Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews: David L. Bernstein

Book Review: Michael Lumish

David L. Bernstein’s, Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, enamored me as soon as I read the dedication:

For all the “thought criminals” and courageous people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, whose consciences will not allow them to go along with a totalizing ideology.

This “totalizing ideology” is American “wokeness” or what you might call “neo-socialism” or even, simply, the progressive-left. The “thought criminals” are those who stand up to this ideology. They do so precisely because it is totalitarian in its insistence upon compliance of thought. This movement exerts remarkable influence within Western politics and culture, including academia, major corporations, the entertainment industry, government, and even the military. It is constricting because, while deeply influential, it is also wary of freedom of speech, increasingly anti-liberal, racist, and culturally toxic.

Bernstein is the founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and has spent his career leading a variety of pro-Jewish / pro-Israel non-profit organizations and advocacy groups ever since he was a young man at Ohio State University. Like most Jewish Americans raised in middle-class homes in the 70s and 80s, Bernstein is on the political-left and a Democrat.

With an introduction by iconic “refusenik,” Natan Sharansky, Bernstein discusses his professional experience within the context of rising “woke” politics emerging out of academic postmodernism and Critical Theory in the latter part of the twentieth-century. His main thesis is that the influence of “wokeness” on American culture is not only illiberal, but increasingly antisemitic and divisive. It, therefore, significantly contributes to the rise of anti-Jewish violence from Jerusalem to NYC and antisemitic anti-Zionism throughout the American educational system. He tells us that he seeks to “show the ways that woke ideology, well-meaning though it may be, fuels both antidemocratic sentiment and antisemitism, and (suggests) a way out of this ideological morass (pg. 13).”

Fittingly, Bernstein launches his discussion by defining terms. This is important because as someone familiar with postmodernism, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, and gender theory, he understands how language is regularly tortured into submission. Thus, he makes it clear that:

I use the terms “liberal,” “liberalism,” and “liberal values,” by which I mean classical, small-L liberal values: freedom of expression, free speech, and civil liberties operating under the rule of law. A classical liberal today can be a political conservative devoted to “conserving” liberal and other traditional values as well as a political liberal devoted to the same set of principles.

And, indeed, Bernstein is a left-leaning liberal and long-standing member of the Democratic Party. His “social justice” credentials are clear given that he devotes himself to working with and promoting a variety of inter-ethnic causes. He even (to my annoyance) capitalizes the word “Black” (in reference to people of African descent) while lower-casing the word “white” (in reference to those of European descent). This is perhaps understandable from a man who has spent his entire life seeking to advance the well-being of Jewish people within a traditional framework that values solidarity with other ethnic minorities. What is less clear is how this linguistic idiosyncrasy, codified by the Associated Press, can possibly emulate the values of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, as it is racist on its face.

Despite this, the book does a terrific job laying out how neo-socialism shuts down liberal discourse in favor of a toxic radical illiberality that insists upon acquiescence. For many people a decision is forced between bowing-down their ideological heads or losing friends, social status, or even employment. It also erases Jewish ethnicity by insisting upon the irrevocable “whiteness” of the Ashkenazim. By asserting this false distinction between “white Jews” and “Jews of color” neo-socialism pushes the leftist American obsession with “whiteness” against “blackness” and “oppressor” against the “oppressed” into the sphere of intra-Jewish relations. In other words, it sets the “Good Jew” against the “Bad Jew.” It sets the progressive-left, secular “woke” Jew against his neanderthal, religiously-inclined brothers and sisters, even though most Jewish Americans do not fit neatly into either category.

Each chapter is deeply personal and outlines Bernstein’s life and work – from university until today – with anecdotes describing the struggles of a pro-Jewish / pro-Israel advocate within a “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) culture and progressive-left campus political culture. Each of these stories directly relate to the larger philosophical and political questions that bubble-up into our daily lives, both professionally and personally.

For example, we learn that his family held Shabbat dinner discussions wherein the “Devil’s Advocate” always played a necessary and important role. He discusses how as a student of Philosophy in the 1980s, “challenging the readings and the professor was de rigueur,” but how this was not the case in Women’s Studies. A big part of the reason that Bernstein struggles with neo-socialist woke ideology is because it discourages the free exchange of ideas. 

As a Jewish leader, he saw how “anti-colonial” activists on the left marched alongside antisemitic anti-Zionists who would see the eradication of the lone, sole Jewish state. He saw how American children on the campuses chanted for intifada in a manner that is dangerous in its naivete and both grotesque and ironic as a matter of “social justice.” On a day-to-day level he saw how the insistence that “Zionism is racism” white-washed Jews from the larger community of ethnic minorities. Referencing UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 (1975) defining the millennia-long effort to secure Jewish independence on Jewish land as form of racism, he poignantly laments that, “The American left was being Durbanized.” And he saw the intensity of anti-Jewish racism, usually expressed as a contemptuous anti-Zionism, within woke black activism.

It was out of a sad, decades-long, and undoubtedly painful realization of the disdain for the Jewish people from his own political movement that forced Bernstein to write this hard book. It is well-written, important, and entirely miserable. Bernstein must have amazingly thick skin because upon looking at the course of his life, and how his own political movement betrayed him and his people, his final chapters seek a reconciliation and a way into more productive political relationships.

He recommends in the last three chapters “Restoring Jewish Liberalism,” “Reclaiming Jewish Social Justice,” and “Rebuilding a Jewish and American Center.”

Bernstein understands that many Jewish teachers and political types and leaders recognize that contemporary woke politics is harmful to Jewish Americans, as well as to America, more generally. Many people, understandably, are skittish about bucking prevailing trends because they do not wish to be harmed socially, economically, or physically. Nonetheless, he implores each of us to “stop the spirals of silence and turn the tide of woke ideology (Pg. 180).”

Bernstein believes that the true nature of Jewish activism – left, right, and center – is, in fact, “social justice,” just not necessarily in the neo-socialist implications of the word today. He suggests that Jewish conservatives, progressives and moderates reengage with the Talmudic tradition of discourse and honest discussion for the purposes of clarity and justice. One hopes that this is an ideal that the most religious Jew can share with the most secular Jewish political activist. 

Finally, Bernstein writes, “Aligning the American Jewish community too closely with the Progressive movement, especially insofar as such alignment requires conformity to its woke pieties and credos, gives succor to an ideology that will ultimately harm us.” (Pgs. 190 – 191).

He recommends against doing so.