David L. Bernstein’s recent book Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, solemn foreword by Natan Sharansky, is part memoir, part manifesto. As is all too often the case, the personal and political are each compelling in their own way, but do not particularly mesh. I know it is the contemporary non-fiction expectation that books do both, but maybe it would have been better, in this case, to get more of the author’s core ideas—which, while not particularly new, are worthwhile—and less of his personal story. There could have been the tales of wokeness gone amok at whichever institutions, and the arguments about why this is bad for the Jews. Not everyone would have found this persuasive but it would have found its audience.
Conversely, Woke Antisemitism might have been the colourful memoir of a lifelong opponent of sanctimonious hypersensitivity, a man for whom the 2020 Zeitgeist was the last straw, without claiming to be somehow educational or mission-driven, and without concluding with enumerated “strategic principles for restoring liberalism to American society in general and to Jewish life in particular.” Instead, Bernstein weaves the two together, as one must, and loses at least one reader along the way.
At the outset, the personal bit seems fine. Bernstein, the son of an Iraqi Jewish mother and Ashkenazi father, grew up in Ohio, his milieu “liberal” but “not particularly ideological.” From family meals to studying Talmud at Israel’s Ohr Somayach Yeshiva prior to university, he absorbed the idea—and it’s an accurate one—that arguing about ideas is central to Jewish life. So he was dismayed to see politically correct censorship or self-censorship taking over at American Jewish organizations.
Bernstein has anecdotes—many involving Jewish communal professionals afraid to publicly share their political views—and his stories carry weight. He spent his career in leadership roles at the American Jewish Committee, the David Project, and ultimately the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, but for reasons to do with post-2020 wokeness drama (rampant at the time), he left that world, kind of, in favour of founding the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, an American Jewish organization whose purpose is fighting what it calls Critical Social Justice.
Bernstein is concerned both with the way wokeness, or dogmatic political correctness, ignores or even perpetuates antisemitism in the broader community, and with the way it has, in his view, taken over Jewish institutions. The book is partly a journey through postcolonialism, intersectionality, white privilege indoctrination, and EDI seminars, all the wokeness buzzwords, each with its own micro-moment. It’s a specific yet familiar tale of campus radicals and self-righteous young staffers, but with a Jewish twist. It is a useful reference document insofar as it traces the evolution of political correctness from the 1980s on, as it pertains to Jews.
There are funny moments as well, as when the wokeness of 2020 simply goes too far, and Bernstein reinvents himself as a very-online anti-wokeness warrior:
“In November of 2020, I published the first of numerous articles while still in my professional role at JCPA: ‘The Dangers of Woke Harm-based Morality,’ in Areo, a liberal humanist publication, under the least stealthy pseudonym in human history: “David Bern.”… I also started an anonymous Twitter account, UnwokeBlog.”
It would be easy to mock this but you know what? It probably was stifling in his professional world, as it was everywhere in 2020 and 2021, and he probably did feel something like closeted, maybe, to hold heterodox views. (The chapter section where he’s left JCPA is titled, “Coming Out.”) That said, the fact that the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values immediately found funding and high-profile support suggests Bernstein was perhaps frustrated more than silenced.
Bernstein’s revulsion at the activist left did not start last week. And it is with his personal tales of early encounters with proto-wokeness, coming early in the book as they do, that he loses this reader. He recalls a 1987 Hillel student convention in Washington, D.C., replete with “women with unshaven legs and armpits.” It was there that he first encountered political correctness, and what an encounter it was:
“One female student with unruly frizzy brown hair wrapped in a red bandana, who went to the University of Wisconsin, had a small button on her backpack that read ‘PC.'”
I want to pause here for a moment to ask whether a man who describes a young Jewish woman as having “unruly frizzy brown hair” is someone who should have any sort of leadership position in the fight against antisemitism. If Bernstein were not Jewish himself, or really if this sentence appeared in virtually any other context, it would read as let’s say not nice to Jews. It is plainly there to paint an unflattering image of this woman, who humiliated herself, in Bernstein’s view, by self-identified as politically correct.
(Also: it was the 1980s! Frizz was in! What’s he even talking about?)
In the very next paragraph, so we’re still in 1987, Bernstein recounts an Israeli storyteller at this event, whose tale involved a mention of “beautiful Ethiopian women standing in the corner, like statues.”
Writes Bernstein, “I knew what he meant, having seen for myself such stunning Ethiopian women with their strong features, their high cheekbones, wafting through the streets of Jerusalem.”
Before we cancel Bernstein for his erasure of plain-looking Ethiopian women, who doubtless exist, let us return to the narrative.
“Immediately a group of five leftist students sitting on the edge of a table outside the circle burst out heckling. ‘Would you have called Ethiopian men statues?’ one woman shouted out. The story-teller paused to think. ‘Yes, I would have,’ he said. ‘Bullshit!’ blurted another student. Two of them then walked out of the room, followed several seconds later by the other three because, in their view, the story-teller had objectified the women. Their future woke kids might have accused him of ‘exotifying’ them as well.”
There are many takeaways from this anecdote. One is that yes, as Bernstein contends, what we now know as wokeness existed long before the #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter. Another is that Bernstein’s objections to wokeness do not necessarily have all that much to do with its relationship to antisemitism. It’s just the usual anti-woke position that one cannot say anything these days (or, in the case of 1987, in those days, either).
For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure this storyteller was objectifying Ethiopian women, at least not as overtly as Bernstein does in the mind-wander he for some reason feels the need to share. Can this not be pointed out? If one is meant to speak up in the face of antisemitism, must sexism—which, remember, impacts half of Jews—get a pass?
Is it cancel culture if the object is not to eject Bernstein from polite society, not to cut off his income streams, and not even to make him feel like he must walk on eggshells whenever he speaks, but simply to remind that women exist beyond the roles of hot (Ethiopian Jewish women) or not (Ms. Bandana, evidently)?
To demonstrate the illiberalism inherent in political correctness, Bernstein pushes forward in his takedown of 1980s campus feminism, in an anecdote that alas does not say what he thinks it does. After discovering a women’s-studies reading assignment in a Hillel lounge and reading it aloud in a mocking tone, with a male friend, before the “shy” female student whose book it was, Bernstein decides to check out women’s studies for himself:
“I signed up for a women’s study course in the hopes of engaging with some of the absurdities I encountered in the book. I suppose I thought it would be fun to argue with the people in the women’s studies class.”
He does not, then, join the class with an open mind, and a spirit of inquiry. No, he’s decided before the first session that it’s nonsense, and that he will out-argue the professor to make that case. Anyone who’s taught undergraduate students knows the type, which is why it’s hard for me to take Bernstein’s experience at face value:
“I once tried to challenge [the professor], but she cut me off with ‘I will not have you change the subject of this class!’ This was not an open discussion or a liberal education in any sense of the word.”
Was what Bernstein experienced a chilling example of “indoctrination” or… was he perhaps hijacking a class conversation and (if the lounge pre-anecdote is a clue) lampooning the material?
A gender studies class ought to have room for a range of perspectives, and goodness knows a range exists, but it’s a waste of everyone’s time for a prof to humour the perspective that such courses are a joke. If you want to make that case, by all means use your freedom of speech to do so, but to do so in such a classroom is just rude. There are all sorts of endeavours someone might find ridiculous (football games, Dungeons & Dragons meetings), but one doesn’t generally show up at their gatherings with the express purpose of telling them as much.
He describes feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin (whose Jewishness he does not mention; probably for the best) and his own women’s-studies professor as “indignant” on different parts of the same page, a word repetition that possibly offends me more stylistically than for feminist reasons. Speaking of word choice, the feminist prof also gets the adjective we all knew she would: “humorless.”
The point here is partly that the sexism detracts from a book that is, after all, about battling a different -ism. But it’s also that the woman stuff is part of a pattern in the book of personal stories not bolstering the ostensible argument. For example, while I’m sure it was stressful when Bernstein’s son was suspended from school in Grade 8 for something involving social media and a pellet gun, it’s hard to extrapolate that this situation had anything particular to do with Jews who are not members of his household. I wasn’t even convinced it had anything to do with wokeness, even if the school principle did justify the suspension in very-now language of “harm” versus “intent.”
And while it’s salient, I guess, that the group of moms he met with in Manhattan in 2022 to discuss concerns that everyone’s daughter had become transgender due to hyper-woke education were Jewish women, whose children attended Jewish day schools, I’m having trouble seeing their concerns as relevant to antisemitism. If literally everyone on the planet under 20 announced they were trans, this would be a significant event, but a net neutral where Jews are concerned.
I say all of this as someone who sits squarely in the book’s target audience, and who ought to have been an easy sell. Bernstein’s contrarian spirit is one I can relate to. (I have my own stories of being put off by social justice activism at Reform Hebrew school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1990s.) And I do not require convincing that left antisemitism is a problem. I came to this wanting to support Bernstein and his efforts, but then there’s the book itself, which might have simply defended open debate as a Jewish value, but instead does like 50 other things as well, not all of which further that end.