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Against ‘Allyship’

Judaism offers a model for helping different kinds of people to build connections

David Weitzner
November 04, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

If you’ve been spared “unconscious bias” training at work, abstained from social media, and steered clear of university campuses, you may have avoided the demand to be a better “ally.” But soon enough, you’ll be feeling the pressure. In current parlance, “ally” now has the specific meaning of “one who supports the rights of a marginalized group of which one is not a member”; the term “allyship” scarcely existed 10 years ago, but now feels ubiquitous. On the surface, being this kind of ally would seem a good thing. But the demands of contemporary allyship have little to do with actually helping people and are much more about following a uniform script. Part of sports media? GLAAD teamed up with a group called Athlete Ally to instruct on being an ally to LGBTQ Olympic Athletes. In management? Harvard Business Review has guidance for allyship with women of color. Even the normally skeptical comedian Sarah Silverman bought in when she pleaded with her audience last spring: “Stop rolling your eyes and be our allies. It makes me sad to know that so many Jews that I know commit their lives to being allies … But who is here for us?”

Of course, working in solidarity with oppressed people is important, and as Jews we owe a great deal to “allies.” But by discouraging all but the most virtuous from trying to help, the new “allyship” actually makes it harder to stand up for others. It demands would-be helpers pass a purity test, proving they “recognize their privilege,” three seemingly innocuous words that belie an ugly premise. Advocates of allyship assume that the natural inclination of would-be helpers is to perpetuate systems of oppression; the allyship mavens thus use the language of equality and inclusion to exclude and delegitimize those arbitrarily and unfairly judged as fundamentally tainted. The rules of allyship, if widely followed, would actually give rise to a rather unattractive and uncooperative society, as allies are expected to listen more and speak less; hold back their ideas and opinions; and not ask questions that require anyone’s emotional labor. The new allyship sets the bar impossibly high, makes it inappropriately narrow, and represents a dangerous regression in liberal society.

Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

This allyship is, in the words of Lenny Bruce, goyish. Jews have never demanded a purity test of those seeking to make common cause (we could never afford to). Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt shared no ideological affinity with my zayde, but he never forgot nor ceased being grateful for the—yes—Allied efforts that saved his life. Judaism calls on people to roll up their sleeves and get to work, with the hallowed rule being Rabbi Tarfon’s maxim that while not obliged to finish the work of tikkun olam, we are also not allowed to neglect it. Furthermore, insisting the privileged must give something up if the marginalized are to gain is a non-Jewish idea. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov expressed his concern for social justice by fi­rst looking out for the most vulnerable. But he also ensured that the rich were not exploited either, banning burial societies from charging inflated fees to the wealthy. Hillel the Elder instituted the prozbul to ensure the needy got their loans, without forcing those with capital to engage in inadvertent charitable giving due to shmita year debt nullifi­cation.

Maybe it’s time Jews led the way with friendship instead of allyship. Our tradition has developed the methodology of chavrusa, an Aramaic word that literally means “friendship,” denoting a partnership approach for studying diffi­cult texts while building social bonds. A chavrusa paradigm can be applied in all cooperative contexts, encouraging a relationship of equal co-creators regardless of preexisting hierarchies. There is no teacher/student or rabbi/layman dynamic when in this authentically cooperative exchange. While allyship seeks exclusion, friendship seeks co-creation. Within a chavrusa, the stage is set to facilitate friendly opposition and team-building, states uninteresting to allyship advocates, who promote feelings of resentment, bitterness, and even resistance toward the people they work with. How is that not as ugly a world as the one it seeks to replace?

In a chavrusa, the expectation is that both parties are in a constant state of engagement, listening with the same intensity as speaking. Analysis and interpretation are collaborative endeavors driven by both the speaker and listener who is processing the ideas of the speaker. The listener is always ready to challenge the speaker, not because of power or privilege, but out of trust and respect for the work necessary to achieve an optimal outcome of understanding and progress. Rabbi Yonah ben Abraham notes that friends offer criticism when we are on the wrong path—but who will accept the counsel of allies expected to silently stay in their lane?

What’s more, Jews recognize that some friendships may arise from self-interest, and that these instrumental relationships can nonetheless be valuable for both parties. Instrumental relationships seem to be working fine for the Jewish state, to take one example. The much-maligned Abraham Accords, the normalization-but-not-quite-peace-accord between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, have passed their first big test. And while evangelicals may support Israel so as to hasten the arrival of an end-times prophecy, their friendship has proven unquestionably valuable. Just because a friendship is initiated by an appeal to instrumental motivations does not exclude the possibility that over time the friendship endures; and in time, both parties may choose to stay in the relationship for more noble reasons.

What does chavrusa look like in practice? As a professor in a university that celebrates the diversity of its community, I wrestle with the challenge of leveling the playing field so all can thrive. The logic of “allyship” would have us silence, or quiet, the historically louder (white male) voices. In today’s social landscape, that is the path of least resistance. But it is immoral, particularly because there are better solutions requiring a little more work. Active learning, for example, is a way to bring chavrusa to the secular classroom. It refers to a style of teaching where the students are engaged through simulations, case studies, or other material which requires them to be active, not passive, participants in co-creating knowledge. Instead of lecturing, I put the students into teams and coach them through problems they need to solve. Learning outcomes have improved across the board, leading to a win-win scenario for all participants as opposed to zero-sum gains.

Today’s “allyship” is foreign to the Jewish tradition. By contrast, chavrusa accepts that the world is broken and that contending with that truth is the work of a lifetime. We commit to try and make our social relationships function a little bit better, be a little more inclusive, knowing that we too are broken and imperfect. We never tell anyone to pipe down, but rather bring all voices, loudly, to the table.

David Weitzner is an assistant professor of management at York University. His book Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work is out now through University of Toronto Press and Penguin Random House Audio. Follow him on Twitter @WeitznerDavid.

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