewish life that it is enshrined in the Mishnah, the foundational texts of the Jewish oral tradition. “For woke ideologues, all debate over social issues is over, and everyone should fall in line with the prescribed dogma,” says Bernstein. The Jewish Institute for Liberal Values was founded to provide a space for balanced critical thinking and to help Jewish organizations and individuals hold constructive conversations and debate about CSJ.
Lupovitch contends that the most significant contributor to antisemitism is “extremism and narrow-minded, one-dimensional thinking and the proliferation of conspiratorial thinking. Historically, Jews have always fared better when moderation and nuance have prevailed over fearmongering and the dumbing down of complex problems.”
Bernstein says critical social justice ideology has spread throughout American institutions into the media, the academic world, K through 12 education and even some Jewish organizations. “That oppressed versus oppressor binary conflates success with oppression. If you are a successful group like Jews, you can be labeled an oppressor just by virtue of your economic or educational success. And I think that it is almost an invitation for fueling anti-Semitism,” Bernstein emphasized.
For Lupovitch, he says progressive politics and Zionism have been in synch and complimentary ever since Justice Louis Brandeis linked their mutual aims. Only recently has there been a disjunction between the two. He sees it as an anomaly more than the long-term trend.
Are Jews Hesitant to Speak Up?
Like Bernstein, Lupovitch agrees that Jews hesitate to speak up about CSJ. “We should not be, but we are, not least of all, Jews on university campuses,” he says. “Ironically, Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel were intended, among other things, to fortify Jews — including diaspora Jews — to stand up for ourselves and defend our points of view.”
Bernstein takes a more robust view: “Jews are cowering in fear of being canceled for saying the wrong thing because we acquiesced — often in the name of empathy — to woke ideological demands. And if we remain where we are today, I argue, we will enable more and more hostility toward Jews and undermine our democratic system.”
The way to measure the success of educating Jews on the impact of this ideology on anti-semitism is to start the conversation. “Legitimatize the discussion,” says Bernstein, “many institutions are afraid to have it.”
How Did We Get Here?
Bernstein sees this ideological rift beginning in the 1960s, with radical neo-Marxists successfully integrating courses into universities on ethnic studies that educated future generations of professors on post-modern thought and ideology. This morphed into the “political correctness” we began to see and hear in the 1980s. “And then it started to grow. In the early 2000s, I heard for the first time that racism equals prejudice plus power … that If you were a group that was perceived as powerful, you couldn’t really be the victim of racism. And if you were a group that was powerless, you could not be a victimizer. So, I wrote [an article] at that time that it could be immensely dangerous for the Jewish people. I could have written that article today.”
Lupovitch sees the seeds of the rift as “the de-nuancing of American political discourse by (1) the false urgency of the 24-hour news cycle, (2) the unintended consequence of social media platforms being used to disseminate and amplify fear and outrage for personal gain and (3) a misconception and misrepresentation of the democratization of knowledge in the digital age.”
For tickets to the SAJE Point Counterpoint lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23, visit https://jlive.app/events/3938 .