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For years it has been a commonplace that progressives, and especially progressive college students, are fragile, overemotional snowflakes who live in fear of being offended or giving offense themselves, especially when it comes to people’s “identities.” A joke that lands wrong, a too-quick assumption about what pronouns someone uses, a microaggression about mental health, being “othered”: We’ve long had the impression that these sorts of transgressions are capable of causing deep and lasting harm, and that, in acknowledgment of this fact, the new progressive culture would be one of softness, solicitude, and self-silencing.
No surprise, then, that many people are confused by the present moment in American progressive politics, especially the politics of America’s largely left-wing college campuses. For if being careful about causing offense around issues of identity were a paramount progressive concern, why would Jewish students at Cooper Union have to hide in the library from a chanting mob? Why would a Columbia professor call Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli civilians “awesome”? Why would a Cornell professor declare he was “exhilarated” by it? Why are the words “glory to our martyrs” being projected onto the outside of the library at George Washington University? Why would a Stanford professor single out Jewish students, telling them that colonialism killed more innocents than the Holocaust and sending them to stand together in the back of the room? Why would Harvard students sign a petition saying that responsibility for the Israeli dead lies with Israel—and, crucially, with Israel alone? Why would an essay in the literary magazine n+1 scoff at “smarmy moralizing about civilian deaths”? Why would a Black Lives Matter social media account advertise the image of a paraglider with a Palestinian flag, after Hamas terrorists parachuted into a gathering in Israel and murdered partygoers?
On Twitter, the sociologist Bradley Campbell recently wrote of this confusion: “People keep acting surprised by these sorts of things because they keep making the same mistake. They think the campus activists are concerned abstractly with hurt feelings. But they’re not, and they haven’t claimed to be ... What matters is the identities of the people involved—whether they’re part of what’s considered an oppressor or victim group in relation to one another.”
While a therapeutic, feelings-over-facts approach—a focus on safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and so forth—is certainly one of the favored methods of America’s new diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy, it’s clearly not an inherent part of the woke gestalt. Rather, proclaiming one’s personal or group hypersensitivity and fragility is a technique to gain control of particular spaces by hijacking the language of America’s preexisting therapeutic culture, with the goal of forcing opponents into silence.
The animating force behind this schizophrenic rhetorical divide is the practice of dividing up the world into teams based on notions of who has “power,” which comes in a set number of forms: being wealthy, being able-bodied, being male, being “cis.” More than any other source, power comes from being “white.” In other words, it’s fine if we burn you or your children alive, or cheer on those who do; if you criticize us, that’s an inherently unjust and damaging exercise of power, because we have defined you as being “white.”
Like any coalition, the progressive coalition has always had fault lines. Like any ideology, progressivism is rife with contradictions. The most obvious has always been that progressives speak and behave, aggressively and self-assuredly, in explicitly racist ways, despite deploring racism as the most unspeakable evil of modern times.
The same progressives who place anti-racism at the center of their worldview seem to leave enough room for quite a bit of racism, too. The word “white,” and the abstract theoretical construct “whiteness,” are important for progressives in delineating just who the appropriate targets of racism are. Recent events have made obvious what many of us suspected: Such targets include Jews. The targeting of Jews as a subset of “white people” could also be derived from a more general observation: Those for whom whiteness is valued consider Jews nonwhite; those for whom whiteness is denigrated consider Jews white.
However, it’s not just a matter of the silly, maybe even meaningless question of whether Jews are white—which I am happy to leave to true believers in 19th-century racial pseudoscience. Both Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones got their starts as anti-white conspiracy theorists; a straight line connects them to the antisemitism of the Women’s March, Kanye West, and Kyrie Irving. As conspiracy theories, “white supremacy” and antisemitism have similar structures, and are animated by similar forms of paranoid illogic, which makes it easy to move from one to the other, and then back again. Therefore, despite the fact that “antisemitism” is sometimes listed next to more on-trend forms of bigotry like ableism or transphobia, Jews are targets, not comrades-in-arms or beneficiaries, of the “critical race theory” propounded in America’s woke madrassas.
After the Oct. 7 attacks, over a hundred thousand people approved of a tweet, by a writer who’s not worth naming, which read: “What did y’all think decolonization meant? Vibes? Papers? Essays? Losers.” This way of framing the issue is telling for a number of reasons. First, there is this notion of “decolonization,” with which it’s assumed we’re all familiar. But there’s apparently been some sort of misunderstanding: Some people might get the idea that decolonization is simply something to discuss in “papers” and “essays,” meaning that it’s something we might take seriously in an academic context, but only as far as that context goes. These people are, according to the tweet, wrong: Decolonization is really about (one assumes) killing; such killing is (again, according to the tweet) good, and only losers can’t stomach it. This is the flip side of the injunction to “abolish whiteness,” which is sometimes excused as a matter of technical terminology in the sociology of race. Here a seemingly anodyne, scholarly term turns out to have violent resonances when applied to everything from statues, to private property, to people.
It is therefore no surprise that the same academy that protects scholars who speculate on whether it might be politically acceptable or even necessary to murder white people will have a lot of trouble motivating itself to care about widespread approval of the murder of Jews. My friend Liam Bright, a philosophy professor at the London School of Economics, wrote a paper about the culture wars called “White Psychodrama.” His thesis was that much of the culture wars can be understood as white people’s divergent strategies of processing various feelings of guilt, shame, cognitive dissonance, and so on, regarding the racial situation in the United States and in the West more broadly. I had a few objections to this, one of which was that much culture war discourse takes places among us Jews (or half-Jews, in my case). Of course, we have differences of principle, and sometimes different opinions about the facts on the ground when it comes to political issues. But there is a different kind of dispute that seems to simmer beneath the surface of Jewish political disagreement: Who is most likely to actually try to kill us? Is it “white supremacists,” in whatever guise, or the people who talk about “ending white supremacy”?
The stakes of this debate were clear in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election. Trump drew some support from the feeling that Islamist terror was on the rise, especially in Europe, and such terror was often antisemitic; for instance, an Islamist terrorist slaughtered four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014. Videos of street attacks against Jewish men began to go viral, and commentators discussed the slow exodus of Jews from countries like France and Germany. On the other hand, Trump himself was associated, rightly or not, with the burgeoning alt-right movement, many of whose enthusiasts believed in antisemitic conspiracy theories (“Jews will not replace us!”). The gunman in the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre was an alt-rightist. Antisemitic incidents were often accompanied by a kind of anxiety about which team of extremists would turn out to be ultimately responsible. Fervor about threats against Jewish centers and cemeteries in 2017 took a strange turn: The two people jailed for making such threats turned out to be Juan M. Thompson, a Vassar College dropout and failed progressive journalist who was trying to frame a former lover, and Michael Ron David Kadar, an Israeli American with no clear motive.
I don’t mean to suggest that the debate this undercurrent represents has been resolved one way or another, at the level of who is more likely to walk into a synagogue with an AK-47 and start murdering congregants. But if the letters and statements from Jewish donors to college presidents are any sign, many Jews—however they feel about Israel or the alt-right—have plenty of concerns about the American left, which they might not have had even a month ago. These concerns center on the idea of Jews being made out to be “white,” among—but almost exclusively among—the very people who see whiteness as the proper object of ethnic essentialism, conspiracy theorizing, and collective hatred.
It is therefore hard to avoid the perception that “white people,” when the term is used to express vitriol and racism, typically means Jews.
Oliver Traldi is a John and Daria Barry Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.