How a New ‘Diversity’ Fuels Antisemitism
Jews are increasingly seen as ‘privileged oppressors’
HOW A NEW ‘DIVERSITY’ FUELS ANTISEMITISM
Jews are increasingly seen as ‘privileged oppressors’
David L. Bernstein
(Adapted, with permission, from Bernstein, David. Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews. Post Hill Press, 2022.)
An earlier model of diversity
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, as director of the DC office of the American Jewish Committee, I focused on strengthening ties between blacks and Jews. Black-Jewish relations had fallen on tough times since the high point of civil rights collaboration in the early 1960s. The image of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel locking arms with other civil rights leaders in the 1965 voter rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital, was forever seared into the collective memory of the American Jewish community (figure 1). Liberal Jews yearned to reconnect with the black community in common purpose.
The Jewish commitment to civil rights was not, of course, entirely altruistic. A society that limited the rights of black people also impeded the rights and mobility of Jews. Jews had been routinely prevented from fully participating in American social and business life, and thus had developed Jewish law firms, medical practices, and country clubs. But perceived mutual interests and a commitment to a just society were not always enough to sustain the coalition. While there were always tensions among blacks and Jews during the civil rights movement, ties began to fray in the mid-1960s. In some cases, whites and Jews were expelled from the leadership ranks of civil rights groups when organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—founded in 1960 and one of the primary movers in nonviolent civil rights activism—shifted away from a multiracial coalition to emphasize racial pride and black self-determination.[i] At that time, a more radical set of black leaders took center stage, and violent riots erupted, prompting many Jews to move out of the cities and into the suburbs, never to return.
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Nostalgic for the high point of collaboration, Jewish organizations were perpetually looking for a way back in. When I arrived at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the late ‘90s, a new project was in the works. The Real Estate Apprentice Program (REAP) was an effort to bring blacks into Washington’s commercial real estate industry, where they had long been severely underrepresented. Since the early 1980s, the AJC Washington regional office had held an active dialogue with black leaders, meeting for lunch at the AJC office on M Street in DC to discuss social issues—especially, during my time there, Louis Farrakhan’s place in the black community—for about two hours every two weeks. By the late 1990s, some of the black participants had grown weary of dialogue for dialogue’s sake. In one dialogue session, Maudine Cooper—born in Mississippi, the dynamic head of the Greater Washington Urban League and former Chief of Staff to Mayor Marion Barry—bluntly told a Jewish participant, Mike Bush: “You Jews talk a lot but you never do anything.”[ii] Bush took her words not as an insult but a challenge. A distinguished Harvard Law alum in his late fifties, Bush was the Vice President of Real Estate for Giant Foods, the largest supermarket chain in the metropolitan area.
Attending the annual conference in the mid-1990s of the International Council of Shopping Centers—where industry professionals, many real estate developers among them, gathered to discuss market trends—Bush noticed there was only one Black person, out of the nearly one thousand people in attendance: Al Gonsouland, the head of Hechinger, a chain of home improvement centers. Bush got the idea that Jews, who were well represented in real estate, could help diversify the industry. He wanted to recruit aspiring black men and women into an intensive course in commercial real estate, and—using his extensive industry contacts—identify commercial real estate firms that would provide networking opportunities and guaranteed jobs to top students. I loved the idea and wrote the first grant request, which was funded by DC’s Meyer Foundation. Within a few years, several dozen new black hires changed the face of the industry. Bush spun off the project into an independent nonprofit operating in cities across the country and abroad. Today there are hundreds of REAP alums in senior positions in real estate, including senior executives at Amazon and the head of real estate of the global furniture company Ikea.
REAP’s success kept the local black-Jewish dialogue alive, involving prominent members from both communities. Longtime Washington Representative of the American Jewish Committee, Hyman Bookbinder—a former civil rights activist and protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt, affectionately known as “Bookie”—was a regular participant. In those days, Washington DC’s failing school system loomed large: a reflection of the general failure of the inner city, which had further been laid waste by a raging crack epidemic.
The failure of the school system was documented in excruciating detail by the DC Financial Control Board—which took over the finances of the failing city government—in a report titled “Children in Crisis.” The report proclaimed that DC Public Schools are “failing”: “the school system as a whole is in a state of crisis” and “DCPS fails to teach its pupils even the basics of education.”[iii] In 1999, I joined a local leadership delegation to visit Anacostia High School in the poverty- and crime-stricken Southeast quadrant of the city, where a new, highly promising principal had plans for a turnaround; we were there to learn from her. One of the first things I noticed in the school were the throngs of students sitting along the hallways during instructional time, playing cards and other games. I had never seen anything like that before. “Excuse me,” I asked the principal. “Can I ask why these students aren’t in class?” She dropped her voice and said somberly, “I have three choices. I can send these students to class, and they’ll be disruptive and prevent the other students from learning. I can send them home, and they will get into all kinds of trouble and some will commit crimes.” She paused. “Or I can let them play cards in the hallway. Now what would you do?” I had no answer.
A black participant in the black-Jewish dialogue, an otherwise circumspect school psychologist named Robert, was uncharacteristically animated about the school system where he had worked for the past decade. In one dialogue session, Robert dismissed every idea anyone else raised about how to fix the school system. “That won’t work,” he said, over and over, shaking his head. Finally, one of the black participants replied indignantly, “All you do is tell us what won’t work. Okay then. What will work?” Robert paused and took a long, deep breath. “Some of us think we need to ship out some of the Negroes running the school system and bring in some white folks to run things.”
“Why do you say that?” I tentatively asked, breaking the prolonged silence.
“Because it’s all cronyism,” Robert said. “Most of the black professional class running things promote each other into positions they aren’t qualified for. They’ve lost the plot. Not enough of them work for these kids. I am going to tell you something shocking. When I started at the school I’m at now, there was a mentally retarded boy named Nelson just roaming the school hallways. I asked the school administration about him. All they could do was acknowledge his existence. He had never even been given psychological testing. Nelson should have been in a special needs program. He should have been accounted for. But he would just show up at school every day and wander around aimlessly and no one did anything.” Robert started rubbing his eyes and began to weep. “They did nothing,” he added softly.
Bookie, among the most eloquent men I had ever known, stammered, “I just…I just can’t believe what I am hearing, I mean I never heard.” He shook his head in disbelief or denial—I couldn’t tell which—and then he too teared up, removed his spectacles, and wiped his eyes with his white handkerchief. The other black participants were quiet. Gerald, a gay black man in his fifties who wore a scarf with an African motif and often defended Farrakhan despite the Minister’s homophobic rants, finally muttered, “What a disgrace.” Shame showed on the faces of the black participants. They knew there was no papering over the dysfunction. While they could rightly blame the poor and deteriorating conditions of inner-city Washington on the scourge of past and present racism, they knew that some of the fault lay with the catastrophic failure of black professionals and leaders, their contemporaries, and even with themselves. They had escaped poverty, they were the lucky ones, and they were now in charge of the systems that were supposed to help the next generation do the same. But although the DC schools had some of the highest per-pupil spending of any school system in the country, at that point not even the school bathrooms worked.
As painful as these encounters could be, they formed my understanding of “diversity.” Project REAP showed me what people could accomplish if they worked together, and became a model for diversifying societal institutions. The model of diversity I valued brought together people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, viewpoints, and experiences, often but not always generating a common vision for addressing social challenges. Political scientist Yascha Mounk calls this model of diversity “cultural patriotism”[iv]: enlisting a diverse array of ethnicities and cultures in forming a single nation. By the same token, the black writer and music critic, Albert Murray, speaks of “antagonistic cooperation,”[v] which he sees in music, literature, and race relations. Antagonistic cooperation exists when two persons or groups satisfy a common interest while minor antagonisms of interest are suppressed. I understood diversity as fostering both cultural patriotism and antagonistic cooperation. No one needed to lose for others to win. Society need not be a zero-sum game.
Prejudice Plus Power
Little did I know that there was a model of diversity that was gaining steam in the corporate world, imported from the academic world, that was not based on dialogue among equals, but on fundamentally altered power dynamics that would supposedly give voice to society’s marginalized. This new model of diversity was based on many of the same intellectual trends I had first observed and experienced in college and then in graduate school, trends that cast American society in an oppressor-versus-oppressed binary, attributing a single explanation for all problems and disparities to that paradigm: systemic racism. This version of diversity would have regarded Robert’s assessment of the school system—painful and authentic as it was—as “victim blaming” for holding black leadership rather than the all-powerful “white supremacy” responsible for the conditions of schools. This new model would have stifled the kind of discussion that ultimately could allow the school system to fix itself.
In 1998, I was accepted into Leadership Washington, a cohort of business, government and nonprofit leaders who spent a year studying regional challenges and thinking through how to address them. There were about forty of us in the program. Three days were devoted to “Multiculturalism”—what today would be called “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” or “DEI.” I was excited. Multicultural programs were right up my alley. I soon realized, however, this was a totally different approach to diversity. John Butler—the program chair and the head of a Catholic high school in Washington—opened the program, stating that “racism equals prejudice plus power.” I had never heard that formulation before. “I think racism is hatred toward other races, and don’t think power, whatever that is, has anything to do with it,” I told Butler after the meeting. “You can disagree all you want but that’s what racism is,” he said. I wondered who gave him the final word on the matter. Such insistence on being right was hard for me to stomach; this was a demand for acquiescence.
Then Leadership Washington participants viewed the 1994 film The Color of Fear, made by “master diversity trainer” and filmmaker Lee Mun Wah.[vi] The film portrayed four men at a weekend retreat talking about racism: one African American, one Latino, one Caucasian, and the filmmaker himself, who was Asian. As far as I could tell, this was a real, unscripted interaction. But from the very beginning, the setup was obvious: the three men of color were all well versed in the language of multiculturalism that would soon become woke jargon. The white guy, however, was apparently a total nitwit. I doubt he’d had a serious conversation in his life, let alone one on issues of race and racism. The three trained diversity hands took turns browbeating the simpleton, who insisted he didn’t see color, about how shamefully clueless he was about race. They insisted that his “colorblindness” was a sham, and that it was high time he recognized that his whiteness was a bona fide ethnicity essential to his place in the world. By the time they were done with him, he broke down in tears, finally recognizing his own racism and the role he’d played in perpetuating an unjust society. This display of performative cruelty masquerading as enlightened diversity revolted me.
When the film was over, we broke into groups of eight to discuss what we had just seen. The facilitator of my breakout session, who also happened to be the main organizer of the program, was Howard Ross. You may have heard of Ross; he was organizing the federal DEI training when President Donald Trump issued an executive order to end all CRT-based diversity programs in the federal Government.[vii] Ross was the diversity trainer of the stars, having been assigned to, among others, John Rocker, the professional baseball player who had scandalized the sport with his unfiltered bigotry. Ross began our group session with a question: “How did the film make you feel?” After three others shared their deep-seated feelings about our fallen society, some angry and some sad, it was my turn. “I don’t know how I feel, but I do know what I think,” I stated. “I think it was a terrible film that says nothing about racism.”
This frankness did not ingratiate me with the group. I soon found myself in a sequel to the movie itself, and I, the swarthy son of an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who never saw himself as white, was the white guy. An African American pastor of one of the largest congregations in the metropolitan area began to cross-examine me. He asked me if I thought I was a racist. “I try hard not to be,” I stated, continuing, “In my teen years, I told tasteless ethnic jokes, but made a very conscious decision not to do it anymore.” I said that while I fully recognize the ongoing reality of racism, I didn’t think it explained all the problems facing black people in the inner cities. The pastor, startled by my challenge, bellowed: “What else explains these problems?” I paused and then blurted: “How about young black school kids who make fun of other black kids for being too studious? Isn’t that a problem too?” This lamentable behavior had been the subject of recent high-profile stories in the press. The pastor glared at me with a mixture of disgust and resignation. But he didn’t argue back, signaling, perhaps, that he too was concerned about this phenomenon. A black female participant sitting next to me quietly nodded in agreement.
Suddenly, I realized that this so-called diversity training was actually a group therapy session for the newly recognized mental illness known as white racism, and I was a patient. The therapist—Howard Ross—was there to push us to acknowledge our own racism, the first step in overcoming any psychological ailment. My non-doctrinaire view on race was a cognitive distortion that could be remedied only through an intense course of diversity therapy. I was not an easy patient. I knew little about the theory behind this brand of diversity training at that time, but I did know this was no way to create a just society or a more collaborative workplace, so I vowed to stay away from this form of social coercion in the future. (Note: while I continue to have disagreements with him, I now consider Howard Ross a friend).
Connecting the Dots
I also began to notice that the same ideology I had seen in diversity training had seeped into progressive political spaces and multi-ethnic coalitions. The standard rhetoric among civil rights groups started to shift away from one seeking opportunity to one asserting oppression. Gone were the days of Martin Luther King Jr.’s color-blind aspirations for the “content of one’s character” in favor of a more austere condemnation of the system that perpetuated white supremacy. In March 2001, I wrote a memo headed “Immigration and American Values,” in which I argued that these ideological trends might acculturate a generation of immigrants into a hostile interpretation of American values. I shared the memo, which I could just as well write today, with key colleagues at the American Jewish Committee:
In its more radical form, multiculturalism is not merely neutral toward American values, it is openly hostile. Some ideologues go beyond claims of discrimination and make the case that racism is deeply embedded in the American value system itself. In order to dismantle this systemic racism, they assert, a stake must be driven through the “hegemony” of American cultural norms. Echoes of this can, unfortunately, be heard even among some of our partners in the civil rights community.[viii]
In January of 2003, I wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Jewish Week that once again, I could have written today: “Progressive ideologues,” I argued, “believe that only people with power can be racists. Under this winner-take-all power paradigm, the formula is ‘racism = bigotry + power,’ which means that you cannot be racist if you don’t have power, and if you do have power, you cannot be a victim. Over time,” I continued, “progressives have come to view Jews as a privileged group and part of the American power establishment, and this lends little credence to Jewish claims of racism. So when Jews allege racism by Arabs or Muslims, or African Americans, progressives tend to remain conspicuously silent because, in their view, Jews cannot be victims, and ‘powerless’ minority groups cannot be guilty of racism.”[ix]
The simplistic ideology of “oppressor versus oppressed” fuels antisemitism by linking identity to privilege and—in the minds of some—Jewish identity to “Jewish privilege.” Twenty years later I wrote a book that attempts to spell out exhaustively how this relatively new progressive ideology foments antisemitism: Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.
[i] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): April 15, 1960 to May 1, 1971, Stanford: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute
[ii] Discussion with Mike Bush, April 2022
[iii] Children in Crisis: The Failure of Public Education in the District, District of Columbia, Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, November 12, 1996, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/library/dc/control/part2.htm
[iv] Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, Penguin Press, April 19, 2022
[v] Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, Library of America, February 4, 2020
[vi] The Color of Fear (Part 1), Lee Mun Wah
[vii] Jena McGregor and Eli Rosenberg, “Trump’s crackdown on training about white privilege draws broad opposition Business, nonprofit and civil rights groups have all denounced his executive order,” Washington Post Business, October 29, 2020
[viii] David Bernstein, Memo to AJC Colleagues, “Immigration and American Values,” March 3, 2001
[ix] David Bernstein, “Consistent Moral Message Missing,” Washington Jewish Week, January 2003
A passionate advocate of the free expression of ideas, David L. Bernstein is founder of both the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and the Institute for Liberal Values, of which Free Black Thought is a proud member. He is past President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and former executive director of the David Project. His book, Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, appeared this year with Post Hill Press. He has published previously in Journal of Free Black Thought here and here. Follow him on Twitter.
Journal of Free Black Thought is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.