by David Cycleback
“All models are false, but some are useful”– George E.P. Box
“People view the world through their theories”– Thomas Kuhn
It once dawned on me why some people believe antisemitism is a problem within some American and British progressive movements. A– I didn’t say the, as I know people on the left with different definitions– standard definition amongst many progressives and progressive movements use is that racism = prejudice + power. As these groups define Jews as part of the white privileged, or ‘white supremacy’ (their term for white America), that means that the adherents to that definition are saying antisemitism isn’t racism. Or, if they say antisemitism is racism, they’ve undercut their own definition.
Perhaps they say that antisemitism is not racism but a different form of bigotry, and that is a fair topic for debate. How to define race, what is race and the question of if Jews are a race are interesting questions. Many scholars, the United Nations and the World Jewish Congress define antisemitism as a type of racism, and many textbooks and international laws define racism as including both race and ethnicity. Anne Frank House states that race is an artificial cultural construct and, thus, Jews are not a race, but that the classification of Jews as a race and discrimination based on that is racism.
A Jewish friend said the question of if Jews are a race or an ethnicity is a matter of semantics, and joked “When you find out which we are, let me know.” This all says that the world, societies, structures, concepts and ethnic oppression are far more complex and nuanced than a simplistic equation or definition can define or encompass.
Racial categories are artificial and arbitrary social not biological or genetic constructs, and people on all parts of the political spectrum have long drawn the lines to suit their political ideologies and agendas. Depending on the prevailing or particular political and ideological sentiments, Japanese, Latinos, Irish, Greeks, Ashkenazis and Arabs have fallen in and out of the “white” category.
Armenians have alternately been classified in the United States as “yellow,” “white” and “brown.” Though, if you ask Armenians themselves, they usually will reject any color label, as that is not how they, and many other non-Westerners, define race. (Arzoumanian 2020) I attended a lecture on Islam by two Somali immigrants. One said they didn’t like it when Americans called them black “because that’s not how Somalis view people.”
Brandy Shufutinsky, of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, said “I don’t use white Jews or Jews of Color. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” She says the prevailing “colorism” is American-centric and that “Jews predate race.” (JILV 2021)
There is no denying that the particular American artificial color codes constructs have been socially and psychologically influential in American history and used for ill, including to justify slavery and Jim Crow Laws. Though, as this essay shows, many Jews say artificial color codes and stereotyping that have been decried are now being used by the far left to pigeonhole and oppress them. They point out the hypocrisy and that two wrongs don’t make a right.
A problem with power as a necessary and required element in the definition is that Jews have been persecuted (as a race– at least that’s how the Nazis defined them and how White Supremacists define them– and, according to Anne Frank House that is thus racism) in major part because of the perception they had power. It should disturb that some groups and movements on today’s far left use this same trope that has been and are used by antisemitic movements on the far right, including the KKK and Neo-Nazis.
In the 1800s to early 1900s many elite universities– including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, McGill and Toronto–, had quotas on Jews because they were perceived as being too successful. Physics Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman could not get into Columbia University as an undergraduate because of quotas on Jews, and National Medal of Science winner Norbert Wiener was rejected for a professorship at Harvard due to like quota. Interestingly, Feynman was secular and identified himself as Jewish only ethnically.
The Nazis and White Supremacists defined/define Jews as both having power/privilege and being an inferior people/race. This all points out that there are many ways, types and directions of discrimination, racism, oppression and persecution.
Another common point that is brought up is that it is incorrect, or at the very least problematic, to generalize across all members about their privilege and power. There have been many poor and powerless Jews and Jewish communities throughout history, and a homeless opioid-addicted white man in rural West Virginia will likely question the existence of his privilege and power in the United States.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, says the privileged categorization is a stereotype. “This argument leaves out the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have not ‘made it’ the way their Manhattan brothers and sisters may have.” (Lerner 2019) A Jewish friend, whose grandparents were poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, chafes at the priviledged generalization. He says, “We have been listening to this white privilege stuff for 5000 years.”
A complaint from many Jews is that some progressive movements and people trivialize or dismiss the significance of antisemitism, and many Jews say that some progressive movements are antisemitic (Flayton 2019). That has been an accusation of British Labour and the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement.
I was talking with an English Jewess in London. As an American curious about her perspective, I asked her if she thought there was antisemitism in the British Labour Party, and she said “Yes, in my opinion, and generally in the left.” I said, “Many in the American far left use the same stereotypes about Jews as the far right.” Her response was, “Yes, exactly.”
In the past five years there has been Jewish criticism and even protests of Unitarian Universalist congregations and UU over concerns of antisemitism embedded in the UUA’s increasingly radical, fringe political ideology. This has been including due to the widespread showing of what many Jews considered an antisemitic documentary, neoracist and one-sided theories and language about Jews and Israel, censorship and the adoption of divisive political positions. (McArdle 2016) (Stevens 2017) (Leblang 2017) (UUCS 2019)
City University of New York history professor KC Johnson said, “If Jews are seen as ‘white’ (which, in this permutation of progressivism, they are), and ‘whites’ cannot be subjected to racist attacks, then antisemitism becomes a trivial concern.” (Johnson in Dunst 2018)
Robert Walker, director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, says that radical left activists on university campuses often dismiss the opinions of Jews, including on issues of discrimination because Jews are cataloged as privileged (Lungen 2018).
Walker says: “Our fellows have seen more instances where a pro-Israel side is dismissed in a summary manner, merely because many of our students are Jews, (and are) therefore seen to be privileged and therefore excluded from consideration or mainstream dialogue . . . Their opinion is often dismissed for being Jewish or pro-Israel and seen as part of the privileged white bourgeoisie . . . People are dismissed simply for who they are. We’re seeing this more and more.” (Walker in Lungen 2018)
To most people, dismissing a person’s opinion simply because of their race or ethnicity is racism.
Rabbi Lerner says many Jews, including he, do not consider Jews white and considers categorizing Jews as white an act of oppression. He says some on the far left categorizing Jews as white is an attempt to paint them not as a historically marginalized and persecuted people with their own unique culture and history, but a part of the generic oppressive power structure. Lerner writes “Jews are not white, and those who claim we are and exclude our history and literature from their newly emerging multicultural canon are our oppressors . . . Jews can only be deemed ‘white’ if there is massive amnesia on the part of non-Jews about the monumental history of anti-Semitism.” (Lerner 2019)
Similarly, Pamela Paresky, of the University of Chicago’s Stavonovich Institute, writes, “In the critical social justice paradigm, Jews, who have never been seen as white by those for whom being white is a moral good, are now seen as white by those for whom whiteness is an unmitigated evil.” (Paresky 2019)
Samuel Goldman, professor of political science and executive director of the John L. Loeb Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University, writes, “The reduction of American history to an unbroken story of racial oppression comes at particular cost to Jews. Because we have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberal institutions, we are unavoidably targets when those institutions abandon or reject their liberal mission. A widely despised and persecuted people who thrived in America like nowhere else, Jews do not fit into the sharp distinction between oppressor and oppressed that characterized ideological ‘antiracism.’ Therefore, Jewish experiences must either be ignored or reduced to a monolithic conception of white supremacy.” (Goldman 2021)
I attended a Unitarian Universalist racial justice meeting where a dogmatic supporter of critical race theory did not want the group to read an article by a Jewish professor “because he is white.” She wanted a vetter to prevent articles from such voices from even reaching group members. I am not generalizing about the group, as two group members said they thought the article was worthy of discussing, if in a different forum.
Whatever one’s definitions for the terms, it should be obvious the rhetorical odiousness of telling Auschwitz survivors in Pittsburgh or Charleston that they are part of “white supremacy” and part of the “racist oppression.” Following that up by then telling those survivors that any offense they take is “white fragility” is nothing short of gaslighting.
A Jewish woman who objected to being called a member of the “white supremacy” by people on the far left explained, “It is not a matter of intellectually debating the issue. It simply is offensive.”
I know people on the left, progressives, people of color and Jews with a wide variety of opinions and views and considerations, including on this topic. I am not painting with a broad brush or generalizing. I know many progressives and people of color who do not subscribe to that definition of racism and its anti-racism theory. In fact, the extreme left’s radical anti-racism, anti-oppression models and ideological language do not represent the beliefs or language of the vast majority of the minority groups the advocates are supposedly speaking for. The theories and terms are fringe including within the particular minority groups. The definition of racism also is counter to common usage and understanding of the term. (Monk 2018) (Thinknow 2019) (Douthat 2020)
However, as with any theory or model, a key is how the ‘racism = prejudice + power’ definition is considered.
The recently deceased Physics Nobel Prize winner and philosopher of science Phillip Anderson was an antireductionist and was for complexity in modeling. He correctly saw that reality, and any area within it, was far too complex and nuanced to be reduced to a simple theory or model, and said that “more is different.” (Horgan 2020).
All models or theories are artificial, arbitrary, myopic and, thus, false representations of reality. However, when used and considered as one of many different lenses to view things, a theory can be useful and offer insight. Science uses multiple and often competing theories to examine an area, each theory limited but together giving a fuller, if still incomplete, picture. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend correctly wrote, “No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain.”
The anti-racism “racism = prejudice + power” definition and theory is an interesting and useful lens to view things through. However, as with any theory, it is too simplistic and must be just one of many different lenses through which to look at the complexity of racism, oppression and society. Making it the only lens– and making it dogma and ideology, and saying that no other lenses, theories or viewpoints can be expressed or used – is false and foolish.
Race, racism, ethnicity, oppression, marginalization and bigotry are incredibly complex and multifaceted areas, full of gray areas, diversity, contradictions, paradoxes, subjectivity and diverse personal life experiences that cannot be defined much less solved by one model, theory or equation. Jews demonstrate that one can both be privileged and marginalized, that oppression and persecution can involve both punching down and punching up, and that someone can both be oppressed and oppress.
Defining any race, ethnicity, nationality or large group as monolithically “all this” or “all that” is a simplistic and ignorant stereotyping that one would think anti-racism is supposedly aspiring to overcome. I’m strongly against racial essentialism, whether it is by the far right or the far left. To me, that some in today’s far left do it doesn’t make it any less racist than when the far right does it.
Author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bari Weiss said that there is “good anti-racism and bad anti-racism,” and that the bad kind– one, she writes, that “has dangerous implications for Jews”– is the current neoracist version pushed by authors such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. Weiss says that good anti-racism “reflects the idea that we should be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, the kind of anti-racism that insists on our common humanity, the kind of anti-racism that no one should be inheritors of collective guilt or inheritors of collective innocence, that we should all be judged as individuals.” (Weiss 2020)
If the ‘racism = prejudice + power’ and white supremacy culture theory is dogmatically used as the sole or key definition and lens through which to view the world, social structures and people– as some and some groups on the far left do–, it is clearly antisemitic, using dangerous and ignorant stereotypes, characterizations and theories about Jews.
Ironically, if antisemitism is a form of racism (and I will let you answer that question for yourself), that would make that particular anti-racism model racist.
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