Posted on November 16, 2019

The Chosen and the Woke

William Voegeli, Claremont Review of Books, August 15, 2019

Israeli Flag

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law last year declaring Israel “the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination.” One might suppose that this “Basic Law” (akin to a constitutional amendment) would be as contentious as the Vatican proclaiming itself Catholic.

To the contrary. Although the “nation-state law” changed no policies and affirmed a relationship between Jews and Israel that had been manifest since the country’s founding in 1948, the legislation was exceptionally controversial. One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main political opponents, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, charged that its passage showed that “this government is racist.” The leader of Israel’s alliance of Arab political parties called it “a law of Jewish supremacy,” while another Arab member of the Knesset described it as “the official beginning of fascism and apartheid.”

The reaction in America was more temperate but still critical.


Thirteen left-of-center Jewish organizations issued a letter claiming that the new law would “give constitutional protection to policies that could discriminate against minorities.” One of the organizations, J Street (the “home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”), said that the Basic Law “sends a message to the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish that they are, at best, second-class citizens in the land of their birth.”

Netanyahu conceded nothing to these detractors:

We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens.


We the People


New York Times columnist Max Fisher, who wrote that the nation-state law, one small country’s largely symbolic enactment, embodied a dilemma that is generating controversy around the world: which takes precedence, national identity or democracy? There is, he said, “a growing backlash to the idea that countries should privilege democracy” in favor of the demand that “identity will come first.” Fisher characterized this trend as a reversal of the modern project, which favored both democracy and national self-determination, understood as “one nation for one people.” If the two principles clashed, “an informal consensus” had always favored “softening” national identity for the sake of democracy, the more fundamental imperative. Israel’s new Basic Law, he argued, was one of several signs that this consensus is unraveling.


Race to the Bottom

The long-standing egalitarian misgivings about nationhood have recently become more explicit and strident. As political scientist Joseph Cropsey discerned more than 50 years ago, liberals (in the modern, American, left-of-center sense of the term) have always viewed “the dividedness of men grouped according to their nations” as arbitrary and pernicious. Those committed to equality as the highest political good believe that the groups divided in this way can never be mutually respectful for long.


Egalitarianism’s most recent iteration, the “Great Awokening,” is “the rapidly changing political ideology of white liberals that is remaking American politics,” in the words of Zach Goldberg, writing for Tablet magazine. A study of America’s white liberals, of course, will find them preoccupied with race relations, especially those between blacks and whites. The Great Awokening antedates Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory. Goldberg, a political science doctoral student at Georgia State University who examines polling data, reports that 25% of whites who self-identified as liberals in 2010 considered racial discrimination against blacks to be a “very serious” problem, virtually the same proportion as over the preceding 15 years. “By 2015, however, this figure had almost doubled to 47%, and then increased further to 58% in 2016.”


The Woke’s righteous indignation is too gratifying for them to relinquish it out of deference to mere facts. Goldberg points out that an unarmed African-American male is about as likely to be killed by a police officer as to be struck by lightning. The New York Times devoted flood-the-zone coverage to the murder of seven-year-old Jazmine Barnes in December 2018, despite the fact that the shooting took place in Houston, 1,400 miles from Manhattan. Television networks and other national media also treated it as a matter of high urgency. Jazmine was black, and her mother told the police that she had been shot by a white man in a pickup truck. One week after the shooting, however, police arrested two black suspects, offering the theory that they mistook the car Jazmine was riding in for one occupied by rival gang members. The arrests immediately halted the gathering national crisis over a white-on-black hate-crime, rendering Jazmine’s murder another very sad local story, all the sadder for being unexceptional, and of little further interest to the Times. The newspaper’s ensuing cover-your-ass article on how trauma can impair eyewitnesses’ recollections did not examine the ways confirmation bias distorts journalists’ judgment.

Extrapolating from race relations, the Great Awokening is so strongly opposed to invidious distinctions in general as to have turned “other” into a verb, one that denotes and condemns a moral transgression. In 2016, for example, the Huffington Post castigated vice presidential candidate Mike Pence for “his long record of othering the [gay] community.” According to sociologist Yiannis Gabriel, “Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.” Goldberg finds that white liberals are twice as enthused as white non-liberals (87% to 42%) about diversity, formulated in American National Election Studies surveys as the question of whether “having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in the United States makes this country a better place to live.” On this issue, blacks (54%) and Hispanics (46%) score much closer to non-liberal whites, though we can be confident that liberals won’t hold such retrograde attitudes against them.

Breeding Contempt

Ultimately, of course, a world cleansed of other-ing must also renounce us-ing. Whether it’s a softball team or a nation, a human grouping to which everyone does or can belong is one to which nobody belongs in any way that matters or makes sense. No group can have an inside unless it also has an outside. The meaning and importance of being inside will, inevitably, turn on how those who are inside define and defend the boundaries that distinguish them from others.

The response to these conflicting imperatives is, unsurprisingly, incoherent. Goldberg finds that white liberals are the only group in the history of public opinion surveys to exhibit a “pro-outgroup bias,” a clear preference for non-whites over whites. He describes it as a “very recent, and unprecedented, phenomenon.” This sounds like a confirmed sighting of “oikophobia,” philosopher Roger Scruton’s term to describe xenophobia’s opposite: fear and loathing of the close and familiar in favor of that which is unlike oneself.

Perhaps, however, white liberals’ aversion to whites is really just an aversion to whites who aren’t liberal. In that case, the pro-outgroup bias against whites in general would really be a pro-ingroup bias in favor of white liberals. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that after reading about white privilege, white liberals did not become more sympathetic to impoverished blacks, but did become notably less sympathetic to impoverished whites. Journalist Zaid Jilani speculates that “social liberals are internalizing white-privilege lessons in a way that flattens the image of whites, portraying all of them as inherently privileged. So if a white person is poor, it must be his or her own fault.” Of course, after November 2016 many oikophobic tirades held that lower-class whites were not merely losers but menaces. Essayist and editorial cartoonist Tim Kreider, for example, wrote that most Trump voters are “just evil” by virtue of “not much caring about other people’s suffering.”


The only legitimate othering takes place when, in pursuit of social justice, the Woke call out somebody on the wrong side of what they regard as the one truly valid division among humans, that between the Privileged and the Oppressed. The former need not have personally victimized or exploited the latter, or even said bad things or harbored bad thoughts about them. The wickedness of the Privileged encompasses benefiting from past oppressions, even those in the distant past, and complicitly tolerating today’s unfair systems that mock and thwart the aspirations of the Oppressed. So, for example, there is “Racism without Racists,” which sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva used as the title for a book of his in 2003. Such racism transpires when America’s whites engage in the “color-blind racism” that leads them to accept and perpetuate, rather than work to dismantle, the “structural” or “systemic” racism that oppresses blacks and other minority groups.


To suggest that not all victims are simply victims, or that not all their difficulties derive from being victimized, is to “blame the victim,” which is not just an intellectual error but a moral offense. Those who blame the victim further victimize that victim by reinforcing the structural oppression afflicting him.

The prominent writer Ta-Nehisi Coates denies, for example, that such dysfunctional behaviors as teenage pregnancy, drug use, dropping out of school, or declining to find and hold a job have any relationship to high poverty and crime rates in predominantly black areas. Rather, he insists, the root cause of all these behaviors and problems is white supremacy, and we have no reason or right to expect that any of them will change until we eradicate every aspect of white supremacy.


The last full measure of oppression consists in having the Woke absolve you of moral responsibility, culminating in their determination that you are incapable of moral agency. Whatever the Oppressed do or don’t do is a function of what has been done to them by their oppressors. Such solicitude is indistinguishable from condescension and ultimately contempt, a fact not lost on some objects of that solicitude. Since 1994 the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey has asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.” Dissecting the results, Goldberg shows that white liberals were only half as likely as blacks to reject that proposition in 1994. By 2016, after white liberals’ opposition to that statement had increased and blacks’ opposition to it had declined, the former were half-again as likely as the latter to disagree with it. That is, white liberals have come to believe that blacks don’t fully appreciate how burdened they are by white racism.

Zionism and Racism

The Great Awokening’s defining features, then, include: its roots in the logic of left-liberalism; its reduction of any and every complex sociopolitical reality to designated oppressors’ abuse of designated victims; its preoccupation, in particular, with the plight of American blacks; and its use of that plight as a template for all kinds of oppression, which effectively means for all clashes of political interest or opinion. These qualities explain how some can denounce as racist and fascist a law affirming that the world’s only Jewish nation-state is a Jewish nation-state. In the Great Awokening, to quote Goldberg again:

the same empathic outrage over the bigoted persecution by the “privileged” against the vulnerable…is extended out to the international arena where Israel is a fixture of every moral drama. A white supremacist America holds people of color down and keeps the door shut for others, while a “Zionist supremacist” Israel behaves in much the same way toward its minorities of color.

Goldberg points out that, from the time when public opinion surveys started asking the question in 1978, white liberals were more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians…until 2016, after which they have consistently regarded Palestinians as the aggrieved party in this dispute.


It turned out, however, that even the Holocaust established Jewish victimhood only temporarily. Among the Woke, writes Goldberg, “Jews are perceived to be privileged — at least in comparison to other historically victimized groups.”

Having made a full recovery from the Holocaust, Jews are no longer the downtrodden collective that white liberals can readily sympathize with. Other groups lower on the privilege hierarchy and less tainted by association with whiteness now have priority.

In particular, these victimier victims have come to include the Palestinians. In the belief that Palestinians have, as a rule, darker complexions than Israel’s Ashkenazim (Jews whose ancestors lived in Europe for centuries), the Woke apply the implicit rule of their privilege hierarchy, which holds that melanin is the most reliable proxy for moral worth.

The New Left and Third World liberation movements, interconnected ideologically and operationally, began to denounce Israel’s treatment of Palestine’s Arabs in the 1960s. In 1967 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), originator of the Black Power movement, published a section on “The Palestine Problem” in its newsletter, with a cartoon implying Israel or perhaps Jews in general oppressed both blacks and Arabs. When Jewish groups withdrew support from the SNCC in response, the SNCC’s next newsletter warned, “Don’t get caught on the wrong side of the revolution.”


Equally venomous and unhinged arguments, however, can lead to a long, comfortable career in American higher education. Judith Butler, an academic superstar, told an interviewer in 2010 that Israelis carried out military actions with the mindset that “any and all Palestinian lives that are killed or injured are understood no longer to be lives, no longer understood to be living, no longer understood even to be human in a recognizable sense.” Instead, Palestinians’ deaths in military confrontations leave Israelis “thrilled, because they think their safety and well-being and happiness are being purchased, are being achieved through this destruction.” In Visual Occupations (2015), UCLA literature and gender studies professor Gil Hochberg described posters in Gaza and the West Bank honoring those Palestinians who had died carrying out suicide bombings against Israelis as “a defiant practice of anticolonial national remembering.” Jasbir Puar, a women’s studies professor at Rutgers University, gave a talk at Vassar College in 2016 in which she claimed that Israel killed Palestinians to harvest their organs, conducted medical experiments on Palestinian children, and intentionally bombed hospitals and nursing homes. When her accusations were subsequently challenged, she threatened to sue anyone who made an audio recording of her lecture available to the public.


The academy’s multiculturalist vanguard, in particular, has helped shape mainstream liberal rhetoric and shifted its “Overton window,” the boundary dividing thinkable from unthinkable policy options. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, proclaims that the future is intersectional (that is, one in which prejudices against the oppressed overlap and compound one another).


Another Democratic presidential candidate, former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, has called Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” who does not represent “the true will of the Israeli people,” a doubtful assessment of a politician who recently became the longest-serving prime minister in his country’s 71-year history. Peter Beinart — Atlantic columnist, former New Republic editor, and a self-described proponent of “liberal Zionism” who faults Israel’s dealings with Palestinians for failing to live up to the ideals of “human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise” — also considers Netanyahu a racist, but one who reflects Israelis’ true will quite accurately. In a column for the Forward, Beinart deplored the results of Israel’s April 2019 elections, which were inconclusive in the crucial respects (there will be new elections in September) but did mark a clear defeat for what remains of that country’s Left. The Labor Party, in particular, which was dominant during Israel’s first decades, received 4.4% of the popular vote.


The idea that those designated as oppressors commit their oppressions because they are morally deficient, rather than in response to complex and often harrowing political dilemmas, is wokeness distilled.


The Woke interpretation {snip} . . . : responsibility for the hostile relations between Israel and the Palestinians belongs to Israel. Period. Palestinian acts of violence go unmentioned or, if acknowledged, are treated as responses to Israeli actions.


Israel’s location on the privilege hierarchy is so determinative that even its victories on the Great Awokening scorecard register as defeats. Israel is notably tolerant regarding sexual orientation, especially in comparison to the rest of the Middle East, where the treatment of gays ranges from disapproving to barbaric. Benjamin Netanyahu has had the effrontery to point this out, telling the U.S. Congress in 2011 that the Middle East is “a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted.” Sarah Schulman, a City University of New York humanities professor, dismisses such rhetoric as “pinkwashing” — a “public relations tool” and “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”

No Place Like Home

Billions of pixels have given their lives to prolong the debate over whether Israeli-Palestinian hostilities should conclude with a “two-state solution” or a “one-state solution.” That is, will there be a newly created Palestinian state sharing a negotiated border with Israel, or a binational state wherein Jews and Palestinians are fellow citizens? Less attention has been paid to the question of whether, and under what circumstances, either of these options amounts to a solution, as opposed to an arrangement that recasts but does not settle the tensions between the two peoples.


Absent an unmistakable, binding Palestinian commitment to share peaceably with Jews the land they have fought over for nearly a century, no “solution” will actually solve anything. For Israel to submit to a two-state solution, in the face of the Palestinian and American pressure Peter Beinart calls for, would amount to a choice of protracted national suicide. Israel would acquiesce in the creation of an adjacent sovereign state whose animating principle was Israel’s destruction. The one-state solution, where Israel would be absorbed into a new nation-station where Jews are a minority and their implacable enemies a majority, differs only by accelerating the suicide timetable.


Americans have more pressing reasons to reject the Great Awokening than Israel’s national security, but none more clarifying. The case of Israel demonstrates that national identity is less a threat to democracy than a prerequisite for it. As the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz wrote after the passage of the nation-state law, “Since the largest viable political unit to which citizens can plausibly consent — even tacitly — is a state characterized by shared traditions, language, and political hopes, the modern tradition of freedom reinforces the case for nationalism.” The future of Israel, America, and other nations will be shaped by the contest between the Great Awokening and Somewhereism. If the latter prevails, it will be because national majorities around the world come to feel that “[t]his is our nation, language, and flag,” is not just a legitimate thing for an Israeli prime minister to say, but also for patriotic citizens of any decent country to believe.