Why the woke left has failed the Jews
By: Ilan Preskovsky
Though it’s undoubtedly true that the most violent, blatant, and vitriolic antisemitic attacks come from those on the far right of the political spectrum, the recent meteoric surge in antisemitism is very much also the responsibility of those on the far left. The difference between the two extremes, though, is that while right-wing extremism – be it a neo-Nazi rally or a militant Islamist terrorist attack – tends to be proud of its undisguised Jew-hatred, left-wing antisemitism is much, much more duplicitous. It is so duplicitous, in fact, that otherwise entirely “tolerant” people often fall into its trap without even realising it.
Say what you want about Nazis, Klan members, or the Iranian government, at least we know where we stand with them. They hate us and want to kill us. There’s not much room for ambiguity there.
To understand the current form of left-wing antisemitism, on the other hand, is to untangle a web of shifting trends, changing ideologies, and confused and confusing motivations. Part of it does, undeniably, have to do with the State of Israel and the seemingly endless conflict with the Palestinians and much of the Arab world, but it has far more scope and is much more complicated even than that particularly slippery can of worms. It’s also not anything as cut and dry as classic, Soviet-era leftism whose economic-based antisemitism was no harder to identify than the racial or religion-based antisemitism of their counterparts on the right.
So, with all this in mind, what actually is modern left-wing antisemitism and why is it so tricky to pin down? To even begin answering that, we need to understand the current battle within the left itself.
Wokeism vs Liberalism
Traditionally, when people spoke of “left wing” politics, they talked about workers’ rights on the one hand and liberalism on the other. In the case of the former, this manifested positively in the form of the various social programmes – the kind that can be found in any halfway operable democracy – that are meant to protect the more vulnerable members of society, including the implementation of various measures to ensure that workers aren’t exploited by their employers. Negatively, of course, it comes in the form of totalitarian communism.
Social liberalism, meanwhile, simply represents some of the greatest ideals ever formulated by mankind: that all people, regardless of class, race, gender, or creed, should be able to live side-by-side as equals in a free and open society. Perhaps no one has summarised the ideals of social liberalism better than Martin Luthor King Jr when he said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
With its roots in both the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th Century and in the most enlightened aspects of religion – all of mankind being created in the image of G-d, being particularly relevant here – liberalism is the reason why previously marginalised groups are now able to live as free and equal citizens in countries like the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and, yes, here in South Africa. Jews, in particular, owe a special hakarat hatov, a debt of gratitude, towards a philosophical, political, and social movement that has resulted in Jews today enjoying the same rights and status as their non-Jewish neighbours in non-Jewish countries for the first time in our history.
Not that antisemitism or other forms of bigotry no longer exist, of course, and the rise of Hitler shows exactly how fragile liberal democracies can be, but it’s unquestionably true that you are far better off to be born a woman, a black person, a Jew, or any other sort of “minority” in the post-Holocaust West over the past fifty years than in just about any other place in any other time in history.
It is beyond concerning, then, that in recent years, liberalism has come under attack not from the Right (though obviously still plenty from the Right), but from an offspring of liberalism that is so focused on redressing the sins of the past – and yes, some of the sins of the present – that it has become the antithesis of Reverend King’s wish for a world where the content of one’s character matters more than the colour of one’s skin. It has also shifted the focus of progress away from economic equality towards identity politics, as well as the power hierarchies and so-called political correctness that have resulted from it.
This new movement is known as “wokeism” or “woke culture” and it is not something to be taken lightly. It’s not for nothing that it has been heavily criticised by even such liberal, traditionally left-wing darlings as Stephen Fry, George Carlin (back when it was simply called “political correctness”), and President Barack Obama.
And more even than the murky divide between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, it is wokeism that has allowed antisemitism to fester in the New Left.
The Path to Hell…
Behind the woke ideology are clearly noble ideals to do with correcting the sins of the past – racism, sexism, religious bigotry, colonialism, slavery – but both the methods with which it hopes to achieve such aims and the ideological ramifications of these methods are nothing short of catastrophic. Most simply, the purveyors of wokeness failed to listen to their mothers when they were told that two wrongs don’t, in fact, make a right.
The practical examples of this are, sadly, myriad, and they have been laid out with great eloquence by the likes of journalist Bari Weiss and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, among many others, but for our purposes, the real sin of wokeness is that it has divided all people into two categories: the persecuted and the persecutors; the victims and the victimisers.
It has created a hierarchy not just of power but of victimisation with white, straight, “cis-gendered” men being at the top of this “victimisation pyramid” (therefore the ultimate victimisers) with black women being located somewhere around the bottom (therefore the ultimate victims). Each of these categories are weighted accordingly to determine whether, say, being black makes one more of a victim than being a woman, and what collection of traits score higher on the “victim pyramid” than others. This is called intersectionality and it is every bit as stupid as it sounds.
This new illiberal or even anti-liberal left has completely betrayed the most fundamental rule of liberalism: that all people, regardless of their ethnicity, race, class, gender, or other group identity, are individuals who share a common humanity that transcends all their differences. The woke left, on the other hand, refuses to see common humanity or individuality but acknowledges only group identities based purely on historic levels of persecution.
Worse, they have labelled all of humanity with two of the most dysfunctional labels imaginable: “victim” and “victimiser”. The latter is damaging for obvious reasons, but the former is no less so as it enforces a victim mentality rather than empowerment in those who need it most. Ask any Holocaust survivor or psychologist worth their salt just how damaging such a mentality is.
Unsurprisingly, wokeism also has a particularly strained relationship with former victims who, at least as a group, empower themselves. And this is where antisemitism becomes such a huge problem for the woke left.
Those We Leave Behind
Though it is certainly true that there are those on the left who are clear antisemites that hide behind the more respectable veneer of anti-Zionism to brazenly attack Jews, the real reason to be concerned about left-wing antisemitism has a lot less to do with such individuals than with those on the Left who aren’t themselves antisemitic but who are entirely blind to the antisemitism in their own ranks and, worse, to any kind of antisemitism that troubles their carefully constructed hierarchy of victimhood.
Again, yes, anti-Zionism does cloud the waters as the lines between criticism of Israeli policies and denial of the Jews’ right to self-determination and a state of our own in our historic homeland are less obvious than some hard-liners on both sides may suggest – and that’s not even taking into account those rarer anti-Zionists who are uniform in their rejection of any state being defined by a single ethnicity – but even this is inexorably mixed with woke ideology.
British comedian and author, David Badiel, who, as a proudly progressive, atheistic, secular, un- (rather than anti-) Zionistic, cultural Jew, wrote a thoroughly excellent book recently on exactly why his fellow “progressives” have abandoned the Jews in their woke quest to stand behind the “previously disadvantaged”. The book, called Jews Don’t Count, is a passionate, funny, polemical piece that looks at how Jews are the one minority that the woke left seems completely disinterested in standing up for – even in some of its silliest obsessions.
Badiel, who clearly falls more on the side of liberalism than wokeism, may, for example, not put too much stock in the new brand of political correctness that calls for characters in films and TV to be portrayed by actors of the same race, gender, sexual persuasion, etc, but it has not escaped his notice how this seems to be the case with everyone except Jews – who, apparently, can be and are portrayed by just about anyone. It’s a trivial case among many, often far more serious offences, but the conclusions are always the same.
In a new paradigm that places a premium on being offended at even the slightest of slights, the Jews stand alone as the one minority undeserving of such considerations. Unless we’re being violently attacked by blatant white supremacists, Jews, very simply, don’t really matter. Which would be fine if the worst that we had to put up with was being played on-screen by fantastically talented gentile actors and actresses. But, of course, it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
Badiel quite rightly sees this trend as the result of an ideology that views all of humanity in terms of power. Jews have been persecuted in the past, sure, but because most Jews in the US and the UK -the epicentres of wokeism – tend to be able to pass as “white” and have generally achieved plenty of success across multiple fields, the woke left just don’t know what to do with us. Despite being persecuted for millennia in countries across the world and having six million of our own murdered in cold blood less than a century ago, we seem to fall squarely in the middle of the victim hierarchy.
And if you don’t think Israel fits into that equation, especially in its relation to its Palestinian neighbours, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.
Jewish Lives Matter?
Jews Don’t Count is truly well worth a read (as long as you don’t mind some nicely implemented profanity), but despite being published in February of this year, it is already badly outdated. In large part this comes from Badiel’s one major blind spot: Israel. There is a clear attempt in the book to look at the phenomenon of left-wing antisemitism divorced from the messy politics of anti-Zionism (as someone who doesn’t factor Israel much into his Jewish identity, he leaves this for others who are more invested and better informed to tackle), but attitudes towards Israel by the New Left are a macrocosm of their ambiguity, if not outright antipathy, towards Jews as individuals.
Not long after the publication of the book, yet another war broke out between Israel and Hamas and though the war itself was largely par-for-the-course (more effective weaponry on Hamas’ side notwithstanding), reactions to it certainly weren’t. Not only did more infighting than usual break out between Jews and Arabs in Israel itself during the conflict, something happened on an international level that was even more worrying: Israel was seen not as a country defending itself from those whose stated purpose is the destruction of the Jewish state and the murder of countless Jews, but as blood-thirsty murderers with an intent on killing as many innocent Palestinian children as possible. This, inevitably, resulted in a huge up-tick in antisemitic attacks, even in the two biggest hubs of American Jewry: New York City and Los Angeles.
Tragic and disturbing as these things are, though, they’re not what is most notable about what happened over those few months. Many anti-Zionists are flagrant antisemites. Who knew? Israel’s public relations are as disastrously bad as ever? No kidding. What’s more worrying isn’t that there were people in anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian rallies crying out “death to the Jews”, but that the response by so many on the hard left to such blatant bigotry was a mixture of total silence and guarded, unenthusiastic, and carefully qualified condemnations.
While those on the centre-left didn’t have much trouble calling out antisemitism where they saw it (both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were clear in their support of Israel’s right to defend itself and in their condemnation of the antisemitism that accompanied the war), the common refrain coming from “progressives” was something along the lines of, get this: “We condemn all acts of antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
Islamophobia? Yes, it’s an inexcusable bigotry in its own right, but what on earth did Islamophobia have to do with a spike in both antisemitic rhetoric and antisemitic attacks? After spending most of a year rightly calling out those who tried to “un-centre” the conversation during the Black Lives Matter protests with calls of “All Lives Matter”, these exact same “progressives” had the audacity to do exactly that to antisemitism!
This was taken to its most absurd extreme a few months later when April Powers, the black, Jewish, and female Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, was forced to resign from her post for not mentioning Islamophobia in a statement she made condemning the rise in antisemitism in the United States. You really can’t make this stuff up.
What appears to have happened is that first, unsurprisingly, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was reframed to be about all Jews and all Muslims (never mind the sizeable minority of Palestinian Arabs who are Christian) and that second, the conflict was rewritten to be about evil white “Jewish” colonisers committing genocide against poor, defenceless, “brown” Muslims. Does one even need to point out just how jaw-droppingly imbecilic this is on every possible level?
This is the woke paradigm exposed for exactly what it is: an un-nuanced, illiberal, fundamentally wrong-headed, and stupendously stupid attempt to categorise people according to past injustices based on their race, gender, or religion. It is why antisemitism espoused by certain black people in America (especially from the grossly antisemitic Nation of Islam) is given a free pass; why the Muslim organisers of the Women’s March are forgiven for their vitriolic hate of “Zionists”; why some of the loonier members of the LGBTQ+ community stand firmly with an Islamist, terrorist government that would kill them at a glance over a liberal democracy that is the State of Israel.
Noble intentions simply aren’t enough. Wokeism is a failed experiment that we can only hope that the more level-headed, genuinely liberal, (decreasing) majority on the left put a stop to before being consumed by a new, potent form of bigotry. As Rabbi Sacks z”l wisely warns: “The hate that begins with the Jews doesn’t end with the Jews.”