Critical Race Theory has a Jewish problem, and, finally, people are beginning to notice. “Stop being shocked,” implores Bari Weiss, formerly of the New York Times, writing for the Jewish commentary magazine Tablet. Stop starting off sentences with “can you believe…?” It’s a staggering article that cannot be recommended highly enough.
To understand the enormity of the change we are now living through, take a moment to understand America as the overwhelming majority of its Jews believed it was—and perhaps as we always assumed it would be. It was liberal. Not liberal in the narrow, partisan sense, but liberal in the most capacious and distinctly American sense of that word: the belief that everyone is equal because everyone is created in the image of God. … No longer. American liberalism is under siege. There is a new ideology vying to replace it.
Weiss is correct in her diagnosis and in her identification of the underpinnings of the new ideology replacing liberalism. She describes it as “a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality,” to which we should add at least a few drops of the Rousseauian assignment of primacy to instinct, emotion, intuition, feelings, and passion over reason and evidence. The only place her description leaves anything to be desired is in her claim that “No one has yet decided on the name for the force that has come to unseat liberalism.” That may well be the case in that we haven’t decided on the name we’ll use for this ideology, but it does have a name. This ideology is called by at least some of its proponents by the name “Critical Social Justice.” In short, Critical Social Justice—colloquially “Wokeness”—is a toxic fusion of cherry-picked aspects of the many lines of thought just identified, each chosen for its practical utility in advancing its particular line of fundamentally anti-liberal activism.
People need to understand that the new growth of anti-Semitism that Weiss asks us to stop being shocked at seeing is, if not a deliberate feature, a reliable consequence of the ideology of Critical Social Justice when put into practice. Because of the way Critical Social Justice views the world, it generates certain unavoidable and irreconcilable contradictions where Jews are concerned, and lacking the means to resolve them, it finds itself faced with what some are rightly naming a Jewish question that leads to it having a Jewish problem. As few, if any, clear explanations for this worrying trend currently exist, this essay aims to provide one in thorough detail.
A Brief Introduction to Critical Social Justice
Because it looks like liberalism on the surface and yet is openly anti-liberal under the hood, Critical Social Justice is often completely misunderstood by those who have not undertaken the rather unpleasant task of studying it in detail. Critical Social Justice, however, is an ideology that, at the present moment, desperately needs to be understood, not just in its terms but in its totality, including the extremely unpleasant, if not genuinely horrifyingly anti-Semitic, place this new ideology generates for the Jews. Where this ideology’s Jewish problem is concerned, the chief lines of thought contributing to it are the now (in)famous Critical Race Theory and its evil twin sister ideology bearing a lesser-known name called Postcolonial Theory (sometimes, “postcolonialism”). Neither of these sub-Theories has a positive view of the Jews or Jewry, to say nothing of its hostility to the existence and concept of a physical state of Israel. Indeed, anti-Semitic contempt would fall short of the mark by a fair distance.
Like almost everything where the various Theories of Critical Social Justice are concerned, a short primer in how they frame the world is necessary before it will be possible to explain the way they frame Jewishness, in particular. Because this ideology is so successfully parasitic upon liberal approaches, it arises almost invisibly within liberal contexts and enclaves in a rather sneaking way that leads genuinely liberal people—especially if they have progressive leanings and intuitions—to find themselves repeatedly asking their friends, “can you believe…?” This, as it happens, is because it is how live frogs are meant to be boiled.
The Theories of Critical Social Justice, or whatever else we end up calling this ideology, think about the world in exactly one way: in terms of how they conceive of power. They think of power first and foremost in a peculiar but identifiably Marxian way. There is some oppressor, which is a group and not an individual, and there are the groups that are oppressed by it. These are in conflict—zero-sum conflict similar to how Marx envisioned the bourgeoisie and proletariat—for the opportunities, resources, and spoils of society, access to which is referred to not as “equality” but as “privilege.” The groups, today, see the dividing lines of power through a lens to culture that has been boiled down to the meanest of descriptions: identity, like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and all the rest of these soul-crushingly exhausting terms we can’t get away from these days. Here’s where Weiss’s neo-Marxism and identity politics come into the picture.
For those who accept the tenets of Critical Social Justice Theory, power flows through all people all the time in the routine actions and interactions, modes of speech and belief, decisions about what should and shouldn’t be regarded as true or false (or crazy), and the “structures” of our institutions, vital and secondary. You probably didn’t even notice the Marxian thought slip in with “structures” there and almost certainly wouldn’t have had I not put it in scare quotes. It’s that subtle, but it isn’t really Marxism anymore. It’s Marx’s idea of societal conflict reinterpreted through the postmodernism Weiss identified. When these are combined with the neo-Marxism and identity politics (and a rather Rousseauian and pop-psychological take on the originally Christian idea of “social justice”), we end up with most of the ingredients in her rightly named ideological admixture. Critical Race Theory and postcolonialism are, more or less, species within the broader Critical Social Justice order.
Together, these are Critical Social Justice, and they think about the world this way: Society is divided into many different cultural groups defined in terms of the members’ homogenized identities, meaning low-resolution “socially constructed” demographic categories like “white,” “black,” “gay,” “trans,” “brown,” and so on. These are said to “intersect” in “complex” ways, and each lies upon an axis that places some groups on opposite sides of a simplistic Marxian oppressor-versus-oppressed conflict. Oppression is understood only systemically and is indicated only by the phenomenological “lived experience” of harm, offense, and discomfort identified by any member of a group Theory defines as oppressed. Such a claim is unassailable and falls upon society with a warrant to reorganize itself to avoid any possibility of that sense of hurt ever arising again. All of those who are sufficiently oppressed are as a single capital-O “Other,” and everyone else has a moral obligation to be in solidarity with them in all possible circumstances.
This worldview has a consequence: “victimhood,” defined as above and only as above, becomes high currency that will be vied for. Intersectionality, now arguably 43 years old (and certainly at least 31), is the set of ideas and practices, for as a practice it is defined, that grades claims of victimhood according to an outline laid down formally in 1990 rather ominously (or histrionically) called The Matrix of Domination. It is in this place that Critical Social Justice’s Jewish problem exists, because Jews present an intolerable paradox to the Theory.
Jews Under Critical Whiteness Studies
Critical Social Justice has a theory—if we’ll allow the term—of race and racism called Critical Race Theory. It posits that race is a wholly political contrivance of white European people that was socially constructed specifically for the twin purposes of identifying who deserves the spoils of society (themselves) and who will be barred from them (everyone else). Those who qualify are designated as “white,” which means they are in possession of a form of sociocultural “property” called “whiteness,” as the “Critical Whiteness Studies” division of Critical Race Theory holds—and as we heard all summer over the clamor of looting and riots and the roar of burning buildings just behind them. White people and “white-adjacent” people who can benefit from the “system of oppression” (systemic racism) that results from this contrivance are said to have a vested interest in maintaining it and therefore remain willfully ignorant of the “realities” of race and racism, as Critical Race Theory believes them to be.
Among its many properties, whiteness is said to be exclusionary, especially to “Blackness” (this dichotomy, which it wills into existence, is ultimately the only real object Critical Race Theory cares about). Whiteness is Theorized as such to be a form of status that can only be given (to racial or ethnic groups) by other white people and cannot be claimed by those who it excludes. Whiteness is like the badge that lets someone into a sort of elite aristocracy of society, which is called “white privilege.” These ideas are objects of obsession for Critical Race Theory, and their relevance to everything surpasses any other consideration. Needless to say, people have begun to notice. Also needless to say, this isn’t going to paint a comfortable picture for a group like Jewry.
Critical Race Theory doesn’t leave room for alternative interpretations or dissent. In fact, it is a totalizing ideology in addition to being a crudely simplistic one, so this profoundly vulgar mode of analysis applies on every level of society and to every conceivable group. This means it also applies to Jews, whose very existence presents it with a number of Theoretical challenges it struggles to resolve within its simplistic mostly black/white racial framing. Fortunately, some Jews are also beginning to notice. There’s Weiss, for example, and there’s also Pamela Paresky. Yet another example can be found in the fairly recent academic paper “Critical Whiteness Studies and the ‘Jewish Problem’” by Balázs Berkovits, where he writes,
In turn, this type of totalizing criticism is responsible for the emergence of the “Jewish problem” with regard to questions of whiteness and race. For sure, this branch of research constitutes only one example among many contemporary works of social and political criticism, in which the “Jewish question” reappears. (p. 88)
This issue, as the name Berkovits applies to it implies, is no small problem to be shrugged off as a mere quirk of academic social theorizing. Under Critical Race Theory, many Jews are Theorized as having been granted and to some degree embraced—as a matter of effectively indisputable fact if not explicitly in both cases—the status of “whiteness” in contemporary American (and sometimes European) society. This would imply that under Critical Race Theory, Jews have an intolerable privilege they need to check. So demands the new “successor” ideology Weiss warns about in her Tablet piece.
Placing aside the obvious complication that not all Jews are white by any reasonable definition (which therefore may not have anything to do with Critical Race Theory’s definitions), there’s a huge problem with this formulation that every Jewish reader of this essay will immediately realize. Jews have quite the incredible history of incredible oppression, including imperial destruction, diaspora, enslavement, and a literal genocide in the Holocaust. This set of horrors tended to follow a familiar pattern as well, which we now name “anti-Semitism.” That pattern is that Jews are made out to be a group that stands by its own claim as separate from broader society in some significant way and yet finds a way to gain significant privilege, eventually to the point of usurping control of the institutions that shape society. We would be remiss to avoid pointing out that assigning “whiteness” to Jews repeats the opening act of this tragic play.
It’s not so simple here, though, of course, because the Critical Social Justice ideology appears to be devoted to social justice, which even appears in the name, and thus the longstanding and undeniable oppression of the Jews surely must complicate the anti-Semitic narrative for the Woke. That’s a neat trick, however, because this is not so; the ideology seeks something else (“group justice”) wrought in its image. The Jewish problem in Critical Social Justice is born of attempting to solve this impossible puzzle using the tools of an intrinsically racist social theory that isn’t cut out to the task. Berkovits sees this too, writing,
This emergence [of Critical Race Theory’s “Jewish Problem”] can be attributed to the fact that many critical approaches regard the memory of the Holocaust as an obstacle to criticism. There is a perceived relationship between the Holocaust and the social question: the Holocaust seems to downgrade the suffering of other people, as if there were only a limited amount that could be distributed. (pp. 91–92)
Critical Race Theory, it must be understood, only thinks in terms of society and the people in it in terms of the grotesquely simplified concept of “systemic” or “structural” racism. Everything has to be reduced to this one variable, which Critical Race Theory claims an absolute monopoly on analyzing. This requires them to discount Jewish suffering and to guilt everyone, including Jews, into thinking on the terms set forth by Critical Race Theory. Consider Robin DiAngelo in her blockbuster bestseller book White Fragility, which dominated bestseller charts not only once but twice since its release in 2018:
[P]erhaps you grew up in poverty, or are an Ashkenazi Jew of European heritage, or were raised in a military family. Perhaps you grew up in Canada, Hawaii, or Germany, or had people of color in your family. None of these situations exempts you from the forces of racism, because no aspect of society is outside of these forces. (p. 13)
And DiAngelo tells us in another of her books, Is Everyone Really Equal? (with Özlem Sensoy), how this totalizing reductionism to “racism” on Critical Race Theory terms works for Jews, particularly Ashkenazim:
While they may have initially been divided in terms of ethnic or class status, over time European immigrants were united in Whiteness. For example, early Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were not considered White, but they “became” White as they assimilated into the dominant culture. Reflecting on the social and economic advantages of Whiteness, critical race scholar Cheryl Harris (1993) coined the phrase “Whiteness as property.” This phrase captures the reality that being perceived as White carries more than a mere racial classification. It is a social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal, political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others. (p. 122)
The academic Michael Eric Dyson, who wrote the foreword to DiAngelo’s White Fragility (where he calls her “the new racial sheriff in town”) explains how this happened through acts of cultural betrayal in his “Sermon to White America,” Tears We Cannot Stop, writing,
The battle to become American forced groups to cheat on their old selves and romance new selves. Old tribe for new tribe; old language for new language; old country for new one. The WASPs stung first, but the Italians landed plenty of blows, the Irish fought bare fisted, the poles grimaced and bore in, and the Jews punched above their weight, all with one goal: to champion their arrival as Americans. That’s how you went from being just Irish, just Italian, just Polish, or just Jewish to being white. So please don’t deny this when you approach me to tell me about how your experience as a white ethnic parallels my experience as an African-American. The parallels stop at the hyphen. (pp. 45–46)
These are not fringe positions on Jewish “whiteness” and “anti-Blackness” within Critical Race Theory, and they are repeated throughout the core literature, including in books by both Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who are credited with creating Critical Race Theory. It is also trotted out by another hugely influential and bestselling author, Ibram X. Kendi, who is being paid tens of thousands of dollars (as is DiAngelo) per visit to speak about his vision of “anti-racism.” It is an illiberal form of analysis that if it cannot understand a group in a simple racial narrative that places “whiteness” and “blackness” on opposite ends of a spectrum, with “brownness” between but distinctly neither, it cannot understand it at all.
The uniquely Jewish combination of a long history of terrible oppression of a people that isn’t just (at least partly) fair-skinned but also highly successful in what the Theorists would deem a “white” milieu is, in fact, completely intolerable to Critical Race Theory. The Theory distrusts Jewish success as such and, as with everything it analyzes, believes it must have something to do with having been granted access to the privileges of whiteness—illegitimately, by betrayal, and at the expense of blacks. It would then, in due course, demand that (“white”) Jews accept and atone of their whiteness by the familiar process: recognize it in themselves, acknowledge their de facto complicity in “white supremacy,” critique their own unwitting participation therein, and then submit to and promote the Critical Race Theory worldview in both ideology and deed, which takes the form of their brand of “anti-racist” social activism—for life. This, however, requires asking Jews to deny both their history and what makes them Jews in the first place.
Berkovits does an incredible job of summarizing the reasoning behind this problem—indeed, it’s the kind of explanation for it that I read and at once wished I had been fortunate enough to write in the first place. He observes,
“Whiteness” in Critical Whiteness Studies is meant to express a position of domination. Therefore, it is neither a descriptive nor simply an interpretative but a critical concept, meaning that whoever is found to be white enjoys white privilege. This is to say that the white individual, merely by his social position, practices racism and discrimination; therefore, he does not need not be racist himself, as he automatically benefits from racially marked social structures and perpetuates them. He partakes in social but also economic oppression, against minorities, that is, people of color. … Therefore, assimilating Jews to whiteness conceived in this manner is not innocent social history, but reveals a clear political ambition: it has to be proven that the fundamental racial issue is linked to the color line between whites and blacks, while everything should be considered negligible. Ethnic identities, differences, controversies between ethnic groups, and discrimination on any other basis than color should be considered as insignificant in the light of the plight of the black population. The particular traits of antisemitism, that is, everything that renders it different from racism, becomes irrelevant. (p. 92)
A number of pertinent facts jump out here. First, Critical Race Theory genuinely is as simplistic and totalizing as claimed, and it therefore has to shoehorn Jews into its broken analytical framework. Second, this is a wholly political analysis that assigns privilege and domination to all who are marked with it. Third, it both hides and misunderstands anti-Semitism, which allows for a particular pernicious variant of it to come into existence under a full-throated denial that it’s anti-Semitism at all. This isn’t a good mix.
Consequently, unlike the liberal ideology it replaces, Critical Race Theory is not capable of being reasonable about the “whiteness” it clumsily assigns to many Jews (and certainly all Ashkenazim) by virtue of their complexion or general social acceptance by people with that particular complexion. It is not capable of seeing in the Jews highly successful people who sometimes have fair skin (often in North America) and who are mostly accepted and welcomed by a liberal society that, finally, has offered Jews true breathing room outside of their own state. Critical Race Theory sees that society and its liberalism as fundamentally corrupted by whiteness, and thus, playing directly into the roots of the nastiest strains of anti-Semitic thought, assumes Jews must somehow be profoundly complicit in it.
Adherents to Critical Race Theory, for all their claims upon sophistication in analyzing group standing in society and its subtle meanings in terms of power, do not possess the conceptual resources needed to deal with historically oppressed white people—unless they’re fat, disabled, maybe gay (that’s complicated now), or trans, none of which would have anything to do with them being Jewish in any case. Critical Race Theory therefore places Jewish people into a very dangerous spot within their Theory: they are a group that has tremendous privilege they don’t deserve who also have an apparently ironclad excuse not to “do the work” of dismantling their own whiteness.
This explains in far starker terms what Weiss rightly observes in her essay,
By simply existing as ourselves, Jews undermine the vision of a world without difference. And so the things about us that make us different must be demonized, so that they can be erased or destroyed: Zionism is refashioned as colonialism; government officials justify the murder of innocent Jews in Jersey City; Jewish businesses can be looted because Jews “are the face of capital.” Jews are flattened into “white people,” our living history obliterated, so that someone with a straight face can suggest that the Holocaust was merely “white on white crime.”
This summary of how Critical Race Theory understands Jews and their history is correct. Under Critical Race Theory’s analysis of whiteness, Jews are assigned the unenviable status of being systemic oppressors who get to pretend that they aren’t. In a very real sense, the Critical Whiteness analysis within Critical Race Theory holds that Jews have been unfairly granted the social property of “whiteness” by a “white society” that is no true friend of theirs and have thrived at the highest levels of sociocultural production in it—all while they also retain a legitimate claim on well-recognized historical victimhood statuses (again, slavery, diaspora, persecution, ghettoization, targets of a genocide just teetering at the edge of living memory) that allow them to deny their privilege at all. In some sense, Jews get to claim oppressed status while occupying the highest heights of privileged status, at least according to the reckoning of Critical Race Theory.
If this weren’t bad enough, the simplistic black/white analysis at the very heart of Critical Race Theory has to weigh in on the matter—because of course it does. Thus, this tangle of illegitimate Jewish privilege (in the eyes of the Theory) is analyzed in the typical fashion for Critical Race Theory: Marxian conflict theory across racial lines that really only make sense in the specific context of American race politics of decades long past. The result is that Critical Race Theory is forced to say that not only is Jewish “privilege” illegitimate in a multitude of ways but also that it was acquired by ripping off black Americans. As you might expect, this multiplies the sin under Critical Race Theory and cements Jewish status within the intrinsically “anti-Black” frame of “whiteness.”
Berkovits documents this hideous and thorny issue within Critical Whiteness Studies quite clearly, to draw on several passages at once:
In Brodkin’s account, Jews are not discriminated against in the U.S. any more, and have benefited from post-war policies given only to whites; that is, Jewish success, in spite of their common belief, is something that they do not “deserve,” it is owing not to their individual or collective merit, but to discriminatory practices against other minorities which they supposedly benefited from. (p. 94) […]
Now, while in post-war European social history Jews were synonymous with progress and universalism, Critical Whiteness Studies introduced a very different perspective. Karen Brodkin tacitly, and at times quite overtly, asserts that the whitening of the Jews took place to the detriment of blacks, or even, that Jews used blacks to assert their own whiteness. (p. 95) […]
Jews became the “interpreters of white America in the 1950s”, says Brodkin, meaning America as such, but which is also a racially marked America. According to her, the rise of ethnic pluralism instigated a type of Jewish whiteness “by contrasting Jews as a model minority with African Americans as culturally deficient.” Therefore, as paradoxical as it may sound, Jews reinforced white supremacy. By their own success as a minority group, and their own ideology, based on “merit,” they highlighted the fact that blacks were not successful. Thereby, it is possible to conclude that they were instrumental to modern capitalism, in which, at least in Brodkin’s frame (“the racial metaorganization of American capitalism”), racial discrimination is supposed to be essential. (p. 96) […]
“The construction of Jewishness as a model minority is part of a larger American racial discourse, in which whiteness, to understand itself, depends upon an invented and contrasting blackness as its evil (and sometimes enviable) twin,” [writes Brodkin]. Or, again: “For white ethnics to claim their whiteness would seem to depend upon denying equal entitlements to nonwhites” (154). (p. 96)
This wretched analysis positions Jews very badly in a paradigm that is only equipped to think about race in terms of zero-sum conflicts for societal standing and resources. Jewish “whiteness” is believed to be established beyond a shadow of a doubt not just by the (allegedly false) embrace by “white” society but also by having thrown blacks under the bus. This status is made more concrete by reframing Jewish success in many industries as having usurped the hyper-privileged mantle of being the top producers and influencers of “white culture.” And all the while, the Jews can point to millennia of oppression and a Holocaust that some, now very few, can still remember surviving.
Here, then we discover a straightforward contradiction that Critical Race Theory is poorly equipped to resolve: in the final analysis, are (white) Jews oppressed or oppressors? This question is generative of the fundamental and unavoidable contradiction that deserves to be called Critical Race Theory’s Jewish problem. Weiss, for her part, doesn’t miss the crucial essence of this point or the fact that because of the power of this racial dialogue, it is able to fracture any hope of Jewish solidarity quite effectively, writing,
“It’s hard to overstate how suffocating this worldview is to specifically Jewish college students,” Blake Flayton, a progressive Jewish student at GW, wrote me recently. “We don’t fit into ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’ categories. We are both privileged and marginalized, protected by those in power and yet targeted by the same racist lunatics as those who target people of color. The hatred we experience on campus has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s because Jews defy anti-racist ideology simply by existing. So it’s not so much that Zionism is racism. It’s that Jewishness is.”
Let me pull that out for you. This isn’t about Zionism or landlords or capitalism or AIPAC. We live in a world in which everyone is being told to side either with the “racists” or the “anti-racists.” Jews who refuse to erase what makes us different will increasingly be defined as racists, often with the help of other Jews desperate to be accepted by the cool kids.
That is to say, Critical Race Theory interprets very badly, bordering on horrifically, the fundamental contradiction it, itself, produces by adopting an anti-liberal stance and assigning Jews to privilege within it. It views Jews, or Ashkenazim at least, as not only as being white but also as occupying the highest echelons of privilege within a white society that has embraced them in a way that multiplied other axes of racial oppression deemed ideologically fatal to the entire project of liberalism. Simultaneously, it sees them as the bearers of a kind of shield that prevents them from their necessary obligation of “checking their privilege” so long as they identify first as Jews and only later as “white” and believe the history that makes them who they are has any truth and significance to it. That is, Critical Race Theory interprets Jewish status as being rather illegitimately placed among the most privileged in society even while they enjoy an even further privilege in not having to accept themselves as such. If anti-Semitism is a hatred of Jews born of believing them to be illegitimately privileged, this kind of analysis is quite literally the stuff of horrors.
Are Jews White?
Of course, this cartoonishly simplistic racial analysis flattens the fact that, quite clearly, not all Jews even have melanin counts that would lead to them being identified as “white.” More plainly, some Jews are, rather crudely, “brown Jews,” or, in the silly but politically expedient fashion of the day, “Jews of color.” This matter of the physical realities of the range of skin tones of various Jewish people is simultaneously irrelevant and politically useful under the unrepentantly inconsistent analysis of Critical Race Theory. It is irrelevant in that being “white” is, in Theory, a sociopolitical status above all, and “white” people have largely accepted Jews as ones of them. It is useful in that the white/brown division is productive of their neo-neo-Marxian analysis across racial lines. (And no, that they do both things at once doesn’t have to make sense.)
Indeed, Critical Race Theory is prepared for this seemingly devastating issue for its impoverished analysis in a way that allows them to mask their anti-Semitism nearly entirely under heaps of impertinent race dialogue. As Berkovits explains, drawing upon analysis reinforced by the noted “friend” of the Jews called Linda Sarsour (as we shall soon see),
Interestingly enough, this view has equally been echoed and perpetuated recently for example by voices at a national gathering of “Jews of color,” reported on sympathetically by the Forward. The participants at this meeting, or at least the majority voices, expressed the intention of tracing the color line even inside the Jewish community, by separating the Ashkenazi Jews, those of “European extraction,” from all the others. Ashkenazim are white, therefore privileged, whereas Sephardic and Mizrahi “Jews of color” are oppressed both in the U.S. and Israel, suffering essentially the same lot as the Palestinians. The assertion is not only that the division between white and non-white should be relevant in the interpretation of privilege and domination universally; but more importantly, that these phenomena should be conceived exclusively in terms of color. The antisemitic phenomenon, under its various forms appearing in human history, is completely excluded by this imaginary division of Jewry, as, according to the participants, “anti-Jewish oppression itself replicated an Ashkenazi view of anti-Semitism”, and as “our prevailing concept of anti-Semitism is a European construct.” Therefore, by extension, Israel is equated with this kind of Euro-American whiteness. (p. 88)
The net result is, as noted above, further fracturing of anything that might look like Jewish solidarity around the strictures of yet another wholly intolerant racial ideology that has taken root in our otherwise liberal world. By placing all sociocultural and political relevance into race—and, indeed, all beliefs about on which side a person stands with regard to “domination” or “oppression,” as Theory conceives of them—Critical Race Theory elides in one inapposite stroke the fundamental religious unity of Jewry and the universally anti-Jewish racism of anti-Semitism. It does so in a way that simultaneously flattens Jewry, as Weiss observes, and slices across it with a genuinely irritating question that should be irrelevant in any genuinely liberal—or Jewish—society: Are Jews white?
The answer to this particularly ugly question is, of course, complicated. Some Jews accept the mantle, qualified or unqualified by their status as Jews, and others don’t. It is similar with broader society, much of which is rather ignorant of the division or the questions. Within Critical Race Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies, however, it all comes down to what’s most politically expedient in the moment. Ashkenazim are universally designated by Critical Race Theory as white, especially when they protest; other Jews, designated by the Theory as “brown Jews” or “Jews of color,” may be when complicity in whiteness is useful for achieving some political end (perhaps as “white-adjacent” Jews, if nothing else) and tend not to be when it’s more useful to consider them “brown.” This may be to divide Jewry along racial lines (as in the quote above), or it may be to recast the anti-Semitism faced by “Jews of color” as a kind of racism instead of as a phenomenon fundamentally distinct from racism.
As John-Paul Pagano notes, writing for Tablet in 2016, this last error allows “anti-racism” to erase anti-Semitism by completely misunderstanding it and recasting it in terms that get it dangerously backwards:
For one, color bias is an insignificant factor in the history of Jewish persecution, so foisting “white privilege” on Jews is parochial—it shoehorns centuries of Jewish suffering into the particular American experience of racism, which centers on anti-black bias. But more important, anti-Semitism doesn’t work like most forms of racism, which denigrate their victims as inferior. Anti-Semitism is special in that it often perceives its target—Jews—as having too much privilege and assails them for it.
Unlike racism, whose modern versions stem from 19th-century pseudo-science, anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory and at root all conspiracy theories envision a demonic elite oppressing and exploiting the common people. They may alight on eclectic topics—war, UFOs, weather and climate, food, medicine, the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, to name just a few—but if you delve deeper, you will find that every conspiracy theory is a narrative in which a secret society of the rich and powerful controls the banks, the media, schools, and governments in order to enslave and exploit the rest of humanity. Anti-Semitism is a name for the conspiracy theory which holds that “the Jews” are this evil elite. To the anti-Semite, Jews are the ultimate bearers of privilege.
It isn’t just in the case of erroneously treating anti-Semitism as a form of racism (for brown Jews, but not white ones) that Critical Race Theory loses sight of it, including its own. In all cases, anti-Semitism drops off the radar. Returning to Berkovits for an explanation,
In fact, one of the main methodological principles of Critical Whiteness Studies dealing with Jews and Jewish assimilation, even if it remains implicit or unstated, is the interpretation of antisemitism as just another form of racism. However, this tacitly applied methodological principle is converted into an empirical finding: as if the history of Jews in the United States followed the pattern of assimilation of every other “white” minority ethnic group. Once each and every one of them were discriminated against (because non-white or “less-than-white”), but eventually they became integrated into the dominant white majority. People who are now considered “white” do not have to endure racism any more, for they are meanwhile placed on the safe side of the color division. As Jews have also become white, there cannot, by definition, be any discrimination against them, or if there is, it cannot be “systemic”, that is, meaningful. (pp. 92–93)
This point is not a small one. Critical Race Theory is able to pretend to acknowledge the oppression of the Jews, misunderstand its fundamental nature, reproduce its fundamental nature itself without realizing it, and yet deny that anti-Semitism counts as a form of group oppression at all because it is not in any way “systemic,” which is the only sort of oppression that counts under its narrow-minded rubric. Through this completely avoidable superhighway of racist confusion, Critical Race Theory is able to maintain not only a complete denial of anti-Semitism, including its own, but also a reproduction of anti-Semitism by placing onto Jews even more status as being (illegitimately) privileged and in unjust control of society. As a consequence, denial of Jewish oppression—however real it was historically—and viewing Jews as usurpers of cultural privilege are mainstream beliefs within Critical Race Theory.
In the name of fairness, this ridiculous mode of analysis is the bread and butter of the Critical Race Theory approach, which it applies to everything. Therefore, these beliefs are unlikely to be the result of Critical Race Theory intentionally targeting Jews for being Jews. That’s not the issue; Jewry falling outside of the range of cogent—if we’ll stretch the term—analysis within the theoretically and ethically impoverished domain of Critical Race Theory is. Ugly as this situation is, it helps make sense of an important related point Berkovits raised slightly earlier in his paper:
Antisemitism is mentioned practically nowhere [in Critical Whiteness Studies], or is downgraded and relegated to the background, as if it were not relevant any more. For sure, it has to be downgraded and minimized, because it would supposedly weaken the criticism conducted in favor of the “really oppressed,” which the Jews are not. Linda Sarsour, the “new face of intersectional feminism,” who had also been invited to the “Jews of color” gathering before she participated in the panel on antisemitism at the New School for Social Research, was very clear on the subject. Speaking in a video published by the Jewish Voice for Peace, she said: “I want to make the distinction that while anti-Semitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic. […] Of course, you may experience vandalism or an attack on a synagogue, or maybe on an individual level… but it’s not systemic, and we need to make that distinction.” Here, Sarsour implies that first, it is not a collective or structural phenomenon, but the sum of scattered individual acts, and second, and more importantly, that antisemitic attacks carried out by other minorities (which is most often the case) cannot be significant, for those are not the actions of the dominant (white) groups, who determine the permanence of structural racism. The theoretical underpinning of this view, besides “intersectionality,” comes from a theory of structural racism. (pp. 88–89)
The broken thing in Critical Race Theory is Critical Race Theory—the theory of “structural racism” Berkovits points at here. The entire approach and the contradictions upon which it is based are incapable of dealing with its Jewish question, which, in the extreme, sometimes leads adherents to downplay the relevance of the Holocaust, again under heaps of impertinent racial analysis. Perhaps most visibly among these attempts are (admittedly rather fringe) quite vicious claims that Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is only assigned in our educational systems because Frank was a privileged white girl. As Berkovits observes, “many critical approaches regard the memory of the Holocaust as an obstacle to criticism,” particularly of the privilege afforded to Jews in their alleged “whiteness.”
As indicated previously, the genuinely ugly question of Jewish whiteness is what might rightly be called the Jewish question in Critical Race Theory, and it defines one of the two foci (these being like the center of a circle but for an ellipse) of a bigger Jewish question in Critical Social Justice. The other focus of Woke anti-Semitism concerns Zionism and thus the existence, meaning, and implications of a Jewish state of Israel existing in its promised, historical location.
By considering these two poles as centers of theoretical gravity, an anti-Semitic ellipse (or more of a rotten egg) outlined by Critical Social Justice Theory becomes quite clear. At one focus is the question of Jewish whiteness, as analyzed under Critical Race Theory and its Whiteness Studies, and at the other is the question of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in its appointed location—which Jews believe was promised to them specifically in a covenant with G-d. This second dimension is analyzed through the West-hating Postcolonial Theory, though with much help from Critical Race analysis, to which we shall now turn.
Postcolonial Theory, Israel, and Zionism
It shouldn’t be far from anyone’s mind that the Woke, as a rule, are hostile to the existence of Israel. The relevant ideology is, in fact, deeply invested in uncritical support for Palestine and is openly anti-Zionist, often to the point of openly calling for the destruction of Israel. Weiss captures the public results of this attitude well, including the confusion among Jews who still think these ideologies are liberal, writing,
The most recent major outrage in the Jewish community, now several news cycles behind us, came on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur—the holiest day in the Jewish calendar—when many American Jews seemed dumbfounded by what was to me predictable news: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, progressive superstar, had pulled out of an event honoring Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated because of his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. Rabin was, as Bill Clinton said at his funeral, “a martyr for his nation’s peace.”
Many Jews were shocked. If Rabin, the symbol of progressive Zionism, is out of bounds, are any Israelis acceptable? What about the 95% of Jews who support the Jewish state? Why would the congresswoman from the Bronx—representing the political party to which upward of 70% of American Jews have been consistently loyal—possibly do such a thing?
The answer to whether any Israelis are acceptable under Theory is no. For those who understand that Postcolonial Theory generally believes all actions made by the West anywhere else in the world, and especially where brown or black people live, as intolerable acts of Western colonialism and imperialism, this isn’t shocking, however. It’s perfectly consistent with what its activists continually say and its Theorists continually write. Israel would be considered in Theory as the result of white, Western imperialism and colonialism—largely in cahoots with conservative Christianity—robbing poor, brown Muslim Palestinians of their land, not least so that there is the ability to assert further Western hegemony and militarism in the Middle East (for the purpose of murdering more brown Muslims). The whole point is to establish, yet again, white supremacy in the Middle East. Its terms really are that stark. In the politically polished words of Linda Sarsour, which invoke precisely the crude racial frame of Critical Race Theory to make their effect,
Ask them this, how can you be against white supremacy in America and the idea of being in a state based on race and class, but then you support a state like Israel that is based on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else.
While Critical Race Theory sees Israel—no matter its racial makeup—as structural whiteness occupying the (brown) Palestinian Middle East, Postcolonial Theory regards the existence of the contemporary Israeli state in a way that is wholly critical (as Marx would be) of both it and the West that supports it. This is what Postcolonial Theory does; it claims that the West constructs the “East” (here: Palestine) in a way that is meant to make its own values look superior by virtue of being better than the “Other’s” values—a process now unfortunately called “Orientalism.” The point of Orientalism is to enable a means of domination that might then justify Western occupations of non-Western lands and people, which will then hold to its own ideologies, methods, and values. Within the Theoretical wing of the contemporary left, Israel is regarded as one such ongoing project even in a (Western) world that has rejected the idea of colonialism more or less entirely.
Again, as with the issue where Critical Race Theory collides with Jewry, this wretched analysis is exactly what we should expect from Postcolonial Theory’s collision with Israel. It simply lacks the tools for a more nuanced or reasonable analysis of the admittedly complex affair. Take the Palestinian-American Edward Said’s analysis in his landmark Orientalism, which is in some sense recognizable as the birthplace of Postcolonial Theory, wherein precisely this simplistic, cynical, zero-sum thinking can be found:
Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen—by Lamartine and the early Zionists—as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow—because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites—can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer Orientalist (Burlon, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalist polemic, the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions periodically chastised by what Barbara Tuchman gives the theological name “Israel’s terrible swift sword.” (p. 286)
In Said’s telling, in the existence of Israel, Jews are falsely and unjustly elevated to the status of “hero” by a supportive West that, at best, takes no notice of “Arab Orientals” and, at worst, merely constructs them as a shadowy enemy to Zionism and foil against which that Western-Jewish hero is given meaning. (This is how Postcolonial Theory thinks about essentially everything, by the way.) That this narrative itself might support anti-Semitism is nowhere to be found within Postcolonial Theory analysis. Indeed, it, like the relevant facts of Jewish history, is buried under other issues that, through the usual Critical Theoretical inversion of values, renders Jews untowardly allied with illegitimate “Great Powers” most interested in imperialistic manipulations in the Middle East. For Said, and Postcolonial Theory in his wake, the “electronic, postmodern world” we now occupy (he was writing in 1978, by the way) has resulted in a clash of hyper-simplistic narratives in which Israel and its legitimacy resides in the crossfire:
Three things have contributed to making even the simplest perception of the Arabs and Islam into highly politicized almost raucous matter: one, the history of popular anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice in the West, which is immediately reflected in the history of Orientalism; two, the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews as well as upon both the liberal culture and the population at large; three, the almost total absence of any cultural position making it possible either to identify with or dispassionately to discuss the Arabs or Islam. Furthermore, it hardly needs saying that because the Middle East is now so identified with Great Power politics, oil economics, and the simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs, the chances of anything like a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East are depressingly small. (pp. 26–27)
Said, like almost all other Postcolonial Theorists, also understands the colonialist mindset in terms of racial politics, writing about its prerogative, “a white middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition ‘it’ is not quite as human as ‘we’ are” (p. 108). Indeed, because “whiteness” is associated with being European or of European descent, whereas other places are typically designated as “non-white” (the Eastern bloc and Russia notwithstanding, one supposes), Postcolonial Theory and Critical Race Theory have much overlap in their ideas. This shared ideology owes much to the fact that Critical Race Theory asserts, not wholly wrongly, that white Europeans invented race and racism in part to justify to themselves the brutal cruelties of colonialism (though the lion’s share of that analysis is given to the Atlantic Slave Trade). As a result, Postcolonial Theory draws heavily off the analyses of Critical Race Theory to bolster its own arguments about the relevance of race in analyses of colonial environments. Thus, many of the arguments made within Theory about what it regards as “colonialism” or “settlerism” are made in terms of racism and an alleged aim to establish a “white” racial hegemony where it doesn’t belong.
Berkovits explains this phenomenon in somewhat more digestible language:
That the tag “whiteness” is susceptible to be turned against Jews, not merely as a “critical” concept, but rather in an explicitly accusatory manner, is evident if one takes a look at how whiteness and racism scholars analyze the state of Israel. For example, the eminent racism scholar David Theo Goldberg presents Zionism as a European white movement, intending to colonize and civilize the aboriginals in the Middle East. But he also offers a different, and maybe broader and more metaphorical, definition of Jewish whiteness: “Israelis occupy the structural position of whiteness in the Middle-East.” (p. 100)
Thus, seeing the matter of race (Jewish “whiteness”) and the matter of colonization (existence of Israel in its historical location) as intertwined, if not two manifestations of the same phenomenon of oppression, is what Critical Social Justice Theory does. Race and colonial status therefore become, as noted, two foci that together trace out the boundary in which Woke anti-Semitism arises from its own theoretical contradictions, effectively invisible to itself. This new brand of anti-Semitism bears special hatred for “white” American Jews (particularly Ashkenazim) and an absolute and absolutely intolerant rejection of Israel in a twisted and perverse way that allows almost no reasonable analysis to penetrate. Indeed, the full weight of the “colonizer!” argument against Zionism and Israel and the “racist!” argument against (American) Jews blend into a senseless whole that allows rampant anti-Semitism to hide behind those apparently culturally impenetrable rhetorical screens. In Berkovits’ summary,
[F]or Abigail Bakan, working in a Marxist and postcolonial vein, it was Zionism that whitened European Jews, whereas American Jews were whitened during their American history, what she learned from Whiteness Studies. The two processes, she asserts, intersected and thus created Israel. … Bakan, detects “the role of Zionism in the transition of Jewishness from non-white to a specific form of whiteness”, what she terms as “‘whiteness by permission’” (pp. 100–101)
Put even more straightforwardly, it is both colonialism and racism simultaneously that defines the existence of the Jewish state, and both of these sins are regarded by Theory as in immediate need of “disrupting and dismantling.”
Sadly, this extremism represents no exaggeration of the belief or intent within Critical Social Justice with regard to Jews and Israel. As explained before, the Critical Social Justice ideology, whether with regard to race, colonialism, or their admixture, is wholly intolerant and absolutely totalizing. As Berkovits explains about it,
[T]here is a unanimous intention of radical criticism, and total political agreement on the evaluation of Zionism, Israel, and Jews in the Middle East. A furtive look into these texts would be sufficient to conclude that whenever it comes to Israel, political criticism fully subordinates any interpretation. It is also evident that the concept of “Jewish whiteness” serves that kind of criticism, by which one can comfortably detect that Jews have not only become part of the dominant majority, but also the ruling white elite or “caste” exercising their domination on racist grounds, thereby forming one of the most oppressive majorities in the world. To be sure, in these works, the arbitrary usage of the concept of “whiteness” becomes even more conspicuous than in Whiteness Studies proper, as it encompasses an increasingly diverse set of phenomena. However, this fact does not bother totalizing critics emboldened by their academic prestige. (p. 101)
To Theory, Jews are white, Israel is whiteness established in brown lands, and the combined whole proves a hyper-privileged status for Jews, who then get to hide behind a mantle of oppression that Theory refuses to recognize. Anti-Semitism therefy falls completely out of focus even as it heats the water one degree at a time, leading shocked Jews to express their disbelief more and more frequently at the anti-Semitic hatred not only coming from the usual suspects on the right but, confusingly, from the Woke progressives on their left. Bari Weiss is right. It’s time to understand this ideology for what it is and to stop being shocked.
Critical Social Justice’s Jewish Problem
The set of allegedly high-minded beliefs described so far, which are core to Theory, mixed with a fundamental failure to understand that the Critical Social Justice ideology is genuinely this illiberal, including by Jews, explains the shock that Weiss implores her fellow Jews to stop expressing at the things they keep seeing happening around them. She captures the mood neatly here,
Did you see that the Ethical Culture Fieldston School hosted a speaker that equated Israelis with Nazis? Did you know that Brearley is now asking families to write a statement demonstrating their commitment to “anti-racism”? Did you see that Chelsea Handler tweeted a clip of Louis Farrakhan? Did you see that protesters tagged a synagogue in Kenosha with “Free Palestine” graffiti? Did you hear about the march in D.C. where they chanted “Israel, we know you, you murder children too”? Did you hear that the Biden campaign apologized to Linda Sarsour after initially disavowing her? Did you see that Twitter suspended Bret Weinstein’s civic organization but still allows the Iranian ayatollah to openly promote genocide of the Jewish people? Did you see that Mayor Bill de Blasio scapegoated “the Jewish community” for the spread of COVID in New York, while defending mass protests on the grounds that this is a “historic moment of change”?
Readers need to understand that this is no mistake, no anomaly. It is all perfectly consonant with the underlying Theory, which is anti-liberalism dressed in liberalism’s skin. The people behind the shocking incidents Weiss documents have imbibed that Theory to varying nontrivial degrees and believe it—and acceptance of these ideas is accelerating.
All of this treacherous analysis places Jews in a precarious position as the ideology of Critical Social Justice mainstreams further and further in our otherwise liberal societies. In Weiss’s incisive words,
The dominoes are falling hard and fast. That’s how you get pulpit rabbis who argue that Jews should not claim ourselves to be indigenous to the land of Israel. Or an organization meant to fight anti-Semitism that aligns itself with Al Sharpton. Or a tinderbox in the city with the largest Jewish population in the country, whose communal outfits seem to care more about lending cover to politicians than ensuring the physical safety of Jews.
The physical safety of Jews—and of Israel—depends upon liberalism and thus cannot be guaranteed by anything that accepts Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Theory. Those two, together, like so many hideous ideologies before them, generate a Jewish question they cannot answer which results in a Jewish problem they cannot solve.
Critical Social Justice has a Jewish problem. Jews are Theorized at the height of white privilege—illegitimately and to the detriment of other minorities—and as the minority usurpers of the coveted status of being “the interpreters of white society.” Yet they also carry an ironclad reason not to “interrogate” that privilege as the Critical Theories of Social Justice demand of them, which Theory must therefore dismiss as illegitimate. Furthermore, Jews are not just complicit in whiteness but also in one of the most intolerable acts of Western colonialism that Theory takes umbrage with: the establishment of the state of Israel on land it deems wholly Palestinian. This crime they can also plausibly deny on the grounds that they were, in fact, driven from that, their indigenous, land in acts of unequivocal acts of oppression and genocidal violence.
In Theory, Jews aren’t just at the height of privilege in their whiteness and in an unjustly granted colony in Israel. They’re also deemed privileged even further by having a cultural history that liberal people rightly believe is characterized by millennia of systemic oppression. They’re a dominant group that nobody outside of Theory—least of all themselves—regards as dominant.
These are evil ideas that are new only in their outermost manifestation: “whiteness,” “colonizer,” “settler.” They, are anti-Semitism that, like their predecessors, are the results of forcing bad solutions to fundamental contradictions that necessarily arise from within the bowels of impoverished and illiberal social theories. In liberalism, as Weiss observes, we have at the heart “the idea that we should judge each person not by their station or their family lineage but by their deeds” and “that human beings have agency,” which she also notes “are revolutionary ideas that are, at root, Hebrew ones.” In Theory, one’s station—called “positionality”—is the main dimension of judgment and human beings who lack a critical consciousness—who aren’t “Woke” and in agreement with Theory—necessarily have a false consciousness, like “internalized dominance,” and no true agency.
At the moment, we are losing liberalism to Critical Social Justice, which isn’t just inimical to liberal beliefs but also believes they must be torn out by the roots—which, if Weiss is right, will include Hebrew roots. This simple truth, hard-learned so many times before about shallow social theory, is a danger to us all. It poses a particular, though not wholly unique, danger to Jews.
For the present, there is still some daylight between Woke anti-Semitism and older, more recognizable forms of Jew-hatred, but there’s no guarantee that will stay the case. Indeed, the edifice already seems to be crumbling. It’s worth stating, then, that the only difference between historical applications of ideologically driven anti-Semitism and Woke anti-Semitism, then, is that the current approach comes at the issue in an apparently novel way by shoehorning Jew-hatred into a drastically oversimplified framework of American racial history—one with a great deal of current cultural cache—which is to say that the differences are mostly a matter of window dressing and time. That is to except one other difference: those have no positive branding and no Jewish support, whereas Woke anti-Semitism currently enjoys a reasonable degree of both.
Critical Social Justice is, in its vulgar simplicity and pretentious racism, neither sophisticated nor liberal enough to handle the straightforward facts of Jewish life and history, which make an inconvenient misfit to its profoundly inadequate notions of social power and conflict. It must therefore be said that this paucity of sophistication and liberalism within Theory render the contradictions at hand both unavoidable and irreconcilable for Theory. This, in turn, defines a fundamental and intolerable Jewish problem in Critical Social Justice that, if history writes any guide, will find its “resolution” in the decrees of the Theorists, if they become sufficiently empowered. We must not allow this to happen.