Adherents to Critical Race Theory, for all their claims upon sophistication in analyzing group standing in society and its subtle meanings in terms of power, do not possess the conceptual resources needed to deal with historically oppressed white people.
Weiss is correct in her diagnosis and in her identification of the underpinnings of the new ideology replacing liberalism. She describes it as “a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality,” to which we should add at least a few drops of the Rousseauian assignment of primacy to instinct, emotion, intuition, feelings, and passion over reason and evidence. The only place her description leaves anything to be desired is in her claim that “No one has yet decided on the name for the force that has come to unseat liberalism.” That may well be the case in that we haven’t decided on the name we’ll use for this ideology, but it does have a name. This ideology is called by at least some of its proponents by the name “Critical Social Justice.” In short, Critical Social Justice—colloquially “Wokeness”—is a toxic fusion of cherry-picked aspects of the many lines of thought just identified, each chosen for its practical utility in advancing its particular line of fundamentally anti-liberal activism.
People need to understand that the new growth of anti-Semitism that Weiss asks us to stop being shocked at seeing is, if not a deliberate feature, a reliable consequence of the ideology of Critical Social Justice when put into practice. Because of the way Critical Social Justice views the world, it generates certain unavoidable and irreconcilable contradictions where Jews are concerned, and lacking the means to resolve them, it finds itself faced with what some are rightly naming a Jewish question that leads to it having a Jewish problem. As few, if any, clear explanations for this worrying trend currently exist, this essay aims to provide one in thorough detail.
A Brief Introduction to Critical Social Justice
Because it looks like liberalism on the surface and yet is openly anti-liberal under the hood, Critical Social Justice is often completely misunderstood by those who have not undertaken the rather unpleasant task of studying it in detail. Critical Social Justice, however, is an ideology that, at the present moment, desperately needs to be understood, not just in its terms but in its totality, including the extremely unpleasant, if not genuinely horrifyingly anti-Semitic, place this new ideology generates for the Jews. Where this ideology’s Jewish problem is concerned, the chief lines of thought contributing to it are the now (in)famous Critical Race Theory and its evil twin sister ideology bearing a lesser-known name called Postcolonial Theory (sometimes, “postcolonialism”). Neither of these sub-Theories has a positive view of the Jews or Jewry, to say nothing of its hostility to the existence and concept of a physical state of Israel. Indeed, anti-Semitic contempt would fall short of the mark by a fair distance.
Like almost everything where the various Theories of Critical Social Justice are concerned, a short primer in how they frame the world is necessary before it will be possible to explain the way they frame Jewishness, in particular. Because this ideology is so successfully parasitic upon liberal approaches, it arises almost invisibly within liberal contexts and enclaves in a rather sneaking way that leads genuinely liberal people—especially if they have progressive leanings and intuitions—to find themselves repeatedly asking their friends, “can you believe…?” This, as it happens, is because it is how live frogs are meant to be boiled.
The Theories of Critical Social Justice, or whatever else we end up calling this ideology, think about the world in exactly one way: in terms of how they conceive of power. They think of power first and foremost in a peculiar but identifiably Marxian way. There is some oppressor, which is a group and not an individual, and there are the groups that are oppressed by it. These are in conflict—zero-sum conflict similar to how Marx envisioned the bourgeoisie and proletariat—for the opportunities, resources, and spoils of society, access to which is referred to not as “equality” but as “privilege.” The groups, today, see the dividing lines of power through a lens to culture that has been boiled down to the meanest of descriptions: identity, like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and all the rest of these soul-crushingly exhausting terms we can’t get away from these days. Here’s Weiss’s neo-Marxism and identity politics come into the picture.
For those who accept the tenets of Critical Social Justice Theory, power flows through all people all the time in the routine actions and interactions, modes of speech and belief, decisions about what should and shouldn’t be regarded as true or false (or crazy), and the “structures” of our institutions, vital and secondary. You probably didn’t even notice the Marxian thought slip in with “structures” there and almost certainly wouldn’t have had I not put it in scare quotes. It’s that subtle, but it isn’t really Marxism anymore. It’s Marx’s idea of societal conflict reinterpreted through the postmodernism Weiss identified. When these are combined with the neo-Marxism and identity politics (and a rather Rousseauian and pop-psychological take on the originally Christian idea of “social justice”), we end up with most of the ingredients in her rightly named ideological admixture. Critical Race Theory and postcolonialism are, more or less, species within the broader Critical Social Justice order.
Together, these are Critical Social Justice, and they think about the world this way: Society is divided into many different cultural groups defined in terms of the members’ homogenized identities, meaning low-resolution “socially constructed” demographic categories like “white,” “black,” “gay,” “trans,” “brown,” and so on. These are said to “intersect” in “complex” ways, and each lies upon an axis that places some groups on opposite sides of a simplistic Marxian oppressor-versus-oppressed conflict. Oppression is understood only systemically and is indicated only by the phenomenological “lived experience” of harm, offense, and discomfort identified by any member of a group Theory defines as oppressed. Such a claim is unassailable and falls upon society with a warrant to reorganize itself to avoid any possibility of that sense of hurt ever arising again. All of those who are sufficiently oppressed are as a single capital-O “Other,” and everyone else has a moral obligation to be in solidarity with them in all possible circumstances.
This worldview has a consequence: “victimhood,” defined as above and only as above, becomes high currency that will be vied for. Intersectionality, now arguably 43 years old (and certainly at least 31), is the set of ideas and practices, for as a practice it is defined, that grades claims of victimhood according to an outline laid down formally in 1990 rather ominously (or histrionically) called The Matrix of Domination. It is in this place that Critical Social Justice’s Jewish problem exists, because Jews present an intolerable paradox to the Theory.
Jews Under Critical Whiteness Studies
Critical Social Justice has a theory—if we’ll allow the term—of race and racism called Critical Race Theory. It posits that race is a wholly political contrivance of white European people that was socially constructed specifically for the twin purposes of identifying who deserves the spoils of society (themselves) and who will be barred from them (everyone else). Those who qualify are designated as “white,” which means they are in possession of a form of sociocultural “property” called “whiteness,” as the “Critical Whiteness Studies” division of Critical Race Theory holds—and as we heard all summer over the clamor of looting and riots and the roar of burning buildings just behind them. White people and “white-adjacent” people who can benefit from the “system of oppression” (systemic racism) that results from this contrivance are said to have a vested interest in maintaining it and therefore remain willfully ignorant of the “realities” of race and racism, as Critical Race Theory believes them to be.
Among its many properties, whiteness is said to be exclusionary, especially to “Blackness” (this dichotomy, which it wills into existence, is ultimately the only real object Critical Race Theory cares about). Whiteness is Theorized as such to be a form of status that can only be given (to racial or ethnic groups) by other white people and cannot be claimed by those who it excludes. Whiteness is like the badge that lets someone into a sort of elite aristocracy of society, which is called “white privilege.” These ideas are objects of obsession for Critical Race Theory, and their relevance to everything surpasses any other consideration. Needless to say, people have begun to notice. Also needless to say, this isn’t going to paint a comfortable picture for a group like Jewry.
Critical Race Theory doesn’t leave room for alternative interpretations or dissent. In fact, it is a totalizing ideology in addition to being a crudely simplistic one, so this profoundly vulgar mode of analysis applies on every level of society and to every conceivable group. This means it also applies to Jews, whose very existence presents it with a number of Theoretical challenges it struggles to resolve within its simplistic mostly black/white racial framing. Fortunately, some Jews are also beginning to notice. There’s Weiss, for example, and there’s also Pamela Paresky. Yet another example can be found in the fairly recent academic paper “Critical Whiteness Studies and the ‘Jewish Problem’” by Balázs Berkovits, where he writes,
In turn, this type of totalizing criticism is responsible for the emergence of the “Jewish problem” with regard to questions of whiteness and race. For sure, this branch of research constitutes only one example among many contemporary works of social and political criticism, in which the “Jewish question” reappears. (p. 88)
This issue, as the name Berkovits applies to it implies, is no small problem to be shrugged off as a mere quirk of academic social theorizing. Under Critical Race Theory, many Jews are Theorized as having been granted and to some degree embraced—as a matter of effectively indisputable fact if not explicitly in both cases—the status of “whiteness” in contemporary American (and sometimes European) society. This would imply that under Critical Race Theory, Jews have an intolerable privilege they need to check. So demands the new “successor” ideology Weiss warns about in her Tablet piece.
Placing aside the obvious complication that not all Jews are white by any reasonable definition (which therefore may not have anything to do with Critical Race Theory’s definitions), there’s a huge problem with this formulation that every Jewish reader of this essay will immediately realize. Jews have quite the incredible history of incredible oppression, including imperial destruction, diaspora, enslavement, and a literal genocide in the Holocaust. This set of horrors tended to follow a familiar pattern as well, which we now name “anti-Semitism.” That pattern is that Jews are made out to be a group that stands by its own claim as separate from broader society in some significant way and yet finds a way to gain significant privilege, eventually to the point of usurping control of the institutions that shape society. We would be remiss to avoid pointing out that assigning “whiteness” to Jews repeats the opening act of this tragic play.
It’s not so simple here, though, of course, because the Critical Social Justice ideology appears to be devoted to social justice, which even appears in the name, and thus the longstanding and undeniable oppression of the Jews surely must complicate the anti-Semitic narrative for the Woke. That’s a neat trick, however, because this is not so; the ideology seeks something else (“group justice”) wrought in its image. The Jewish problem in Critical Social Justice is born of attempting to solve this impossible puzzle using the tools of an intrinsically racist social theory that isn’t cut out to the task. Berkovits sees this too, writing,
This emergence [of Critical Race Theory’s “Jewish Problem”] can be attributed to the fact that many critical approaches regard the memory of the Holocaust as an obstacle to criticism. There is a perceived relationship between the Holocaust and the social question: the Holocaust seems to downgrade the suffering of other people, as if there were only a limited amount that could be distributed. (pp. 91–92)
Critical Race Theory, it must be understood, only thinks in terms of society and the people in it in terms of the grotesquely simplified concept of “systemic” or “structural” racism. Everything has to be reduced to this one variable, which Critical Race Theory claims an absolute monopoly on analyzing. This requires them to discount Jewish suffering and to guilt everyone, including Jews, into thinking on the terms set forth by Critical Race Theory. Consider Robin DiAngelo in her blockbuster bestseller book White Fragility, which dominated bestseller charts not only once but twice since its release in 2018:
[P]erhaps you grew up in poverty, or are an Ashkenazi Jew of European heritage, or were raised in a military family. Perhaps you grew up in Canada, Hawaii, or Germany, or had people of color in your family. None of these situations exempts you from the forces of racism, because no aspect of society is outside of these forces. (p. 13)
And DiAngelo tells us in another of her books, Is Everyone Really Equal? (with Özlem Sensoy), how this totalizing reductionism to “racism” on Critical Race Theory terms works for Jews, particularly Ashkenazim:
While they may have initially been divided in terms of ethnic or class status, over time European immigrants were united in Whiteness. For example, early Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were not considered White, but they “became” White as they assimilated into the dominant culture. Reflecting on the social and economic advantages of Whiteness, critical race scholar Cheryl Harris (1993) coined the phrase “Whiteness as property.” This phrase captures the reality that being perceived as White carries more than a mere racial classification. It is a social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal, political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others. (p. 122)
The academic Michael Eric Dyson, who wrote the foreword to DiAngelo’s White Fragility (where he calls her “the new racial sheriff in town”) explains how this happened through acts of cultural betrayal in his “Sermon to White America,” Tears We Cannot Stop, writing,
The battle to become American forced groups to cheat on their old selves and romance new selves. Old tribe for new tribe; old language for new language; old country for new one. The WASPs stung first, but the Italians landed plenty of blows, the Irish fought bare fisted, the poles grimaced and bore in, and the Jews punched above their weight, all with one goal: to champion their arrival as Americans. That’s how you went from being just Irish, just Italian, just Polish, or just Jewish to being white. So please don’t deny this when you approach me to tell me about how your experience as a white ethnic parallels my experience as an African-American. The parallels stop at the hyphen. (pp. 45–46)
These are not fringe positions on Jewish “whiteness” and “anti-Blackness” within Critical Race Theory, and they are repeated throughout the core literature, including in books by both Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who are credited with creating Critical Race Theory. It is also trotted out by another hugely influential and bestselling author, Ibram X. Kendi, who is being paid tens of thousands of dollars (as is DiAngelo) per visit to speak about his vision of “anti-racism.” It is an illiberal form of analysis that if it cannot understand a group in a simple racial narrative that places “whiteness” and “blackness” on opposite ends of a spectrum, with “brownness” between but distinctly neither, it cannot understand it at all.
The uniquely Jewish combination of a long history of terrible oppression of a people that isn’t just (at least partly) fair-skinned but also highly successful in what the Theorists would deem a “white” milieu is, in fact, completely intolerable to Critical Race Theory. The Theory distrusts Jewish success as such and, as with everything it analyzes, believes it must have something to do with having been granted access to the privileges of whiteness—illegitimately, by betrayal, and at the expense of blacks. It would then, in due course, demand that (“white”) Jews accept and atone of their whiteness by the familiar process: recognize it in themselves, acknowledge their de facto complicity in “white supremacy,” critique their own unwitting participation therein, and then submit to and promote the Critical Race Theory worldview in both ideology and deed, which takes the form of their brand of “anti-racist” social activism—for life. This, however, requires asking Jews to deny both their history and what makes them Jews in the first place.
Berkovits does an incredible job of summarizing the reasoning behind this problem—indeed, it’s the kind of explanation for it that I read and at once wished I had been fortunate enough to write in the first place. He observes,
“Whiteness” in Critical Whiteness Studies is meant to express a position of domination. Therefore, it is neither a descriptive nor simply an interpretative but a critical concept, meaning that whoever is found to be white enjoys white privilege. This is to say that the white individual, merely by his social position, practices racism and discrimination; therefore, he does not need not be racist himself, as he automatically benefits from racially marked social structures and perpetuates them. He partakes in social but also economic oppression, against minorities, that is, people of color. … Therefore, assimilating Jews to whiteness conceived in this manner is not innocent social history, but reveals a clear political ambition: it has to be proven that the fundamental racial issue is linked to the color line between whites and blacks, while everything should be considered negligible. Ethnic identities, differences, controversies between ethnic groups, and discrimination on any other basis than color should be considered as insignificant in the light of the plight of the black population. The particular traits of antisemitism, that is, everything that renders it different from racism, becomes irrelevant. (p. 92)
A number of pertinent facts jump out here. First, Critical Race Theory genuinely is as simplistic and totalizing as claimed, and it therefore has to shoehorn Jews into its broken analytical framework. Second, this is a wholly political analysis that assigns privilege and domination to all who are marked with it. Third, it both hides and misunderstands anti-Semitism, which allows for a particular pernicious variant of it to come into existence under a full-throated denial that it’s anti-Semitism at all. This isn’t a good mix.
Consequently, unlike the liberal ideology it replaces, Critical Race Theory is not capable of being reasonable about the “whiteness” it clumsily assigns to many Jews (and certainly all Ashkenazim) by virtue of their complexion or general social acceptance by people with that particular complexion. It is not capable of seeing in the Jews highly successful people who sometimes have fair skin (often in North America) and who are mostly accepted and welcomed by a liberal society that, finally, has offered Jews true breathing room outside of their own state. Critical Race Theory sees that society and its liberalism as fundamentally corrupted by whiteness, and thus, playing directly into the roots of the nastiest strains of anti-Semitic thought, assumes Jews must somehow be profoundly complicit in it.
Adherents to Critical Race Theory, for all their claims upon sophistication in analyzing group standing in society and its subtle meanings in terms of power, do not possess the conceptual resources needed to deal with historically oppressed white people—unless they’re fat, disabled, maybe gay (that’s complicated now), or trans, none of which would have anything to do with them being Jewish in any case. Critical Race Theory therefore places Jewish people into a very dangerous spot within their Theory: they are a group that has tremendous privilege they don’t deserve who also have an apparently ironclad excuse not to “do the work” of dismantling their own whiteness.
This explains in far starker terms what Weiss rightly observes in her essay,
By simply existing as ourselves, Jews undermine the vision of a world without difference. And so the things about us that make us different must be demonized, so that they can be erased or destroyed: Zionism is refashioned as colonialism; government officials justify the murder of innocent Jews in Jersey City; Jewish businesses can be looted because Jews “are the face of capital.” Jews are flattened into “white people,” our living history obliterated, so that someone with a straight face can suggest that the Holocaust was merely “white on white crime.”
This summary of how Critical Race Theory understands Jews and their history is correct. Under Critical Race Theory’s analysis of whiteness, Jews are assigned the unenviable status of being systemic oppressors who get to pretend that they aren’t. In a very real sense, the Critical Whiteness analysis within Critical Race Theory holds that Jews have been unfairly granted the social property of “whiteness” by a “white society” that is no true friend of theirs and have thrived at the highest levels of sociocultural production in it—all while they also retain a legitimate claim on well-recognized historical victimhood statuses (again, slavery, diaspora, persecution, ghettoization, targets of a genocide just teetering at the edge of living memory) that allow them to deny their privilege at all. In some sense, Jews get to claim oppressed status while occupying the highest heights of privileged status, at least according to the reckoning of Critical Race Theory.
If this weren’t bad enough, the simplistic black/white analysis at the very heart of Critical Race Theory has to weigh in on the matter—because of course it does. Thus, this tangle of illegitimate Jewish privilege (in the eyes of the Theory) is analyzed in the typical fashion for Critical Race Theory: Marxian conflict theory across racial lines that really only make sense in the specific context of American race politics of decades long past. The result is that Critical Race Theory is forced to say that not only is Jewish “privilege” illegitimate in a multitude of ways but also that it was acquired by ripping off black Americans. As you might expect, this multiplies the sin under Critical Race Theory and cements Jewish status within the intrinsically “anti-Black” frame of “whiteness.”
Berkovits documents this hideous and thorny issue within Critical Whiteness Studies quite clearly, to draw on several passages at once:
In Brodkin’s account, Jews are not discriminated against in the U.S. any more, and have benefited from post-war policies given only to whites; that is, Jewish success, in spite of their common belief, is something that they do not “deserve,” it is owing not to their individual or collective merit, but to discriminatory practices against other minorities which they supposedly benefited from. (p. 94) […]