Bari Weiss begins her October 14th essay in Tablet by discussing the “recent major outrage” that roiled the American Jewish community on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur. I imagine that many readers shared my surprise to learn that the shockwave to which Weiss refers was not Donald Trump’s announcement of Amy Coney Barrett—who, it turns out, does not believe that municipalities should be held liable for rapes perpetrated by the correctional officers they employ—as his nominee to the Supreme Court to fill Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s empty seat. No, the true outrage was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to skip an event hosted by Mandy Patinkin.
Granted, the event was sponsored by Americans for Peace Now to commemorate and honor the memory of Yitzhak Rabin on the 25th anniversary of his assassination. A vaunted figure of the Zionist Left whose unflinching acceptance of reality and unyielding pursuit of peace made him a visionary Prime Minister, Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish extremist as he was leaving a rally for peace in Tel Aviv. Seeing my father openly weep while we watched Rabin’s funeral on television is one of my earliest memories; his life and his legacy should be honored and elevated as a reminder of all that could still be possible and all the work that remains uncompleted in realizing the aspirations of progressive Zionism.
So, yes, that AOC removed herself from participating in the Peace Now event was a disappointing decision for those of us who wish to see a revitalized Israeli Left bolstered by support from American progressives. Some Jews may never forgive her, but I continue to hope that she exposes herself to a wider range of opinion on these questions and her position evolves as a result.
And, yes, I cannot deny that Israel is a friction point between much of the Jewish establishment and the American Left, as Weiss points out in her essay. And, while I cannot defend the Left’s position, I do relate to it, which is more than I can say of the current government of Israel, frankly, for which I can do neither. This tension lives in the souls of many progressive American Jews, and meaningful conversation about the commitments of the American Jewish Left to our counterparts in Israel and our progressive allies in America is sorely lacking. But I am not qualified to initiate that conversation and it is not why I am here to write about Bari Weiss’s piece in Tablet. (I would note, however, that, contrary to Weiss’s view, it is the Israeli Right, not the American Left, that seeks to turn Zionism into a project of colonialism.)
My real issue here is Weiss’s contention that AOC’s decision somehow heralds the crumbling of a liberal world order rooted in Enlightenment values. With a practiced rhetorical sleight of hand, her essay pivots from AOC and Peace Now to Ibram X. Kendi, anti-racism, and “cancel culture” on the Left without slowing down to explain the causal link between these two areas of argumentation. Humbly, I’d like to remind readers that roughly 400 years ago (around the time that the first enslaved Africans disembarked in Virginia), Galileo Galilei was persecuted, tried, censored, and placed on house arrest by the Catholic Church for his scientific opinions about heliocentrism. Meanwhile, in the past five years astronomers have detected evidence of the existence of gravitational waves; assembled the first ever image of a black hole; and discovered an icy ocean beneath the surface of Europa (a moon of Jupiter first discovered by Galileo in 1610)—at the same time that a growing population of misguided enthusiasts continue to insist the Earth is flat. All this is to say that, despite Weiss’s insistence to the contrary, freedom of speech and Enlightenment intellectual inquiry are alive and well in 2020.
If that does not settle the question, I do not know if anything else I have to say will persuade, but I’d like to turn towards Weiss’s specific attacks on Ibram Kendi and anti-racism. In her piece, Weiss contends that “the more institutions and companies fall prey to [anti-racism], the more lives it will ruin,” and implies that Kendi’s ideas have gained currency from people’s fear of seeming “retrograde and uncool” by rejecting them. Suggesting that Kendi’s argument has accrued cultural capital not by its persuasive power but rather by instilling fear is a limp contention petulantly and fallaciously argued in Weiss’s essay, so I will not spare it more time than it takes to arrive at the end of this sentence.
Instead, I’d like to focus on Weiss’s blurring of description and prescription—common across the punditry spectrum today—in her attempted “takedown” of Kendi’s ideas. By this I mean that Weiss might object to Kendi’s prescription, that is, the project of anti-racism he elucidates in his work; but that doesn’t by necessity negate the existence of the problem he describes—systemic racism in America. If, after reading Kendi, one finds the need for a second opinion, I would hope that it is to inquire about an alternative course of treatment, not an entirely different diagnosis. To be perfectly clear, I do not believe one can enter into a good faith dialogue about Kendi’s prescribed solutions with any person or party that is unwilling or unable to acknowledge the accuracy of the problem pretty much exactly as he and many other scholars describe it. Bemoaning the waning influence of the SATs in the college admissions process, as Weiss does in her piece, makes it clear where she lands on these issues. (For anyone wishing to learn more about the racist and eugenic origins of the SAT, google Carl Brigham or read Joseph A. Soares’ The Power of Privilege.)
As to the evidence of these systemic forces of oppression and subjugation, one need only enroll in a college sociology course on race and ethnicity in America (I recommend the one offered at Northern Virginia Community College) to see the evidence—presented with statistical and analytic rigor—of racially segregated outcomes across broad swathes of American life, from health to housing to education to justice to wealth and income and more. If this is not evidence of a systemic problem, then the onus is on Weiss and those who echo her sentiment, not Ibram Kendi or anyone else, to explain what, instead, it is evidence of.
It takes a certain type of insidiously selective ahistoricism to understand—to feel viscerally—the impact that centuries- and millennia-old events continue to visit on Jews living today, and at the same time deny that events across 400 years of American history continue to impact the lives of today’s Black Americans. Perhaps Weiss is quick to negate the idea of systemic racism because it hasn’t been presented in terms she relates to. My suggestion: when people discuss housing segregation and the forced relocation of indigenous peoples in America, remember European ghettos and the Russian Pale of Settlement. When people discuss lynchings, remember the pogroms. When people discuss the criminalization of black bodies, remember the criminalization of Jewish blood in Nazi Germany. I do not suggest this to be patronizing, I am simply offering up the same path that I and many other American Jews walk as we invest in understanding and combating these deep and abiding American sins.
My great-grandfather fled a second conscription into the Czar’s army to come to America and I know he wasn’t white when he got here, but three generations later I also know that I am. Weiss condemns critical race theory and implies that it is baffled by and unable to account for the conundrum of the Jews. Quite the contrary, the story of Ashkenazic Jews in America is a case study in the demonstrability of many of CTR’s core ideas about the function and constructedness of race in this country.
Certainly when Ashkenazic Jews arrived in America we brought the old baggage of European anti-Semitism with us, and, this being a country founded by Europeans who made themselves White, many Americans familiar with those old bigotries were more than willing to (re)enact them here. But let us not pretend that this somehow excuses us from taking responsibility—as individuals or as a group—for the ways this country functions today: who it enables and empowers to succeed, who it leaves behind, who it forgets, and who it kills.
America today is a contract offered to different groups on different terms. The folks who Weiss demeans on the Left seek to transform that amoral contract and make of it a covenant of equity, liberty and justice for all—the failure to see what Judaism and the Jews might share in common cause with this movement is one of imagination.