Surge in Antisemitism Linked to Spread of Critical Race Theory

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There's a strong connection between critical social justice ideology, including critical race theory, and a rising tide of antisemitism around the globe, according to a new report from the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.

As more businesses and governments adopt initiatives based on critical social justice ideology, antisemitic and other forms of bigotry are flourishing.

“When you hold an ideology that there are really only two kinds of people in the world, those that are oppressed and those that are oppressors, you're going to end up empowering ideas of antisemitism,” says David Bernstein, a longtime Jewish advocate as well as the founder and CEO of the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.

He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his organization's new report, as well as the implications for continued global acceptance of critical social justice ideologies.

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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.  

Doug Blair: Our guest today is David Bernstein, a longtime Jewish advocate and founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. David, thank you so much for joining us.

David Bernstein: Great to be with you.

Blair: Great. Your organization just released a white paper on how critical social justice ideology has led to an increase in antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. Before we get into the white paper, would you be able to start by defining for our listeners what exactly critical social justice ideology is?

Bernstein: Sure. Critical social justice ideology is an umbrella term for critical race theory and other critical ideologies that we're seeing—critical gender ideology, for example. It basically holds that bias and oppression are not just a matter of individual attitudes, as we've traditionally thought about them, but are embedded in the systems and structures of society. It also holds, problematic, in my view, that only those who are adversely affected by those systems, only the system's victims, have standing to define racism or prejudice or bigotry for the rest of society.

That's what we're talking about here, is that ideology, which has taken hold in so many institutions in American life in the past several years, and particularly in the past year is producing antisemitism, among other problems, of course.

Blair: Where is this located? Are we finding critical social justice ideology in schools and certain political viewpoints? Where do we find this ideology present in our culture?

Bernstein: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty much everywhere, or almost everywhere. You're seeing it in newsrooms now, as you've seen it in The New York Times recently. You're seeing it in health care institutions, in medicine, in scientific institutions quite ominously. Can you imagine how that's going to corrupt scientific research over time? We're seeing it in K-12 schools, obviously in universities and schools of education. We're seeing it in the nonprofit world.

It's pretty much everywhere. It's in major corporations that are doing diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that are quite liberal in nature. We're seeing it really take hold in a vast array of institutions in American life.

Blair: All right. Now, we have a definition of what this ideology is, what critical social justice ideology is. We can dive into your report. Let's start with the top line. What relationship did your research find between critical social justice ideology and antisemitism?

Bernstein: When you hold an ideology that there are really only two kinds of people in the world, those that are oppressed and those that are oppressors, you're going to end up empowering ideas of antisemitism. For example, this idea of Jewish privilege, which is an offshoot of white privilege.

When you say that there's only oppressors and oppressed, then Jews who have succeeded largely in American society are going to be viewed as the oppressor class, and Israel, which has succeeded largely in the Middle East, is going to be viewed as the oppressor country. That, in the most simple form, is the problem, but it gets more complicated and sometimes more ominous as you look into it more.

I mean, the idea, for example, of intersectionality, which I'm sure your listeners are familiar with, this idea that all forms of oppression are related. That's a multiplier of this idea of Jewish privilege, and makes it very hard for people to identify with Jews or anybody who's perceived to be part of the privileged classes.

We can go into some of the other findings as well, but let me just add one more before we do that: equity. This idea that Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at Boston University, has popularized, that all disparities are a function of racism and discrimination.

If there are certain groups that are being discriminated against, and that's what accounts for all their disparities—not just some of their disparities, but all of the disparities—then there must be people who succeed who are complicit in the system that brought the others down, and that's Jews, that's Asians, and other successful groups. It can be weaponized and has been weaponized against Jews in a way that's increasing the level of antisemitism in society.

Blair: Right. You've mentioned intersectionality amongst other concepts that exist in a critical social justice ideology. You define in your report intersectionality as the theory that various identities interact in ways that create compounded discrimination or disadvantage constituting an intersecting system of oppression. In the sort of base level of this, where do Jews fit into the system to somebody who believes in this critical social justice ideology? What do Jews have to do in this system?

Bernstein: It's very hard for people who buy into this ideology to look at American Jews who have been largely successful or are in their eyes white, and they've defined us as white, to say that we're not part of the oppressor class. We must be, because we're successful and you can only succeed in this worldview by holding other people down, by getting a bigger slice of the pie for yourself.

No matter how hard Jews tried—and we have tried. I tried, by the way, that's part of what I would try to do in engaging other communities, engaging progressive spaces in my previous work, was to position Jews as being a marginalized group. We're marginalized, like your groups are marginalized. And we should have our voice in the intersectional club, but that doesn't work. It didn't work. They just do not see it that way.

You also have sort of the intersection, if you will, with the Israeli-Palestinian cause. People insisting that Palestinians are the oppressed group and Israel is the oppressor. Then they look at the American Jewish community that is largely but not entirely supportive of Israel and they say, “OK, you must be part of the oppressor class,” and that's how we've been marked.

Blair: One of the things that I've kind of been considering as I was reading this paper is it feels like a lot of the time when incidents of antisemitism come up, we're reacting to a specific incident. It's reactionary politics as opposed to a sort of ongoing discussion about where this comes from.

For example, when Black Lives Matter or an activist said something that's pretty blatantly antisemitic, it seems like we'll focus more on the specific thing that was said as opposed to the root ideology that leads activists to believe the antisemitic thing that they just said. Do you feel that this is sort of a true assessment of what's going on? Why or why not?

Bernstein: Yeah. If there's one finding in this paper that represents a wholesale departure from the traditional Jewish community approach to fighting antisemitism, it's that we believe that the current ideological environment is like fighting antisemitism in a game of whack-a-mole.

The ideology is going to continue to produce incidents of antisemitism. If we continue to go and condemn this person and condemn that person, which we could do and should do, I guess, but without recognizing that the root cause ideology, the wellspring from which this comes is critical social justice ideology, we're not really fighting the root problem.

There, I would say that we've got to take a massive strategic shift in how we think about fighting antisemitism. It doesn't work to just fight antisemitism. You have to fight the underlying ideology. You have to start challenging people who claim that they have a monopoly on the truth when it comes to racism and race.

You have to say, “No, I'm sorry. We have the right to speak as well.” You've got to stick up for liberalism, because if liberalism starts to slip, and liberalism, by the way, I mean small “L” liberalism, and that is the free expression of ideas in society, if that starts to slip and give way to wokeism, then we're not going to fare well. Jews are not going to fare well, other minorities won't fare well either.

So we've got to start fighting that fundamental underlying ideology that's giving rise to antisemitism and not just the antisemitic expressions of it.

Blair: One of the things that I've also been considering a lot as we were talking about concepts like intersectionality and this sort of focus on race, like in critical race theory, that both in America and worldwide, Jews are ethnically a minority. We've talked about the successes of the Jewish people, but how has it become so ingrained in both conspiracy theories and in critical social justice ideology that Jews are oppressors?

Bernstein: Yeah. Jews have always occupied a very strange space in societies where they lived. Jews have a very resilient culture and have been able to largely succeed in almost any society that they've been in. They're perceived as sort of being intermediary. They are, in the eyes of, let's say, white supremacists in this country, they're viewed as the people that are bringing in other minorities to pollute the white dominant culture. Right? …

When you hear people with tiki torches say that Jews will not replace us, that's what they mean. The Jews will have been the intermediaries that have allowed more Mexicans and other people to come in and replace us white people. That occupies a very special place in their imagination.

I think in the intersectional worldview, also, Jews are really confounding, in a way. We claim to have been discriminated against. We had this thing called the Holocaust that happened to us, we've been discriminated against, they see the hate crime statistics, and yet we're white and successful. In a way, we're a standing contradiction to that worldview and they have to shove us into one of those two boxes, which leads to sort of the erasure of our identity.

Blair: I do think it's very interesting that Jews kind of occupy this space of simultaneously the oppressor, but like, historically speaking, you can acknowledge that the Jews have been persecuted on a world scale.

Speaking of a world scale, I would like to talk to you a little bit about the upcoming world conference on racism that is set to take place this month. Rather famously, the U.S. has previously boycotted these types of U.N.-backed conferences because they have a very strong anti-Israel bias. These conferences will regularly refer to Israel as an apartheid state and discuss how evil the country is on a variety of levels. With that in mind, is there a difference between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment? On that note, is it possible to be critical of the state of Israel without wading into antisemitism?

Bernstein: I mean, absolutely. I mean, there's nobody more critical of Israel than Israelis. You see that every day in any Israeli newspaper you might look at in English or Hebrew.

Many American Jews, myself included … we care about Israel. We love Israel. We might define ourselves as Zionists, people who believe in the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. And yet, we are critical of specific Israeli acts, policies that we think might be counterproductive. Many of us will say so publicly. We'll say, “We think that's wrong,” and, “Israel should do ‘X' instead of ‘Y.'” That is entirely consistent with seeing Israel as a normal country or even caring about the Jewish state.

What's not normal is when people start to deny the very right of the Jewish people to have a state, which is what you see in places like the World Conference on Racism, or you demonize Israelis as Nazis and judge it by a standard that you would judge no other nation.

That's where you start to get suspicious and wonder, “Well, maybe there's something much more sinister behind this than just criticism of a country or its policies.” What you're really seeing are people who hate the Jewish people and are using that as a kind of a cudgel against the state of the Jewish people, which is the state of Israel.

Blair: It sounds like what you're saying is that … anti-Israel rhetoric … is being used to disguise antisemitism in a way.

Bernstein: Yeah. By anti-Israel rhetoric, I mean, I would mean not just criticism of Israel, but really vicious criticism of Israel that's completely out of proportion and irrational. And yeah, I think it disguises it.

I'm not going to say that there aren't people who are opposed to Zionism that aren't antisemitic. I think that there probably are. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who, for a variety of reasons, theological reasons, don't think there should be a state of Israel. I'm not going to call them antisemites. I think what you can say is that the phenomena of anti-Zionism is a category of antisemitism, even if there are exceptions to the rule.

Blair: OK. Other than this conference, and I'm sure there are other examples, would you be able to list some other things that are international manifestations of antisemitism and anti-Zionism?

Bernstein: Yeah. I mean, we've seen over the years, especially in the wake of like a war with Gaza, conflict of Gaza, these massive, very often violent protests.

I remember in Malmo, Sweden, I think it must've been around 2006, there were these massive protests against the Jewish community, major threats to synagogues and others. You had the mayor of Malmo blame it on the Jews for their support for Israel.

You see that in some European countries and you see, as we recently saw in the United States, by the way, in LA and New York, during the last Gaza round in May, you saw people beaten on the streets. I mean, literally like stopped and beaten at restaurants. These are manifestations of violent antisemitism that really comes from the left side of the political spectrum.

Blair: You've spoken a little bit on the implications for the sort of other oppressed classes. I think you've talked a little bit about Asians and other racial groups. Are there larger implications in our American society for the proliferation of critical social justice ideology beyond Judaism and antisemitism?

Bernstein: Absolutely. I would even say my primary critique of critical social justice or the imposition of critical justice is the fact that it's fundamentally illiberal. It's meant to try to stifle conversation. It stifles science. It stifles the free exchange of ideas.

It makes it harder to solve problems because how can you solve a problem if you're not allowed to try to define it? In other words, if the only permissible explanation for disparity in the world is systemic racism, and if you proffer any other possible explanation for it, you'll be deemed a racist, how are you going to actually solve that problem? Because racism doesn't account for why there's disparity in many cases.

I think it is fundamentally illiberal and it will create bad social outcomes and it will prevent people from talking to each other. It will be bad for race relations. I think it has many, many bad outcomes besides just the antisemitism and anti-Asian sentiment and the like.

Blair: Given that we can acknowledge that, obviously, antisemitism is a problem, what advice do you have for our listeners who want to push back against the rising tide of antisemitism and anti-Zionism around the globe today?

Bernstein: Yeah, I think it's time that they recognize that there is this ideology at its root cause and that we have to start supporting liberalism. There, I'm really advocating for a new coalition.

I think the Jewish community has been very focused on sort of engaging the left and the far left of the American political system so that we can stop it from becoming too anti-Israel or too antisemitic. I don't think that's working well.

I think the lion's share of our resources, our energies have to be to building a new coalition, groups with Asian Americans, and black heterodox thinkers, and Latino business leaders, and the like. A new centrist coalition that, on both sides of the political aisle, stands up for the liberal proposition of a society where people can express ideas and think out loud together.

I think that's the kind of society we want to live in, and that's the coalition we ought to create. That means that we have to create new institutions that fight for liberalism, and we have to create new institutions that aren't captured in some cases by woke ideology that are right now making it hard for these institutions to function effectively.

Blair: Given that, do we have any examples of a positive success story that we can point to and say, “Hey, this is working. This is helping out”?

Bernstein: This is a very new phenomenon. I think, obviously, we've been watching critical social justice take over in certain institutions for quite a few years and certainly in the academy, but it was really after George Floyd's murder that we saw … this racial reckoning really start to take effect. A lot of institutions started implementing new racial justice plans and committees and the like. It's really been in the last year where you've seen this incursion at this level, which has provoked a backlash.

Many of us now are, I mean, we founded our organization only four months ago. There are very few existing institutions in American life, nonprofit advocacy organizations and the like, that were already actively fighting against the incursion of critical social justice ideology.

We're learning as we go along. We're making some headway in certain places. There are examples of us being able to get more and more people out of the woodwork and fighting against it. We've seen some institutions back off from their previous woke pronouncements and the like. But we're just getting going and we're going to have to find what works over time.

Blair: Glad to hear that things are going positively. David, we are running a little bit low on time, but I wanted to give the last word to you. Where can our listeners go to learn more about your organization and the work you're doing to fight antisemitism?

Bernstein: Sure. We are JILV.org, Jewish Institute for Liberal Values … They can find us on Twitter at @JILVORG. They can also look into a new organization called the Institute for Liberal Values—which is an umbrella of groups, not just Jewish groups, but education groups and the like—and that's ilvalues.org, and it's coming into existence as we speak. Check us all out.

Blair: Great. Well, thank you so much. That was David Bernstein, founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values as well as a longtime Jewish advocate. David, thanks again for joining us.

Bernstein: Great to be with you. Thank you.

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