The Jewishness of Wokeness
Could it be that Jews were the modern age's first "woke" people, more than 3,000 years before the phrase "stay woke" emerged in African-American vernacular?
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A set of assumptions about how society should reform itself — more vaguely known as being “woke” or “wokeness” — has emerged and captured the imagination of many in the news media, the entertainment industry, and even corporate leadership.
“Woke” is an adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” that originated in African-American culture. Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for identity politics and social justice, including the notion of white privilege.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote:
“To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”1
Aja Romano, an internet culture reporter at Vox, contended that the concept of being woke is a “double-edged sword” which can “alert people to systemic injustice” while also being “an aggressive, performative take on progressive politics that only makes things worse.”2
Mainly associated with the millennial generation, the term spread internationally and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017. Every week, it seems, new nonnegotiable “woke” demands surface; and what was treated as insignificant yesterday may suddenly cause outrage and ostracism tomorrow. To add insult to injury, the package of progressive ideas continues to grow like wildflowers and the language morphs regularly.
These changes often involve discarding a remedial mindset in favor of a prosecutorial one. Instead of solving problems, “woke” ideologists tend to identify and berate villains, seldom offering S.M.A.R.T. solutions.
“To be more precise, the new dispensation holds that social problems cannot be understood as bad things that somehow happened, or bad conditions that obtain due to misunderstandings or unavoidable complexities,” wrote William Voegeli, a senior editor at the Claremont Review of Books. “Rather, specific problems resulting from specific sins of commission and omission cannot be solved unless those sinners are identified, then forced to atone and change their ways.”3
Jews and the ‘Woke’ Movement
At best, the “woke” movement and its affiliates (e.g. “cancel culture”) feel like the antithesis of Judaism — of what it means to be and do Jewish. The Judaism that I am aware of advocates for, in more or less words: identifying problems, determining solutions, and implementing them to improve whatever exists.
“The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction,” the late, great Israeli statesman Shimon Peres said. “We’re a nation born to be discontented.”
Isn’t this the Jewish story in a nutshell? 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 left for ancient Israel. We were discontent with incessant persecution and discrimination across the world, so we founded the State of Israel.
Why, then, has the “woke” movement — often described as progressive (in contrast to liberal) — found so many supporters among Jews and Jewish influentials?
According to Samuel J. Abrams (Professor of Politics at Sarah Lawrence College) and Jack Wertheimer (Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary), one reason for “woke” acquiescence by Jews is that contemporary culture “sorts people based on their ideological positions. Political sorting, which is often confused with polarization, is a fairly new phenomenon but nevertheless occurs when ideological and attitudinal positions no longer vary but are expected to align to particular liberal or conservative attitudes.”4
The result today is that liberals are more uniformly left-leaning and conservatives are more uniformly right-leaning than they were decades ago. Both the left and the right promote packages of ideas and attitudes that must be adopted wholesale, or else…
“Today, dissent and divergence become almost impossible if one is to avoid adverse social consequence,” Abrams and Wertheimer wrote, “and possibly real professional ramifications as well.”
In social science, this is known as “normative social influence” — by which people conform to fit in with a group because they don’t want to appear foolish or be left out. It is usually associated with compliance, where a person changes their public behavior but not their private beliefs, which explains why survey research reveals that people habitually self-censor and regularly silence themselves, and “cancel culture” (a proverbial child of “wokeness”) is despised by the populace as a whole, despite seemingly being omnipresent in academia, media, and workplaces.
The situation is even more callous on college campuses, where we know antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments have startlingly gained steam. In the largest and most comprehensive study of student attitudes toward speech to date, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that viewpoint diversity is under attack and students regularly censor themselves out of fear of retaliation if they express their actual views: Sixty-percent of students reported that they could not express an opinion because of how their fellow students, a professor, or school administrator would respond.5
And students who belong to a religious denomination (63-percent) are more likely to limit their expression compared with atheists, agnostics, and those who say that have no religion. Students who have a faith of some sort are also less likely to be open to talking with their professors and peers, or writing op-eds. Perhaps this is why nearly 70-percent of students surveyed by the Alums for Campus Fairness said that they avoid certain places, events, or situations because of their Jewish identity.6
“This is the first time that I’ve seen parents worried — actually worried — about their kids going to college,” said Rabbi Eli Nissel of Dallas, Texas. “They don’t know what to tell the kids: Wear the Star of David necklace or not? Attend the pro-Israel rally or avoid it?”7
Anti-faith and anti-tradition viewpoints are among the most pernicious aspects of “woke” ideology, which takes a rather nihilistic approach to institutions, tradition, and the historical past, and engenders a need some progressives feel to uproot everything that does not align with their current ideologies. The rising number of people who regard faith and religion with contempt is but one symptom of this mindless assault on tradition. Deemed an impediment to advancing the kind of society that progressives seek to create, religion is ridiculed by cultural elites.
This could also explain why many Jews write off or downplay Judaism in favor of their “woke” beliefs, since Judaism in the West is largely (yet wrongly) considered a religion. I would know; I used to be one of these Jews whose values were evolving in a different direction than those my parents’ and grandparents’ generations of Jews.
But this isn’t just a secular Jewish trend; it’s also being experienced in parts of Jewish Orthodoxy, according to Miriam Shaviv, a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle in London.
“It’s tempting to class these kids’ attitudes as a ‘rebellion’ or a ‘phase’, particularly when they come from traditional homes,” Shaviv wrote. “But I don’t believe that’s the case. Most modern Orthodox kids watch the same TV and are on the same Internet as every other kid in the country. They are listening to the same conversations and are products of their generation.”8
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 some, intersectionality means that other countries’ history of racial inequality is projected onto the standoff between Israelis and Palestinians, with the latter preposterously defined as non-white victims and the former as white supremacists.
What’s more, the growing number of mandatory programs supposedly promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) 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 recent suit filed against Stanford University by two Jewish mental-health workers, for example, alleges that the DEI program “engages in intentional racial segregation through race-based affinity groups,” and it “relies upon racial and ethnic stereotyping and scapegoating by describing all Jews as white or white-passing and therefore complicit in anti-Black racism.” As to the ways which Jews are portrayed by this program, the complaint goes on to say: “The DEI committee has also endorsed the narrative that Jews are connected to white supremacy, advancing anti-Semitic tropes concerning Jewish power, conspiracy, and control.”9
A century ago, antisemites tried denying entry to Jewish immigrants, claiming the latter lacked superior characteristics of Northern Europeans who had populated, say, the United States 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!
Yet, even Theodor Herzl was prone to self-deprecation before becoming the father of modern-day Zionism in the late 1800s. As a young man, he was an ardent Germanophile who saw the Germans as the best cultured people in Central Europe. He believed Hungarian Jews such as himself could shake off their “shameful Jewish characteristics” — caused by long centuries of impoverishment and oppression — and become civilized Central Europeans, a true cultured person along German lines.
As Herzl wrote, he had “long ceased to trouble his head about his Jewish origin or about the faith of his fathers” and his “material circumstances were satisfactory enough.” He was making an adequate living and, in his words, was fortunate enough to have a vocation in which he could create “according to the impulses of his heart.”
But then the age-old hatred (antisemitism) “reasserted itself under a fashionable slogan,” Herzl wrote. Like many others, he believed that this movement would soon subside. But instead of getting better, it got worse. Although he was not personally affected by them, the attacks pained him anew each time. Gradually his soul “became one bleeding wound.”
Herzl realized that the rapid rise of late-1800s antisemitism in France, Germany, Austria, and Russia was leading to a catastrophic persecution of the Jews. Though he was inspired by the plight of Jews in Europe, his writings presented the Jewish question as a universal one.
“The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers,” he wrote in a pamphlet called The Jewish State, adding:
“Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized — for instance, France — until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of antisemitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.”
But Herzl’s critique of the Jewish condition ran deeper than this. Even Jews living in physical safety were in an intolerable position, he believed, because they had given up their dignity and honor by leaving the identity and traditions of their ancestors. As he wrote in an essay:
“The atrocities of the Middle Ages were unprecedented, and the people who withstood those tortures must have had some great strength, an inner unity which we have lost. A generation which has grown apart from Judaism does not have this unity. It can neither rely upon our past nor look to our future. That is why we shall once more retreat into Judaism and never again permit ourselves to be thrown out of this fortress… We shall thereby regain our lost inner wholeness and along with it a little character — our own character. Not a Marrano-like, borrowed, untruthful character, but our own.”
Herzl called this revelation a “secret psychic torment” which had the effect of steering him to its source — precisely, his Jewishness — a change that he might never have in better days because he “had become so alienated.” He began to love Judaism with great fervor, a mysterious affection he didn’t fully acknowledge at first. But it grew so powerful that his vague feelings crystallized into a clear idea to which he gave voice:
“The thought that there was only one way out of this Jewish suffering — namely, to return to Judaism.”