“When you have an ideology that pretends to know exactly who the oppressors are and who are the oppressed, and you have an ideology that conflates success with oppression … then Jews who do, on average, better than the mean, are going to be viewed as oppressors.”
For decades, David Bernstein has served in senior roles at major Jewish organizations. But when he saw the effect that woke ideology was having on these institutions, he decided to tackle the problem head-on and start a new nonprofit demanding a return to classical liberalism.
“I want there to be conservatives. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says … a bird needs a left wing and a right wing in order to fly,” says Bernstein.
We dive into his book, “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews,” and discuss Kanye West, Elon Musk, and the Soviet-Jewish refusenik Natan Sharansky.
“When he hears woke ideology in America and the West, it sounds the same to him as the communist ideology that he grew up with, except that they’ve replaced class with race,” says Bernstein.
David Bernstein, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Great to be with you.
Let’s just start here with Kanye West or Ye. He said some shockingly, horrifically anti-Semitic things recently. There was, of course, this huge outcry, but one of the things I noticed is there was an outcry from some people on the Left who struck me as being quite anti-Semitic. I’m trying to make sense of all this. Give me your thoughts here, please.
Yes. With the dynamics of American politics today, being as polarized as they are, people use anti-Semitism as a political football. We’ve even seen this in polling data that the Right tends to blame the Left for anti-Semitism, and the Left tends to blame the Right for anti-Semitism, and the center, they treat it as a pox on both of your houses. And I think they’re probably right.
You’re seeing different variants of anti-Semitism on the far-Right and you’re seeing another variant of anti-Semitism on the Left. We’re seeing it manifest in both places. Whenever they see anti-Semitism on the Left or from somebody who’s not really on the Left but expressing a different variant, they’ll blame it completely on the Right. They’re parroting white supremacy, that’s what they’ll say. That’s what they’ve accused Kanye West of doing is parroting white supremacy, when he’s actually expressing a variant of anti-Semitism that you see, I call it black supremacist anti-Semitism. It’s got a little bit of radical social justice ideology in it, with some white supremacy and traditional anti-Semitic tropes mixed in with some unique variants that you see in radical black spaces as well.
That’s fascinating because you’re saying that Kanye has included some kind of critical social justice anti-Semitism in what he’s talking about. You don’t typically associate him with that though.
Yes, so many of his followers and the people who defended him on the Left would say that as a black person he cannot be racist. Kanye himself might have made similar comments that racism requires you to have power, and you only have power if you’re part of the white dominant class. That is where you start to hear echoes of radical leftist social justice ideology.
Fascinating. I didn’t even realize that he was making this case, because obviously he’s not without privilege himself, right?
No, he’s a billionaire, that should give him plenty of privilege.
Right. Let’s jump to another current issue as we start discussing your wonderful book, Woke Antisemitism. Actually, I found it went quite beyond just the concepts of anti-Semitism, and we’re going to discuss all this today. But what do you make of everything that’s happening on Twitter right now, for example, Elon Musk being called far-Right, saying that he’s supporting terrorist groups with his tweet of a little bunny, all this kind of stuff? What do you do make of all this?
Yes, Obviously Elon Musk comes in and points out what we all knew, which was that there was a decided leftist bias in Twitter, and you can see this in the various analyses that are being done by Bari Weiss and others where there were people that were filtering out certain views that they didn’t agree with. That was happening, and we all knew it was happening. What he did is to bring a level of transparency to that. Transparency is going to be very important for Twitter’s future. You don’t have to let anybody say whatever they want, but you should be intellectually honest. You should be honest to the public about what you are filtering, and what you’re allowing to go unfiltered.
Sometimes I wish he would be a little less bombastic. His credibility is important and I’d rather he did not go off on these various tangents, but that’s probably just his persona and it’s given expression in Twitter. But there are people who have lost that sense of place, because now the people that they wanted to be filtered are no longer filtered. Maybe they’re worried that they’re going to be filtered, and they’re accusing him of being a fascist or a fanatic. It’s just ridiculous, of course. The word fascist is one of the most abused terms today. You can call anybody a fascist who disagrees with you now, and that’s what they’re starting to do with Elon Musk.
When we think about what was happening on Twitter, I think of cancel culture. But there’s a quiet element of cancel culture where the populace simply just doesn’t know what was canceled, because it’s filtered using all these means that Elon Musk and his people have been revealing over the last days and weeks. In conversations, I remember you’ve told me before that you feel like cancel culture itself is half the road to anti-Semitism or halfway to anti-Semitism.
How does this phenomenon exist, where you can basically remove a whole realm of thought or way of thinking, some of it extremely legitimate and critically important? For example, the Great Barrington Declaration proposal on how to deal with the pandemic, which was actually just traditional pandemic policy, got shelved and hidden through these methods. Please tell me about that.
Sure. When you talk about cancel culture, the people who deny it or deny that it happens like to focus on the cancel part of it, but they don’t like to talk about the culture part of it. “Okay, a few academics get canceled here and there and you’re treating this as if it’s some great sin.” Well, there’s a culture, and this culture is extremely censorious.
It’s meant to uphold certain ideas as being beyond scrutiny, and that there’s only one way to understand disparity in society, for example. That’s a big one. You have to adhere to that one set of explanations or you’re beyond the pale. There are many people who are imposing this in various ways. One way, of course, is just to filter it out, and another way is to go after people who say, “the wrong thing.”
Another way is what I call micro-cancellations. Micro-cancellations are the everyday snark and dismissal that you see on Twitter and social media that treat people who articulate alternative ideas as if they’re somehow beyond the pale. That’s all part of this culture. You’re seeing it in these survey data on a regular basis. We did a survey in August 2022, and it found that literally everybody believes that they are in a much more censorious culture today than they were 10 years ago.
Even progressives, by the way, are worried about being canceled by other progressives. So, you can see how that’s changed. Americans are self-censoring at rates higher than they were during the McCarthy era in the United States. To me that’s what a cancel culture is. It plays out on social media, and it plays out in our everyday lives.
We have all done it. We’re all a bit complicit in this.
Yes. We are a bit complicit in this because no one wants to be called out, and so sometimes we just stay silent. It’s a remarkably small percentage of American society that is doing all the tweeting. I just heard recently, it’s probably about 6 per cent of Americans doing 97 per cent of the tweeting, creating this sense that they’re a much larger, bigger, more amplified voice than they actually are. That means that there are self-identified progressives who probably have disproportionate power in the discourse.
What will happen with Twitter is really hard to say. I don’t know how you create both a platform that allows for maximum free speech and at the same time filters out some of the most extreme sentiment, whether it’s from the far-Right or the far-Left. It’s very hard to do, and it’s very hard to do by algorithm.
It’s very hard to entrust a group of people who are your censors, especially if they are 23-year-old woke ideologues from Stanford who are coming in there and controlling what gets heard and what doesn’t get heard. I don’t have the answer on how to make it the kind of platform that will both allow free speech and mitigate against the most extreme sentiment.
I have shifted in my thinking over the last some years to becoming more and more of a free speech absolutist, even though there’s some things I really find abhorrent. For example, Holocaust denial would be a great example.
It is challenging and there are the edge cases. Some people want to use the edge cases to say, “Okay, well there really shouldn’t be free speech.” And that’s where I’ll push back. We should err on the side of the free expression of ideas. We need ideas to be brought out in public, to be subjected to the spotlight, to be scrutinized so that we know when we’re wrong. I want to know when I’m wrong.
But there are times when there are situations like Holocaust denial, and very explicit, demeaning racist slurs. I think it’s proper for us to say, “Well, I’m not going to engage with that. I’m not going to platform that. I’m not going to allow my media company to be a place where that kind of discourse takes place.”
But it’s hard because there are a lot of edge cases along the way where you could say, “Well, something that I strongly disagree with still might be legitimate discourse. The person is engaging in good faith. The person is trying to bring out an idea to the marketplace that at least deserves a hearing.” So those are hard cases.
Certainly, I’m a first amendment absolutist. I believe that the first amendment should apply almost in every circumstance where somebody has the right to speech and we should guard that vigilantly. But that doesn’t mean that every private company or every private organization has to play host to the most extreme sentiment.
But the problem is, especially in this social media sphere, and I’ve been struggling with this, you can take some really crazy abhorrent ideas and seed them into the discourse and then they take off. And that’s deeply disturbing to me as well.
Yes. In some ways, in this wild west social media environment, what we want are consumers who are capable of having critical thinking skills and being able to make sound judgements, because we’re being exposed to many more things today, than we were years ago in ways that we were not exposed to. I grew up with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, who are sort of narrating a perspective. You can say it wasn’t always accurate, it wasn’t always inclusive, but it still limited the number of really extreme voices that were in the mix. We no longer have that ability to narrate and mediate those voices anymore, so we need people who are more capable of sifting through complex ideas and figuring out what’s legit and what’s not.
The obvious thing to talk about now is wokeness or critical social justice ideology, because it seems to be somewhat antithetical to critical thinking. That’s been my conclusion based on numerous scholars I’ve read in the area.
That’s right. I define wokeness as being two things. One, it’s this belief that racism and prejudice and oppression are not just a matter of one’s personal attitude, but they’re built into the very fabric and structures of society—that’s the first observation. The second is that only those with lived experience of that oppression are qualified to define it for the rest of society. It is that second tenant of woke ideology that really makes it an ideology. It’s often weaponized to say that you’re speaking from a place of privilege if you offer an alternative point of view. The ideological source of cancel culture is the claim that you have to have that lived experience, you have to have been oppressed yourself.
Both of those things can be true, but they’re not always true. There is oppression in societies. Jim Crow America was probably a pretty oppressive place. I know Nazi Germany was a very oppressive place. So oppression can be woven into the fabric of society. It can be true that somebody who’s suffered from oppression might have an insight that the rest of us should listen to and we should be open to.
As a Jewish person who experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, I’d like to think you would want to hear my point of view on it, but it can’t be the final say. Because there are also data points out there. First of all, there might be other Jews who have totally different experiences than me, and so why would you just listen to me? Also, if the Pew study comes out with a survey, as it did, that says that Jews are the most admired religious group in America, I have to take that seriously too, and that might balance my own personal lived experience.
Are Jews white?
It depends on what you mean by white. Anti-Semites tend to associate Jews with whatever they don’t like. So, when whiteness was considered a moral good, as my colleague Pamela Paresky likes to say, “Jews weren’t white.” When whiteness now is considered by the woke left as an unmitigated moral evil, then Jews are white. My mom is from Baghdad, Iraq, so according to 23andMe, I’m 50.4 per cent Western Asian.
Am I white? Well, if someone considers me white, I guess. Unfortunately, when people say that Jews are white, or that Asians are “white adjacent,” what they mean is that they’ve taken advantage of the white power structure for their success. That’s the ideology that’s behind it. It’s a way of saying, in order for you not to be considered white, you’re going to have to now be an ally with this ideology and you’re going to have to condemn those who are using their whiteness as political power.
These things seem to be somewhat arbitrary.
So arbitrary. A friend of mine who is a Chinese American was saying that she was put into an Asian affinity group in her school system with an Iranian who has really nothing in common ethnically with her. Their experiences were not anywhere near each other, yet they’re both put into this arbitrary Asian category.
That’s very destructive. Racism may be one explanatory factor for why some people have more and some people have less, but it’s only one factor. We should be able to look at these complex social problems. We know that there are multiple factors why some groups do better than other groups in any given time and that it’s fluid. If we’re not honest about those various factors in mobility, then we end up not even solving the problem.
If you say that systemic racism is the only reason why certain groups do better than other groups, what you may be missing in the process is that there are some deep social factors that may be critical that we have to actually address if we’re going to see the kind of mobility that we want. And I think that’s lost in this entire discourse, and it’s really a disservice to the people it pretends to help.
You’re making me think of Harvard admissions. There’s a lawsuit going on, and how the current approach to limiting Asians entering the system actually mirrors how Jews were limited from entering the system back in the day.
Yes. The fact that Asian Americans are being explicitly discriminated against in today’s admission policies is a big problem. There was a fascinating statistic that I saw from Pew’s Research that 62 per cent of black Americans oppose affirmative action in higher education. That tells you how diverse these communities are and how wrong it is to essentialize them in everything that they do, including in how they admit people into college. This discourse wants to attach privilege and power to identity as if it’s always true under every circumstance.
It’s profoundly ridiculous to say that just because you have what is considered white skin, that you are automatically privileged in every context, and that if you’re black, you’re automatically oppressed in every context. It breeds a kind of resentment that we see on the part of many people who say, “Listen, you can call me privileged all you want, but I’ve grown up under the most extreme circumstances and I don’t feel privileged.” That also breeds a kind of identity politics, a white identity politics that can go in the wrong direction as well.
I can’t help but notice, as we’re speaking here, that your organization has the word liberal in its name. So why don’t you tell me about your organization and your background? You mentioned that you’re 50 per cent West Asian. That’s not even a category I was familiar with until just now. Please tell me about that.
Sure. The organization is the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, JILV.org. By liberal we mean classically liberal, we don’t mean politically liberal. When I was growing up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the politically liberal people I knew were also classically liberal.
They believed that in the free expression of ideas. They would have defended the old ACLU when it was still defending civil liberties, and not just an all-purpose progressive organization. That’s what I believed at that time. I also held traditional politically liberal views on a lot of issues like church/state separation, immigration and the like.
As woke ideology took over the discourse, those two versions of being liberal became disjoined. Many liberals became what you might call progressives today, people who believe in the woke proposition of power and privilege and the like. There are a lot of us out there, a lot of us classical liberals out there who still believe in many politically liberal ideas, but we also believe in the free expression of ideas. I want there to be conservatives. As the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt says, “A bird needs a left wing and a right wing in order to fly.”
And I think that’s true. I want to be in conversation with people who are politically to the right of me, who I might disagree with on key issues, and maybe they’ll pull me a little bit in their direction, maybe I’ll pull them a little bit in my direction. That’s what a healthy body politic does. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re in a very healthy body politic today, especially if the liberal ideas have been purged from the ranks of the progressives.
Tell me more about how it got to today. You’ve been deeply involved in all sorts of Jewish organizations.
I grew up with a father who was a traditional civil libertarian, a deep believer in civil rights, and a mom from Baghdad, Iraq who was Jewish, but left Baghdad and came to this great country of the United States of America thinking that the streets were paved with gold. And for her, they still are. She can’t imagine why anyone would want to talk poorly of this country. Those were two forces in my life which made me resistant to woke thinking, because woke thinking tends to view America as a country that’s fundamentally corrupt. It also doesn’t much value the civil liberties and free speech tradition of this country.
That was also uniquely Jewish. I grew up debating around the dinner table, at the Shabbat dinner table, and that meant that I could have any view I wanted and argue with my parents and my friends. And we argued constantly, some people have called it the Jewish debate culture. That’s part of what it means to be Jewish to me. It’s deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition.
There’s even a phrase in Hebrew which is, arguments for the sake of heaven. That’s very much a part of our culture. To me, when woke ideology started encroaching on Jewish life, it was a shock because that to me was deeply un-Jewish, that you were now imposing a set of views on how correctly thinking people should think.
I resisted that from the very beginning. Very early on when I started hearing people use phrases that racism equals prejudice plus power. I thought to myself, where is that coming from? Does that mean that a group that’s considered part of the power structure like Jews are not capable of being victims, and does that mean that marginalized groups can’t be victimizers?
Very early on, even 20 years ago, I started warning in the Jewish community that this ideology, which was in its infancy perhaps outside of the academy, was making its headway into various forums and that we should watch out for it. I wrote about it, but obviously no one took my warnings. Fast forward 15 years, 20 years, and it really became the dominant discourse.
I’m not going to say the dominant view, but sometimes it feels like it’s the dominant view and that’s very different, isn’t it?
Right. That’s a very good distinction. Most people, if you ask them whether racism equals prejudice plus power, the vast majority of people would say absolutely not. But the people with a lot of cultural power in certain institutions are precisely saying that, and very often going unchallenged. There’s this phrase that I’ve liked, “Never wrestle with a pig because you’ll get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
A lot of mild mannered, thoughtful people, whether on the Right or the Left, when they first heard these ideological claims, they didn’t take them very seriously and they didn’t want to wrestle with the pig. They didn’t want to get dirty in the process. If someone was making these vehement claims about the way the world was, they just went along with it.
And slowly but surely, that started taking over many institutions in institutional life. That’s what we’re seeing in so many institutions. We’re seeing it and now in medicine, we’re seeing it in law, we’re seeing it in the arts, we’re seeing it in the Jewish community, and we’re seeing it in the civil rights community. That’s because none of us wanted to “wrestle with a pig.” We just let it go and it gained more and more cultural power to the point now where we can’t even have proper discussions with each other.