Progressive Jews: Good Judaism Gone Bad
"There's a lot about our experience that people aren’t aware of. We have an amazing story and we should learn it."
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In the wake of October 7th, when Palestinian terrorists brutally massacred and kidnapped a thousand-plus people in Israel, many Jews (including me) said they were shocked to discover that many of their ideological allies saw Israelis (i.e. Jews) as oppressors who deserved blame for these attacks.
Some of these “ideological allies” were Jews themselves, who are being used by overly progressive groups to bolster their anti-Israel (and, really, antisemitic) propaganda.
One Jewish writer, Dylan Saba, openly celebrated the attack shortly after it began, writing:
“Glory to the resistance and the people of Palestine. Though I fear for my family in Gaza and am already mourning the dead, l could not be more proud of my people who continue to demonstrate unthinkable bravery in their struggle for liberation.”1
Rivkah Brown, a journalist for the UK’s Novara Media, posted on X that the assault should mark “a day of celebration for supporters of democracy and human rights worldwide, as the people of Gaza break out of their open-air prison.”2
The New York City Democratic Socialists of America promoted a rally expressing “solidarity with the Palestinian people and their right to resist 75 years of occupation and apartheid.”
In the immediate wake of the massacre, some left-wing Jewish organizations levied fault at Israel. IfNotNow said of the murdered Israelis that “their blood is on the hands of the Israeli government, the U.S. government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression.”
Jewish Voice for Peace acknowledged the “unprecedented assault” and the hundreds of Israeli casualties in an October 7th statement that did not mention Palestinian terrorism.
“Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression — are the source of all this violence,” the statement said. “Inevitably, oppressed people everywhere will seek — and gain — their freedom.”
Other groups tried to find a “middle ground,” such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice which said, “We recognize that attacks on civilians by Hamas are neither justifiable nor unprovoked.”
Jewish Voice for Peace spokesperson Sonya Meyerson-Knox said the group felt it was caught in a precarious position: fearing that public expressions of grief for Israeli civilians would fuel a harsher military response against Gaza.
“We were feeling the incredible pressure of needing to say something that we hope addresses both our fear and our grief and our sorrow and our anger, and that doesn’t allow any of that to be used as fodder for the Israeli government and the United States government warmongering,” she said. “Many of us are feeling compelled to process our grief through a hard pivot to a prevention of a scale of death that is utterly inconceivable.”
“People are afraid that there’s going to be a Palestinian genocide,” Meyerson-Knox added. “We have never seen Israeli casualties, at least in one event, that exceeded Palestinian casualties,” she said, stressing that she still believed the conflict is rooted in Israel’s occupation despite the death toll.
Okay, enough already. Enough of these progressive Jews’ hollow buzzwords that are meant to grab people’s attention and make these folks appear intelligent — but are words that have no basis in fact, truth, and reality. I’m talking about buzzwords like “open-air prison,” “apartheid,” “occupation,” and “oppression.”
Enough of the virtue signaling by the progressive Jews who claim to be so in favor of women’s rights — so much so that, starting in the 1990s, we finally began to see violence against women as a particular category of war crime. Organizations like UN Women were created to protect women from such crimes, which Israeli experts and activists have been involved in, yet these organizations and others displayed an inconceivable and unforgivable silence when faced with the rape and murder of Israeli women on October 7th.
“It is not that condemnations of gender-based violence by Hamas have been weak or insufficient,” wrote Michal Herzog, Israel’s First Lady. “There have been none at all. Statement after statement by organizations like UN Women, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have failed to condemn these crimes. They failed us, and all women, at this critical moment.”3
Enough of the progressive Jews who purport to be unequivocal human rights defenders, yet who don’t realize that their calls for an immediate ceasefire would put nine million Israeli lives at tremendous risk, while threatening to upend millions of more lives across the Middle East.
Enough of the progressive Jews who forget that Palestinian terrorists broke a ceasefire on October 7th when they attacked Israel in the most sadistic, barbaric ways the modern world has ever seen. Now they want a ceasefire? That’s not how it works.
Enough of the progressive Jews who are throwing around accusations of “Israeli war crimes” — as if war is suddenly supposed to be kind, gentle, and pleasant. I don’t think most of us in Israel are advocating for indiscriminately killing civilians (the way Palestinian terror groups do business). But c’mon now, war is war. You don’t get to butcher our people and then lecture us about “proportionality” and “restraint” when we respond.
Enough of the progressive Jews who are trying to explain that the use of “from the river to the sea” is suddenly a peaceful proclamation of liberation, as if the rest of us are too stupid to realize that this saying has historically meant the removal of Jews and the Jewish state from our indigenous homeland in the land of Israel.
Enough of the progressive Jews who claim that Zionism is colonization, when it is in fact the world’s great decolonization project.
Enough of the progressive Jews who now seem afraid that Gaza will be occupied by Israel, and who were already saying that Gaza was occupied by Israel. Which one is it, exactly?
Enough of the progressive Jews who use the argument that more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis, as if this is proper calculus to determine who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” in this conflict. Shall we remind them that more Russians than Ukrainians have been killed, and more Germans were killed than Americans during World War II?
Enough of the progressive Jews who get so fired up about Palestinian deaths, yet who don’t say a word about death and destruction in other places across the world, such as in 2017, when the Kurds and coalition forces bombed Mosul, Iraq to destroy ISIS — killing more than 9,000 civilians in one battle.
Enough of the progressive Jews who, in the name of “freedom of speech,” are utterly silent about chants like “Gas the Jews!” and other blatantly antisemitic calls to action.
Enough of the progressive Jews who claim that “most Muslims are peaceful” even as exponentially more Muslims become radicalized, a process that encourages Muslims to kill Jews and carry out acts of terror.
I get it, though, most Muslims are probably peaceful, but that’s not the point. If there are one billion Muslims in the world, and let’s say 90-percent of them are peaceful, that means 100 million Muslims want to unleash indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam. This isn’t an exaggeration, or paranoia. This is math.
Enough of the progressive Jews who ridicule other Jews for referencing the Holocaust during this unprecedented surge in global antisemitism since the end of World War II. Did they forget that the Holocaust happened because of Jew-hating propaganda?
And, most importantly, enough of the progressive Jews who have perverted Judaism and Jewish history to fit their extreme and narrow-minded worldviews. Sure, their “wokeness” has made us alert to systemic injustice, while also being an aggressive, performative take on progressive politics that only makes things worse.
“Excellent sheephood, like wokeness, is a species of conformity,” according to William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep. “But wokeness also serves a deeper psychic purpose. Excellent sheephood is inherently competitive. Its purpose is to vault you into the ranks of society’s winners, to make sure that you end up with more stuff — more wealth, status, power, access, comfort, freedom — than most other people.”
“This is not a pretty project, when you look it in the face,” Deresiewicz continued. “Wokeness functions as an alibi, a moral fig leaf. If you can tell yourself that you are really doing it to ‘make the world a better place’ … then the whole thing goes down a lot easier.”
Is this why it seems like, every week, new non-negotiable “woke” demands surface? What was treated as insignificant yesterday may suddenly cause outrage and ostracism tomorrow? The package of progressive ideas continues to grow like wildflowers, and the language morphs regularly.
And then there’s the new thinking about race and power, which singles out Israel as a despicable human-rights offender and distorts the complex history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
For many of these progressives, intersectionality means that other countries’ history of racial inequality is projected onto the standoff between Israelis and Palestinians, preposterously defining Israelis as white supremacists and Palestinians as non-white victims.
What’s more, the growing number of mandatory programs supposedly promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion pose their own set of challenges. Apparently, only certain minorities are worthy of protection, among them Jews are not. On the contrary, Jews are automatically defined as part of the white oppressor class.
A century ago, antisemites tried denying entry by Jewish immigrants to the United States, claiming the latter lacked superior characteristics of Northern Europeans who had populated the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, Jews face discrimination because they allegedly are co-conspirators with white supremacists, or are simply part of the undifferentiated mass of whites, the so-called oppressor class. Oh, the irony!
Some progressive Jews are so outspoken in their sympathy for “woke” ideologies, citing their worldview through a “Jewish lens” and “Jewish values” as their impetus, such as social justice, love and compassion, and tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) — the idea that Jews are called upon to make the world more just, peaceful, tolerant, and equal through acts of charity, kindness, and political action.
“The term tikkun olam has had numerous lives, such that its endurance and malleability over time are truly impressive,” wrote Levi Cooper, a Jewish teacher, author, and community leader.
To realize just how distorted some progressive Jews have made tikkun olam, let’s look at its history: In its earliest manifestation, tikkun olam appeared in the Oral Torah, where it describes adjustments to improve a range of laws, from marriage and divorce, to inheritance and personal status. In this context, tikkun olam reflects the improved state of those who are subject to these laws.
What’s more, the Jewish prayer “Aleinu” looks forward to a future time “when the world will be perfected (letaken olam) under the sovereignty of the Almighty, when all humanity will call on Your name, and the earth’s wicked will all turn to You.” This hope reflects a deep human yearning for a perfect world absent of pain and suffering. It is a prayer of eschatology (relating to death or final judgment), not a prescription for practical action.
More recently, tikkun olam has “become a banner for almost any laudable value, including energy conservation, recycling, government healthcare packages, the fight against terrorism, better nutrition, looking after stray animals, and the list goes on,” Cooper wrote.
Even then, I don’t think anyone sees anything wrong with emphasizing certain aspects of Judaism, but there’s a clear difference between intense emphasis and outright reductionism. Charity, for example, is probably a universal value, but tzedakah adds uniquely Jewish notions to it, like the Maimonidean hierarchy of how to give.
Rest from work is a universal desire, but Sundays don’t have Shabbat’s unique restrictions and rituals that keep more observant communities undistracted and physically close together.
So too we must differentiate between social justice and tikkun olam, or we’ll get lost in the temptation of reducing Judaism to our favorite sociopolitical ideas, as many progressive Jews have done.
“Tikkun olam is an important aspect of Judaism, but it’s not Judaism,” wrote Andrés Spokoiny, the president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network. “Any attempt to reduce Judaism to one of its components is problematic, and ultimately self-defeating.”
“It’s true that over centuries, there’s been such a thing as a mainstream, and certain values have been consistently more prominent than others,” Spokoiny added. “But confronting the parts of Judaism that don’t sit well with our political and social ideas is part of having an adult relationship with our tradition.”
One report found that 72-percent of young Jewish adults are indeed engaging in volunteer activity (a typical byproduct of tikkun olam), but most are not doing it through Jewish organizations or targeting Jewish causes. The vast majority said it does not matter if they volunteer with a Jewish or non-Jewish organization, and they are primarily drawn to service through universal rather than Jewish-based values or identity.
Progressives, in general, tend to view this “universalistic ideal” as superior to particularism (i.e. Judaism), which they treat as outdated and even corrupt. They hold this omnipresent belief that the ideal self is a human being among human beings, a citizen of the world, and so forth — regardless of the contexts they are located.
The historical roots of the “universalistic ideal” can be traced back to the rise of industries in the late 19th century, before which a culture of particularism dominated, and after which a perfect storm of big business, urbanization, and mass immigration changed Western societies — including who we are, whom we admire, how we act, what we look for in friends and acquaintances, and how we court our mates and raise our children.
While particularism searches for what is different, unique, or exceptional to create something that is incomparable or of special quality, universalism searches for what is systematic and tries to impose the rules, laws, and norms on all of its “members” so that things can run more efficiently.
However, what many progressives don’t realize is that universalists are actually particularistic. The rules, laws, and norms that one thinks should be imposed on a certain group of people are not necessarily the same as those that others prefer, inherently making each person or group’s desired impositions particularistic.
“Truth on earth is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth,” the late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said. “It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true and the other is false. It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality.”
Hence why particularism is not the concept of one truth, one belief system, one code of morals and ethics, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. The supreme challenge, according to Rabbi Sacks, is to see the goodness in one who is not in our image, “the converse of tribalism.”
For example, the Torah articulates the obligation to love the stranger 36 times, far more than it does the obligation to keep kosher or observe Shabbat. And our tradition teaches that “anyone who destroys a single life is considered … to have destroyed a world, and anyone who saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world.”
According to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Judaism features a “multiplicity of perspectives” and “real-world wrestling with human complexity and imperfection.”4
“The Jewish worldview enables us to reject simplemindedness and silver bullets,” Rabbi Greenberg added. “It embraces incrementalism over radicalism, even in striving toward revolutionary goals. Judaism’s approach acknowledges the complexities of human existence. It puts forward flawed people as role models, rather than impossible ideals.”
“Judaism combines a liberal, utopian, universal vision of completely transforming the planet with a conservative, realistic, particularist method of transformation,” he continued. “The interplay between these elements advances revolutionary ideals while preventing runaway excesses or socially destructive overreach. Typically, this leads to gradualist, incrementalist steps toward ultimate perfection.”
As the famed Talmudist Rabbi Israel Salanter said: “To live up to the Torah’s ideals, maximally, one must develop every human capacity and insight — and its opposite.”
Rabbi Ken Spiro, author of WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization, asserts that Jews are “history’s most universal particularists,” saying:
“The Jewish People have always pushed a universal worldview, an idea of the whole human race united. We are particularists in that the Jewish People are supposed to do this, not at the expense of their identity, but by preserving their Jewish identity as a role model.”5
Hence why Jews were “woke” thousands of years before the term caught the progressive world by storm. We were discontent with polytheism, so we created monotheism. We were discontent with boundless labor, so we created the Sabbath.
We were discontent with being slaves in Egypt, so we went back to our homeland in ancient Israel. We were discontent with centuries of Jewish persecution and discrimination across the world, so we returned to our indigenous homeland to found the State of Israel.
“I’ve realized that just because you’re Jewish, that doesn’t mean you necessarily understand or know aspects of our experience as a people,” said Ben Freeman, a Jewish educator and author. “We’re taught about the Holocaust, we’re taught about pogroms, but there’s a lot about our experience that people aren’t aware of. We have an amazing story and we should learn it.”
Dylan Saba on X (Twitter)
“US Jewish progressives are grappling with how to respond to Hamas’ terror onslaught.” The Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-jewish-progressives-are-grappling-with-how-to-respond-to-hamas-terror-onslaught.
“The Silence From International Bodies Over Hamas' Mass Rapes Is a Betrayal of All Women | Opinion.” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/silence-international-bodies-over-hamas-mass-rapes-betrayal-all-women-opinion-1845783.
Greenberg, Yitz. “Judaism and the Politics of Tikkun Olam.” Sapir. Spring 2001, https://sapirjournal.org/social-justice/2021/04/judaism-and-the-politics-of-tikkun-olam.
“Universalism vs Particularism - a Jewish View.” J-TV. March 1, 2019, YouTube.