Rebuild the center
Should the Jewish community challenge progressive ideology or just its portrayal of Jews?
An exchange of views on Jewish advocacy strategy in polarized times with David Bernstein, founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, and Eran Shayshon, CEO of the REUT Group.
In 2010, REUT came out with a groundbreaking report arguing that the Jewish community must build a robust network to oppose the delegitimization of Israel on the left. One of your main recommendations was for Jewish and pro-Israel groups to engage progressive “fence-sitters” who have not made up their minds on the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Like many in the Jewish advocacy arena, I agreed with your analysis and approach and put it into practice. I still think it was the right approach for the time.
In recent years, however, I’ve started to think that the engage progressives strategy should take back seat to a rebuild-the-center strategy, emphasizing building a center-left to center-right coalition of allies in the fight for liberalism and liberal democracy. The reasons for this shift in strategic focus are threefold:
First, progressive politics are more ideologically charged today than they were a decade ago. Most progressives have become so attached to critical race ideologies that many are no longer reachable on Jews and Israel. They have bought into a binary that holds that Israel and Jews are the oppressors and Palestinians are the victims. As the ideological environment has worsened, the influence of the pro-Israel community on the left has precipitously declined.
Second, the price of engaging progressives has gone way up. In order to have any chance of incurring the loyalty of many progressive interlocutors, we often must express support for their ideological predilections and, in doing so, undermine our own values. Moreover, progressive pieties on privilege and power fuel antisemitism. Indeed, REUT very early on named the phenomena of “erasive antisemitism,” which refers to a de facto undermining of Jewish narratives of self-determination in the binary oppressed v. oppressor paradigm. This erasure negates the rights of Jews, who may not wish to identify as part of the “white” dominant class, to define their own identity, experience, and vulnerability.
While identifying erasive antisemitism was a vital insight, it’s not the only form of antisemitism rising from this ideology. We cannot and should not give succor to an ideology that in multiple ways clearly harms us.
Third, engaging progressives carries opportunity costs. We could be using that same time, money and energy building a new coalition spanning the center-left to center-right of the Jewish community that shares our values and will support us in fighting antisemitism on the left as well as the right. That, in my view, is a better expenditure of resources than the progressive engagement approach.
What’s your view on the strategy and approach American Jewish organizations should adopt in light of these ideological challenges?
I agree with your recommended priority of rebuilding-the-center. I’ll add that the fact that Jews are between a rock (antisemitism from the right) and a hard place (antisemitism from the left), also positions Jews uniquely to lead efforts aimed at rebuilding-the-center. A populist resurgence makes the historic role of the Jewish community ever-more crucial. This task, by definition, requires strengthening Jewish communal cohesion, which means that Jewish organizations must proceed carefully in what they say and do in relation to the left so as not to break down the possibility of consensus inside the Jewish community.
What’s more, the current political polarization largely ‘erased’ safe spaces and diminished the ability of diverse Jewish voices to engage in constructive discussions on contested issues and disagreements. A rebuild-the-center movement could provide a safe haven for discussions crucial for a vibrant Jewish community.
Rebuilding-the-center could also serve as a new platform for Jewish renewal among young Jews, whose participation in this conversation is essential. Today, Israel-related antisemitism prevents young Jews from engaging with Israel-related issues. This effort may “smoke out” many within the less engaged, silent Jewish majority.
Where we may differ, if I understand you correctly, is on the emphasis you place on a broad critique of woke ideology. In my view, Jewish organizations and leaders should limit their criticisms and focus on articulating the problems with “Israel and Jewish erasure.” They should avoid broad condemnations of the progressive movement, which would risk turning Jewish erasure from a moral to a political issue. An emphasis on issuing a broad critique of wokeness, however warranted, would prevent numerous Jewish communal organizations from joining into a broader effort to oppose erasive antisemitism. The goal must be to create a large Jewish coalition with the proper framing and language around the challenge.
I also maintain there is still important work to be done in progressive circles that tend to downplay the importance of Jewish erasure, which they see as an attempt to avoid the conversation about Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. If Jewish organizations play their cards right, organizations that erase Jewish identity may pay a social and political price within progressive movements for their refusal to condemn antisemitism. The task of engaging on this issue for Jewish organizations on the left is particularly complex, but the potential return on investment is high: progressive and liberal voices who criticize erasure of Jews may carry much more weight and influence in preventing the discourse from becoming hostile to Jewish interests.
I appreciate your expanding on the potential and importance of the rebuild-the-center strategy. I look forward to working with you in the months ahead to ensure that the concept gets the needed attention in the Jewish world.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the entire Jewish community join me in calling out woke ideology. It would be nice if they did but that’s not remotely realistic. I do think, however, more Jewish leaders should push back against the spread of the ideology in their own organizations and, where possible, raise concerns publicly about its effects. Here a division of labor among organizations is in order, not to mention a little courage among community leaders. Some Jewish organizations on the center and center-left should escalate their concerns about critical race ideologies and others should limit their critique to the dangers of erasive antisemitism. A “diversified portfolio” mitigates risks in Jewish advocacy as well as in financial planning.
I think you underestimate both the dangers of this ideological challenge and the dilemmas inherent to it. The most lethal aspect of critical race ideology for the Jewish community is not, in my opinion, erasive antisemitism, but the attack on enlightenment values. That attack, especially combined with the assault from the extreme right against liberal democracy, portends a grim future for Jews on the American political scene. We can ill-afford to define the challenge too narrowly and just fend for ourselves. The stakes are very high. Even if we are successful in containing erasive antisemitism in the near term, American Jews may yet find ourselves fundamentally alienated from an increasingly illiberal Democratic party and, hence, more generally disenfranchised from American politics.
Moreover, Jewish advocates already face agonizing dilemmas that simply do not allow us to remain neutral on illiberal ideologies. In California, for example, mainstream Jewish groups were divided over whether to try to amend or oppose the state’s “Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum,” which, in its early forms, was both highly ideological and erasive of the Jewish experience. Some Jewish groups fought, somewhat successfully, to include Jewish narratives in the model curriculum, and others opposed the curriculum altogether. I would have once sided with those trying to amend the curriculum but now join with those who oppose it. The Jewish groups that pushed for changes to the curriculum’s portrayal of Jews conceded to and, in effect, validated a highly ideological framework borne in critical race ideology that names the oppressed and oppressors and undercuts critical thinking and debate. That ideological framework itself inflames antisemitism. I thus do not regard the improvement of the way Jews are depicted in the curriculum as a victory but rather as a dangerous precedent and acquiescence. This case shows that there’s simply no ducking the excruciating dichotomy of either supporting or opposing such ideology.
Lastly, the coalition fighting against the imposition of ideology and for liberal, democratic values is gaining ground by the day. There are just too many people who do not want to live in either a leftwing or rightwing dystopia. If the Jewish community focuses exclusively on how illiberalism affects Jews in the narrowest sense, I am afraid that we will be sidelined in the pursuit to safeguard the liberal project. My recommended strategic approach, which I think should become the majoritarian stance of the mainstream Jewish community, is thus not to attack woke ideology per se, but to position ourselves squarely on the side of liberal forces and to shape those forces as much as possible. And that, I am afraid to say, will sometimes require us to explicitly oppose the ideology.
I very much appreciate your response, and I think this discourse is important as it touches upon several points crucial to Jewish life in America today and Israel’s status in the U.S. I am too looking forward to working together to Rebuild-the-center and join forces, at least on those parts of your work that challenge Israel and Jewish erasure.
I am NOT going to refute the points you have raised, and NOT ONLY because I find myself in agreement with most of them. I guess we differ in our thinking about the most effective strategy against the challenge, which we may also articulate in different ways.
Naturally, there is a link between progressive discourse as a whole and the Jewish-Israeli erasure in progressive discourse. But the differences in defining the challenge have significant consequences on the chances of success and of our capacity to harness the energies of the Jewish community as a whole. Whether we like it or not, taking on the progressive movement is politically fraught and bitterly divisive in the Jewish community.
While the struggle you articulate may be morally worthy, I don’t see how you can build a Jewish center around it or how Jewish communal organizations will be able to join forces if they perceive it as intrinsically political.
I suggest instead adopting a Jewish agenda to confront the challenge, and not a ‘collaterally-Jewish agenda,’ because this is the most effective way to fight the disturbing aspect of erasure in progressive discourse. Such an agenda will allow the Jewish establishment to break the political quagmire and act. Moreover, focusing on Jewish-Israeli erasure “speaks” the language of identity politics and can be an issue around which broad coalitions are built that include liberal and maybe even progressive Jewish organizations.
Like you, I believe the Jewish struggle against the challenges emanating from progressive groups requires rebooting Jewish politics and focusing on rebuilding a center. However, in my eyes, building a Jewish center is not necessarily a political act, but more of a societal act that allows Jews to regain the ability to engage in civil discourse inclusive of politically diverse Jewish voices. This will increase the prospects for collaboration and pursuing collective Jewish action on various issues, including on Israel-Jewish erasure. Rebuilding such a center is also an opportunity to promote a reexamination of collective Jewish identity and to strengthen the perception that Jews in Israel and the US constitute a single people. Focusing only on the ‘erasure’ threat is much better aligned with the scope of such an agenda.
Finally, the current political discourse around “woke” culture in the US is part of an ideologically-charged political, social and economic paradigm clash. The nature of these debates is such that it could take generations to play out and is unlikely to end in a definite victory for either side. Entering the paradigm clash on one side will only accelerate the erosion of both Jewish identity and communal cohesion. It would be a Jewish Vietnam-style quagmire. On the other hand, effectively and systematically challenging Israel-Jewish erasure will require the mobilization of only several dozen organizations with a shared understanding of the threat. This constitutes an ambitious but achievable goal.
David Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. Eran Shayshon is CEO of the REUT Group, an Israeli think tank. Follow David on Twitter @DavidLBernstein and Eran @EranShayshon