Why Jews Should Embrace Critical Race Theory


Jonathan Judaken

In 26 states, including Tennessee where I live and teach, lawmakers have introduced or passed legislation that preempts the teaching of Critical Race Theory (or CRT) in public schools.

Jews should resist this crusade. It is based on a manufactured moral panic resulting from a backlash against the racial reckoning brought about by the murder of George Floyd and it originates in an alt-Right anti-Semitic meme targeting “Cultural Marxism.” Instead, Jews should embrace critical race theory, knowing that some of its progenitors, along with contemporary practitioners like me, are Jews committed to fighting the entangled history of racisms in all their forms.  

Anti-CRT laws explicitly seek to silence teaching basic ideas about racism, like white privilege and unconscious bias, alongside claims that the United States “is fundamentally or irredeemably racist,” as the law in Tennessee puts it. 

Ultimately, these bills aim to stifle the often-uncomfortable conversations about our nation’s contradictions raised by undertakings like the New York Times 1619 Project, which aims to show that slavery impacted every aspect of American development from its advent more than 400 years ago.

Critical Race Theory emerged in law schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Harvard Law Professor Derek Bell is often credited as its founding father, and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality is its most famous idea. 

For academics today, critical race theory describes a conglomeration of approaches to racism that is both malleable and evolving. But at its core is a shared understanding that racism is not only about what individuals might think about other groups, but that it is also systemic, accounting for the historical patterns of discrimination and inequities in policing, healthcare, housing, wealth accumulation, and education that continue to impact America and much of the world.

For its opponents, CRT is a catch-all tag for a radical ideology that promotes divisive concepts bent on shaming white students, and endorses a distorted image of American history and American culture spreading rapidly through higher education and K-12 schools. 

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Some prominent Jews are among the opponents assaulting CRT. They argue that it pigeonholes Jews as privileged and powerful, thus ostensibly reiterating old tropes of unmerited Jewish power, and that it delegitimizes Israel as a colonial, racist, apartheid state. It is a gateway to anti-Semitism, they claim, a movement purportedly advanced by anti-Zionists and antiracist “social justice warriors” who divide the world into black and white, oppressor and oppressed, problematically positioning Jews as the embodiment of white supremacy. Bifurcating the world this way has long been denounced by Tikkun and by Rabbi Michael Lerner in works that stretch back to The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left.

But insistently today, well-funded groups like the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values warn that “Critical Social Justice,” an ostensible variant of CRT group-think, is not only behind cancel culture, undermining free speech, but that diversity training can lead to discrimination against Jews.

Ironically, some of the leaders of this campaign against CRT, including renowned journalist Bari Weiss and her many acolytes who echo her warnings against it, make very similar arguments about anti-Semitism to those that CRT scholars make about racism. Namely, that it morphs and changes, but it remains a persistent and fundamental threat.

The title of Weiss’ 2019 book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” even mirrors that of leading antiracist Ibram Kendi’s manifesto, “How to Be an Antiracist,” which was published only weeks before hers. Both use the analogy that racism and anti-Semitism are a disease that spreads and metastasizes when the body politic is ill. Weiss even calls upon her readers to wake up to the dangers of anti-Semitism, even as she warns about the perils of antiracist wokeness. 

But Weiss and Kendi crucially differ in how they understand the struggles against anti-Semitism and racism. Kendi is resolute that antiracism must be intersectional. Following Crenshaw, he highlights the links between differing forms of racial, gender, and class oppression. 

He does not, generally, include Jews in this intersectionality, however. He seldom mentions the historical oppression of Jews. This is a blindness since Jews are to the history of Europe what Blacks are to American history: the primary Other against whom the culture and its institutions were defined and constructed. Weiss, on the other hand, is committed to a narrative about the uniqueness of anti-Semitism, insisting that it fundamentally differs from anti-Black racism and xenophobia. 

Contrary to Weiss’ assertions, it is vital that Jews understand how anti-Semitism overlaps with other histories of stigmatization, even if there are aspects that differ and make it unique. This is stance long advanced in Tikkun. Constantly insisting on how anti-Semitism is exceptional and demands special treatment alienates our potential allies in the struggle against it and actually misunderstands the history of anti-Semitism. 

It is equally important that antiracists appreciate how Judeophobia was part of the scaffolding that underpinned color-coded racism as it developed with the advent of the Atlantic slave system. 

The discovery and conquest of the new world by Columbus in 1492 was the dawn of the modern world. Columbus’ voyages were paid for, in part, by the confiscated millions extorted from Jews who were banished from Spain, alongside Muslims, as the Spanish Inquisition reached its apex that same year. 

As the transatlantic slave system developed in the Americas, the idea of dividing humans into “races” emerged. “Race” was a word coined in sixteenth-century Spain and originally applied only to describe animal breeds and blue-blooded nobility. But as the African slave trade expanded, race blended with the concept of indelible “blood purity” that had targeted Jewish converts to Christianity during the Inquisition. 

The concept of unchanging races used to differentiate and hierarchize group character was fully birthed during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as Europeans sought to describe, classify, order, and label the world they were beginning to dominate. 

The term “racism,” only goes back to the early twentieth century when scholars first challenged some of these ideas. Jews played a key role in dismantling the concepts behind racism. As an intellectual historian whose research focuses on anti-Semitism, but who also teaches courses on racism, I expose students to the origins of Critical Race Theory by introducing them to some of its Jewish progenitors, like Franz Boas and his student Ashley Montagu (born Israel Ehrenberg).

With the rise of the Nazis and following the Holocaust, a group of anthropologists who were students of Boas at Columbia were key to undermining the false claim that race is a biological fact inscribed in the natural order, dividing up the human species. They showed instead that whether it took the form of Aryan supremacy underpinning Nazism or color-coded racism opposing Blacks and Whites, it was a “social myth,” as Montegu called it in the important UNESCO Statement on race in 1950. This laid the foundation for the idea that race is a social construction that reinforces a social system bent on privileging some and handcuffing others, a key tenant of CRT. 

Critical Race Theory also built on the insights of the Frankfurt School, another influential group of social theorists, most of whom were Jewish. With the Nazi assumption of power, they fled Frankfurt in 1933 for Geneva and then went on to New York in 1935, initially setting up camp at Columbia. In America, they were supported by the American Jewish Committee to produce the pioneering “Studies in Prejudice” series, a set of groundbreaking works that appeared in 1950, which laid the groundwork for the critical study of anti-Semitism. The body of the Frankfurt School’s work is known as Critical Theory, which is where the term “Critical,” used in Critical Race Theory and Critical Social Justice, got its original significance.

Some of the ideas behind the campaign against CRT originated in the alt-Right conspiracy theory opposing “Cultural Marxism,” another bogeyman whose origins are traced to the Frankfurt School critical theorists by its adversaries. “Cultural Marxism” is said to be behind political correctness and the identity politics of the Left. The campaign against “Cultural Marxism,” coded as Jewish and Marxist as embodied by the Frankfurt School, really just recycles and updates the anti-Semitic myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism” that was at the heart of Nazi anti-Semitism. The crusade against CRT has mainstreamed this anti-Semitic alt-Right meme.

The fear-mongering against CRT is used to deflect criticisms of white privilege, including among Jews. One central insight of critical race theory is that whiteness is the organizing framework for structuring the racial caste system in the United States. Central and Eastern European Jews were the beneficiaries of the passport of whiteness when they arrived in an America defined by this system. It was a factor in their social mobility. As much as the founding principles of American democracy like religious freedom benefitted Jews, along with their hard work, whiteness advantaged Jews from the moment they arrived on American shores. It guaranteed them privileges denied to Blacks and many immigrants of color. 

This is true even as Jews suffered from Christian’s religious prejudice and from discrimination, like quotas at some colleges, housing covenants that prevented Jews from moving into a neighborhood, or clubs and resorts that barred Jews. As scholars of Jews and whiteness like Eric Goldstein have shown, Jews’ whiteness was often conditional. 

This is evident when Jews are depicted as the puppeteers of the replacement theory advanced by the white Christian nationalists like those marching in the torchlight parades in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally in 2017. These same ideas radicalized the terrorist Robert Bowers when he massacred Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Racial reckoning requires recognition of all of this history, which is rife with tensions for Jews.

Jews are also afraid of the ramifications of CRT when it is applied to Israel, worrying about the claims that it is a colonial, racial, apartheid state. But denial or dismissal of these claims by insisting that they are anti-Semitic is a deflection that will only help to foster them. We need to demonstrate how these terms fail to account for the lived realities in Israel or acknowledge the analogs with other states.

Anti-CRT laws are part of a global backlash designed to quell the reckoning with racism unleashed by the murder of George Floyd. Jews should oppose these laws and lean into the insights of critical race theory, some of which were shaped by Jewish antiracist theorists. We should do so because anti-Semitism is on the rise, we need to build coalitions in the struggle against it, and the resources of critical race theory can help us to analyze it more acutely. Ultimately, we should embrace critical race theory because the core Jewish narrative in the Bible is a story about the movement of a people from slavery to freedom, which is precisely the goal of Critical Race Theory. 

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