authentic discussion

Six questions Jewish organizations should contemplate before taking a stand on racial and critical social justice

Jewish organizations, like many other civic institutions, are embracing what’s sometimes referred to as critical social justice (CSJ), the idea that society is dominated by invisible systems of oppression. Given America’s legacy of racism, the Jewish community’s own failures in welcoming Jews of color, the desire of many Jews to be lockstep with Black leaders, and the perspectives of many young Jews, I understand the temptation to accept at face value this ideological framework.

I have long championed Jewish engagement in racial justice movements. I support criminal justice and police reform and believe that there is racism—some of it systemic–in American society. Nevertheless, I believe that the CSJ ideology that frequently comes packaged with these movements can have a corrupting influence on Jewish organizational values. It often insists on its own absolute inviolability, a hallmark of an illiberal dogma; shuts down discourse; and indoctrinates. Jewish organizations have been holding discussion groups on such books as White Fragility and How to be an Anti-racist as if they are bibles, rather than mere books with ideas that should be wrestled with.

In dealing with sensitive issues of race and racism, numerous Jewish organizations have essentially shut down the normal process of critical consideration because, well, it’s hard, they don’t want to be accused of insensitivity or bigotry, and some people don’t think it’s necessary.
Have you thought through where all this silence and fear in Jewish organizations and communities can lead?

At the very least, Jewish organizations should hold real conversations before accepting ideologies, policies and platforms. Here are six questions Jewish organizations should ask themselves. They are meant to be asked in addition to, and not as a substitution, for a larger discussion on racial injustice.

  1. Do you believe America is a white supremacist society? How does that perspective comport with the previously common understanding of America as a pluralistic democracy that has sometimes failed to live up to its ideals?
  2. Do you believe that non-marginalized communities should be able to opine about race and racism in a way that deviates from CSJ ideology or define racism (known as standpoint theory)? Does such a limitation on discourse affect the ability of people to engage in authentic dialogue or subject their own views and those of others to scrutiny?
  3. Should Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training impart to participants specific perspectives on how people should understand race and racism? Does such training run the risk of alienating people and exacerbating racial tensions? Have you looked at the research about the effectiveness of such training? Have you considered alternative approaches?
  4. Does the new understanding of the concept of “equity”—that all disparities in outcome are ironclad proof of discrimination—make sense to you? What do you make of the fact that many non-white immigrant communities are on average doing better than white people? Do you believe that all disparities can be fully ameliorated in the here and now, as the new equity concept asserts, or over time by making investments in disadvantaged communities?
  5. Do you value viewpoint and ideological diversity? If so, how do you intend to make space for lay leaders and professionals with different points of view moving forward?
  6. Are there ways Jewish organizations can express commitment to a fair, free and just society, consonant with Jewish values, that don’t require us to adopt wholesale CSJ ideology? Is there a third way?

These are just a few questions that might guide an authentic discussion at the community, board and staff levels. Please feel free to reach out to me to discuss.

David Bernstein is a former CEO of Jewish advocacy organizations and is currently a principal of Viewpoint Worldwide, which supports viewpoint diversity in organizational settings. Follow him on twitter @DavidLBernstein.