Building a Progressive Tower of Babel

An American Jewish community leader describes how puritanical ideologues are co-opting charitable organizations and activist groups.
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In January 2016, I became President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the then 70-year-old Jewish advocacy and community relations umbrella group for the American Jewish community. On my first day on the job, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published an opinion piece I wrote, The Anti-Israel Trend You’ve Never Heard Of, in which I argued that the progressive doctrine of “intersectionality” was a danger to the Jewish community.

“If a group sees itself as oppressed,” I wrote, “it will see Israel as part of the dominant power structure doing the oppressing, and Palestinians as fellow victims. That oppressed group will be susceptible to joining forces with the [anti-Israeli] BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement.” Regrettably, the dangers I warned about in that article have come to pass.

A definition of “intersectionality” published by Oregon State University.

My article caught the attention of many in the Jewish community, and prompted the publication of several opinion pieces rebuking me. The ideological left of the Jewish community, which holds intersectionality as a cornerstone of progressive politics, was enraged. In New Voices, a magazine for young Jewish adults, Chloe Sobel responded, “Intersectionality is valuable not because it can make Israel look better. It’s valuable because it can make Israel be better. Intersectionality encourages progressives who care about social justice in the United States to care about social justice in Israel.” A former colleague of mine—who worked for a progressive Jewish advocacy organization—saw my argument as an insult to her own work, which she described as deeply intersectional. Many others, however, told me that they had never heard of intersectionality, but that they saw how such a concept could fuel disdain for Israel.

Several of my new colleagues told me that my article might compromise the Jewish community’s ability to engage the progressive Left on issues of concern, and urged me to recant. The Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, Abby Porth, said that her young staff were experts on intersectionality, and we should ask them to educate other Jewish advocates across the country. Every obnoxious ideological fad that the larger American Jewish community faces seems to originate in the politically charged San Francisco Bay Area, and so the staff at Jewish organizations there often have more experience in addressing them than those in the rest of the country. So we organized a webinar for the Jewish advocacy community called Grappling with Intersectionality.

While I didn’t say so explicitly, I’d come to believe that the mainstream Jewish community needed to find a way to include the Jewish narrative in the intersectional matrix—to complicate it—so that Jews and Israel were not viewed as the perennial oppressors and Palestinians the perennial victims. Concerned about the growing backlash to my article, I used the opportunity of the webinar to soften my stance on the topic, stating “I still have much to learn,” and that “intersectionality is a complex, interesting, and nuanced phenomenon that we need to understand, not just from the perspective of the pro-Israel community, but from its own perspective as well.”

During the ensuing panel discussion, a young LGBT staff member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, stated flatly, “We are all intersectional. We all bring our identities into the spaces in which we operate … We are also shaped by our own privileges. As Jewish community relations professionals, it’s important to know what our blind spots are as we engage in our work.” He wasn’t providing direction on how to navigate the current ideological landscape. He was preaching the ideology itself.

A few weeks later, with me still seeking to make amends, the JCPA held a panel discussion on intersectionality at our national conference in Cleveland, Ohio. In preparation for the session, I asked one of the speakers, “What should we do if people in the audience disagree with the intersectional framework?” She paused, then said, “We should bring those people along.” Another speaker nodded in enthusiastic agreement. Neither speaker would tolerate any questioning of her preferred ideological framework.

Such issues also kept popping up in the internal workings of my organization. As in many such entities, relations between managers and employees could be tense. This included the common pattern by which managers and direct reports become locked in a dance, whereby managers take on too much of the burden of the organization’s operations, and direct reports are left with little control over their work. They both complain about it.

I decided to address the problem at an off-site retreat in the spring of 2016, using a dialogue-based exercise. But my efforts did not go as planned. Three young staffers, whom this exercise was meant to benefit, vociferously objected. “This is victim-blaming,” one young woman insisted. I realized that these staffers were looking at our organizational problem through a binary social justice lens, according to which the powerful are always wrong and the powerless are always right. The discussion got so heated that eventually I abandoned the whole exercise and, with it, a framework that was meant to give younger employees more control over their work. I allowed these young staffers to have their way. In retrospect, I now see that this process of capitulation is how organizations get co-opted by young ideologues.

In August 2016, an offshoot of the loosely knit BLM movement, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), had issued a platform that, among other things, denounced Israel for committing genocide against Palestinians. Jewish leaders accused the platform’s authors of antisemitism. Jeremy Burton, the progressive director of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, issued a statement rejecting “participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world,” and stated that we “dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it.” But faced with relentless criticism, he later recanted. And BLM activists countered Jewish criticism by accusing Jewish leaders of “decentering” the black experience and distracting attention from their claims—a charge I would hear repeatedly.

Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2016, when a group of black Jews organized a meeting with Black Lives Matter activists in New York, I jumped at the chance to join. I was initially denied entry, because the activists who’d organized the meeting viewed the intersectionality article I’d written as an assault on their basic oppressed-versus-oppressor narrative. But after lengthy discussions with Abby Levine of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a proxy for one of the organizers—discussions in which I was told that I needed to “do the work”—I grudgingly issued a mea culpa as the price of admission, and was finally allowed in.

The Jewish leaders who attended the meeting were told in advance that we were expected to show up and listen, to be seen and not heard. We would have time afterwards to ask questions in small groups, but we were not allowed to challenge anything we heard during the main discussion. They were authentic voices of the marginalized, and we were merely there to observe.

That evening saw many firsts. For the first time, I heard black Jews say white Jews had benefited from white supremacy and needed to “shed your whiteness.” White Jews, they told us, had taken full advantage of white privilege and their proximity to the white power structure. I later came to understand that—like other privileged ethnicities, such as Asian Americans—many Jews were “white adjacent.” We were expected to acknowledge our complicity in white supremacy. Our role moving forward, we were told, was to acknowledge our own guilt, and “make space” for and “lift up” black voices.

At the end of the meeting, one of the organizers drew the black participants into a circle. She preached, “I was blind but now I am Woke.” The participants repeated the chant and loudly proclaimed “Amen.” At this point, I realized that the call to be woke was, in fact, a profession of faith.

Fresh from that experience, I wrote an opinion piece in New York’s Jewish Week, acknowledging that “The Jewish community, which prides itself on its historic commitment to social justice, has every reason to join the cause of helping America live up to its own ideals of equality.” But I also cautioned:

It will not be easy integrating the Jewish community into civil rights coalitions, some of which hold very different political sensibilities. Young activists routinely invoke phrases like “white supremacy” to describe America’s prevailing power structure, and this may sound extreme to many mainstream Jews. Rather than feeling obliged to use these terms, however, the Jewish community can develop its own social justice vocabulary and come to the table in its own voice.

All of this became highly personal when I got an unexpected call in May 2019 from my son’s school principal: She’d suspended my son for the remainder of his eighth-grade year—three-and-a-half weeks—for appearing in the background of a video made by another boy, who held a gun—not a real gun, a disabled airsoft gun that shoots plastic pellets. My son’s school had investigated and found that, in addition to appearing in the other boy’s video, my son had taken a selfie of the other kid holding him in a headlock and pointing the fake gun at my son’s head. My son then shared his selfie, without comment, with 13 friends on Snapchat. The boys did all of this in my basement, not on school premises.

“This is very, very serious,” the principal intoned. But I didn’t think it was serious at all. An unloaded airsoft gun is hardly a step away from an AK-47. When I went to the principal’s office to plead for leniency, she told me that my son’s photo had upset students who already had anxiety issues. “It’s the harm, not the intent, that matters,” she stated a matter-of-factly.

It was the same “harm-based” moral outlook that would be on full display in 2021, when Don McNeil, the highly respected New York Times science reporterresigned from the newspaper after it was reported that he’d quoted someone using the N-word while on an official Times trip with high school students to Peru in 2019. Following an internal investigation, McNeil had been subjected to undisclosed disciplinary action, but ultimately was allowed to keep his job after the executive editor of the Times determined that “his intentions [did not appear to be] hateful or malicious.”

Following this, 150 Times staffers wrote to the publisher, urging that the newspaper take further action: “Our harassment training makes clear that what matters is how an act makes a victim feel; Mr. McNeil’s victims weren’t shy about decrying his conduct on the trip. We, his colleagues, feel disrespected by his actions. The company has a responsibility to take those feelings seriously.” So, following the same logic as my child’s school principal, the Times forced McNeil out.

In the spring of 2020, more woke alarm bells went off when Abby Levine of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable asked my organization to sign a petition accusing two respected Jewish scholars, Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashevsky, of engaging in racism. The pair had written an article concluding that the number of Jews of color in the United States is less than the figure that had been reported in a recent study performed by a group called “Jews of Color Initiative.” I was friendly with Sheskin, a social scientist living in Florida, and knew him to be anything but a racist. He and Dashevsky had cited research—including a 2013 Pew study, the most comprehensive data set to date—that indicated that Jews of color represented about six percent of American Jews, not the 12 to 15 percent figure claimed in the Jews of Color Initiative report.

Despite the fact there was no apparent flaw in the methodology employed by Sheskin and Dashevsky, progressive groups launched a petition that garnered more than 2,500 signatures, decrying the supposed sins of the authors. Critics attacked Sheskin and Dashevsky, claiming their findings disempowered and erased Jews of color—despite the fact that all they’d done was correct an apparent statistical error. Leaders of the Jewish Reform Movement accused the authors of “white intellectualism” and erasure.

I had never heard Jewish leaders use the term “intellectualism” as a pejorative. Yet these critics argued that the social scientists’ article should never have been published—despite the fact that Sheskin and Dashevsky agreed that “responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi origin, and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color.” I was shocked at the attacks on these two scholars, and I told Ms. Levine that JCPA would not sign the petition. I felt bad for Sheskin and called him to express my regret. But given the prominence of the signatories of the petition, several of whose groups were members of my own organization, I didn’t feel I could publicly defend the two scholars without causing major fallout.

Postscript: In 2021, a year after the cancellation campaign against Sheskin and Dashevsky, out came a new Pew study, eight years after the 2013 iteration, which indicated that Jews of color now make up eight percent of the American Jewish community—much less than the 12 to 15 percent estimates that Sheskin and Dashevsky had been castigated for questioning. I interviewed Sheskin about the new data—the first time he spoke on the record since the fiasco. “The eight percent [figure] is about what we would expect given the six percent [figure from eight] years ago,” he told me. He and Dashevsky were vindicated. But to my knowledge, no one ever apologized to them for falsely impugning their work and damaging their reputations.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020 raised the stakes further for anyone in the Jewish community whose work was connected to race and community relations. A week after Floyd’s murder, eJewish Philanthropy published an opinion piece I’d submitted a few weeks earlier, in which I wondered whether Jewish organizations still needed physical office space, given the ease with which people worked from home during the pandemic.

One might think that this had little to do with the culture wars. But in the comments, a Reconstructionist rabbi accused me of acting out of “privilege” because I had not acknowledged that some people might lack personal space to work from home. A highly influential professional leader chimed in on Facebook: “Having spaces at home to work is a luxury not a lot of people have. Workspaces out of the home are a psychological necessity for a lot of people.” I responded, “There’s an equally compelling case for not requiring people to spend hours a day in transit.” Another high-profile Jewish professional known for his progressive politics warned me via text: “You wouldn’t want people to think that you’ve lost track of your leadership responsibilities during times of strife and during COVID.”

“Fine,” I thought to myself. “Keep your fucking corner offices with the big windows and city views—if that’s what social justice demands.”

A colleague of mine who worked for a Jewish organization told me of the blowback he experienced in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing: “We issued a very strong public statement … We said all the right things and specifically cited the role of systemic racism. But I’ve been getting incredible flack because we didn’t involve a Jew of color in the drafting of the statement.”

In the summer of 2020, I organized a meeting on racial justice with leaders in the Jewish community. One of those present was a former colleague—let’s call him Jeremy—who’d unknowingly stepped on a landmine while inquiring about the number of Jews of color in the United States. (This was before the 2021 Pew data had vindicated the skeptics.) When Jeremy innocently asked about the actual data, one of the higher-status Jewish leaders in his group angrily called him out. “We are not discussing this,” he insisted. No one—including me, I am ashamed to say—came to his defense.

Later that week, I heard from another meeting participant that several participants in the meeting had accused Jeremy of making “inappropriate” and “racist” remarks—by which they meant his reference to statistics on Jews of color. I continued to stay mute, fearing that speaking up would compromise my position in the group. I called up Jeremy later that day—a private act of consolation, by then a familiar ritual for me. “Sorry you had to go through that,” I said. But we both knew that being “sorry” doesn’t mean much if you don’t say anything publicly.

Shortly thereafter, the JCPA pulled together a Zoom meeting for a coalition called Jews for Criminal Justice Reform, which included top Jewish criminal-justice activists from around the country. After an inspiring talk by Paul Fishman—a former federal attorney from New Jersey—on the need to end mass incarceration, we broke up into smaller groups to discuss next steps. A lawyer named Jared, the group facilitator for my breakout session, asked, “What do you all think our criminal justice reform priorities ought to be?” Ariella, a young professional staffer from a Jewish civil-rights organization, interjected, “Before we talk about strategy, there’s a lot of internal work we have to do in the Jewish community. We need to recognize our complicity in white supremacy and ensure we have black Jews at the forefront of these efforts.”

More and more, that’s how it is now: a young staff person holding the work process hostage until we recite some prescribed litany of woke pieties. What, pray tell, did Ariella think all this self-reflection would do to help black people get out of being jailed for low-level drug charges? I suspect she didn’t have a clue. And as things turned out, our breakout session never discussed a single criminal justice reform measure.

Woke discourse also hurts policy advocacy work by cutting out political moderates who can help pass legislation. In 2018, the JCPA hired Roy, a formerly incarcerated black man, to direct and inspire action on criminal justice reform. Roy often quoted Michelle Alexander, author of the celebrated book The New Jim Crow: “Mass incarceration is designed to warehouse a population deemed disposable.” Under this view, mass incarceration is not the accidental outgrowth of bad policy from the crime scare of the early 1990s, but an intentional effort to oppress and “warehouse” black people.

Like Alexander herself, Roy presented these perspectives on the justice system as facts, leaving little room for disagreement, and alienating political moderates who might otherwise get involved in criminal justice reform. A few people asked me whether Roy could tone it down, pointing out that moderates may criticize the justice system and agree that it needs reform, but they aren’t likely to go along with this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric. By then, however, Roy’s approach was entrenched.

On a visit to Nashville around this time, I gave a presentation to a local criminal-justice coalition. I asked the attendees directly: “Can people who agree that there are major problems with the criminal-justice system but disagree that America is a white supremacist country have a place at the coalition table?” The answer from the activists was a resounding no. Every single activist said they considered such a profession of belief to be de rigueur. But if the primary goal of the coalition was to reform the system, why should members care a whit about what any other member thought about white supremacy, so long as that person was willing to help advance the shared cause? The activists had become more fixated on their own ideological litmus tests than addressing real world problems.

Two years ago, a leading figure among Jews of color told my colleagues and me that we should stop using the term “black-Jewish relations” because it suggests a false binary, that being Jewish means not being black. “What should we call this work then,” I asked? “That’s for you to figure out,” she said.

This kind of focus on esoteric word games has become the stuff of endless debate—so much so that we now didn’t even have the basic vocabulary to discuss the real-world problems we were all devoted to addressing. It all felt like a woke Tower of Babble—with the people building it constantly insisting that they’re doing God’s work.

Adapted, with permission, from Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, by David Bernstein.

Building a Progressive Tower of Babel

An American Jewish community leader describes how puritanical ideologues are co-opting charitable organizations and activist groups.
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