Critical Race Theory, Jews and Israel

May 31, 2021 by  
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According to the command of the Lord, the Israelites journeyed and according to the command of the Lord they camped.

Rabbi Ben Elton

I have always found these among the most powerful words in the Torah…writes Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton.

In a world that has always had shifting moral values, and in which ethics have varied from age to age and place to place, as Jews we have a stable morality based on eternal principles. When new ideas come along and challenge or confront us, we have a fixed point from which to measure them and to endorse, modify or reject their claims. I want to attempt to do that this morning with an ideology, or at least an analysis, that has become immensely influential in the last few years, and has even more recently been the foundation for deeply concerning events and trends around the world. I am talking about critical race theory.

But first, let me give the context. Although there is now a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, we have been shocked in recent days by videos coming out of Europe and North America of Jews being attacked on the streets by pro-Palestinian activists, simply for being Jews. Anti-Semitic incidents are sweeping across the West. ‘Hitler was right’ was tweeted over seventeen thousand times between 7 and 14 May. Synagogue windows have been smashed and graffiti has appeared on Jewish buildings.

There is another development which is just as frightening in its own way. Over one hundred American rabbinical and cantorial students, from a range of movements other than Orthodoxy, signed a letter which attacked Israel for ‘violent suppression of human rights and enable[ing] apartheid’. It claims that Israel is perpetrating ‘racial violence’. No mention whatsoever is made in the letter of the actions of Hamas or the suffering of Israeli civilians. When omission was challenged one of the authors said ‘I don’t feel like I have ground to stand on to try to influence how Palestinians respond to oppression’. It is terrifying and it is confusing, so we must ask, where does this mindset come from?

I was recently privileged to hear a Muslim scholar who argued that what we are seeing is a manifestation of critical race theory put into practice. As I was doing more research, I found a video of a panel discussion from last year entitled ‘Racial Justice Has No Borders: Embedding Palestinian Rights in the 2020 Agenda’. I was particularly struck by one of the panellists.

Noura Erakat is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, a well-respected college in New York State. She comes from a Palestinian family and was brought up in the United States. She is now an advocate of critical race theory and, importantly, for the connection between the struggle between white and black in America and between Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East. She described how she came to her analysis of the situation in Israel, West Bank and Gaza. She was a daughter in a traditional Arab home, albeit one situated in the US. It was automatically assumed that she would have a life of cooking and housework while her brothers would have lives in the public sphere. She rejected that, and she identified a binary: women and men. She then noticed other binaries: black and white; Israel and Palestine. In each case she saw an unequal and oppressive relationship. What is more, and this is crucial to critical race theory, all of these aspects of oppression are connected. Class, gender, race, sexuality and other axes all intersect with each other. That leads to a view that there is a group of oppressors and a group of the oppressed and they are defined by their category. Whites are oppressors, blacks are oppressed. But where does that leave Israelis and Palestinians?

Erakat said something which took my breath away. She claimed that when Jews embraced Zionism they chose to become white. Jews were not white before that, and we certainly are not white in a standard European sense, but the real reason we were not white is because we were oppressed. We were the victims of anti-Semitism in Europe. We were non-white victims; indeed we were non-white because we were victims. Once Jews adopted Zionism, became historical agents, rejected a fate as victims, we became white and we became oppressors. While I am confident that Erakat would condemn individual acts of violence in Europe or the US, I think we can now see the pieces coming together.

In an American context of the death of George Floyd, of Black Lives Matter, of the focusing on violent white oppression of black people, once you define Jews as white, Palestinians become black and the relationship becomes one of oppressor and oppressed and there is nothing more to say. There are goodies and baddies, and Jews are the baddies A Jew in New York is white and therefore an oppressor by very definition and in the next step, which some then take, they become a legitimate target. A racial murder in Minneapolis becomes the same as a deeply complex political, ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East. That is what it means to call a panel ‘Racial Justice Has No Borders: Embedding Palestinian Rights in the 2020 Agenda’. And that is despite the fact that America with its racial history is an entirely inappropriate model for looking at almost any other society in the world, and certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But this is now the accepted fact in a large part of the contemporary left, particularly. That does not mean that it has taken over all of society or all of academia or the media, but it is undoubtedly a strong force. It is that force that we are seeing spill over into violence. Incidentally this is not an idea found in Islam, which is why the Muslim scholar I heard took the view that the potential for violence does not come from older and more religiously connected and educated Muslims, but from the young, secular and religiously ignorant members of the Muslim community.

But the first home of critical race theory is not irreligious Muslim youth, it is western liberal youth. It is warmly embraced by many young people who are avowedly secular and even anti-religious. That is why we have the very strange sight of, for example, parts of the Queer community supporting Hamas, wilfully ignoring the persecution of LGBTQ people in Gaza.

It is why it has even seeped into parts of the religious Jewish world, even to its future spiritual leaders. That is why the letter from the liberal rabbinical students refers to suppression, apartheid and racial violence, because they are the only concepts they have to understand the situation. The only tools they have to understand any conflict is between the oppressor and the oppressed and it is simply a matter of applying the labels. Once those labels have been assigned, woe betide the identified oppressor in the dock of their opinion.

The leaders of the non-Orthodox movements have condemned this letter, so this is not a problem that affects Progressive Judaism across the board, but it is clear that we see something here of significance. When a theological system emphasises making value judgements based on personal perception rather than the teachings of tradition, the results can be surprising and appalling. These rabbinical students, who come from the left, have been bowled over by the momentum and impact of the powerful left wing movement that is inspired by critical race theory, because they have no objective moral standards to hold onto in order to withstand it. In that view, Israelis are racists and oppressors and must be condemned and Palestinians are the oppressed and can never be criticised or questioned. And that is exactly what the letter sets out. It is a perfect essay in half-digested critical race theory.

That is simply wrong. Contrary to the statement of the co-author of the student letter, we do have ground to stand on. We have the ground of the Torah and our religious ethical tradition. Targeting civilians is wrong. Placing fighters in civilian areas is wrong. Diverting money from civil improvements into arms is wrong. Ruling a society through repression, fear and brutality is wrong. Yes, we can and we should use our moral norms to assess our own behaviour, and valid criticism of Israel remains legitimate and essential. But we must totally reject simplistic equations that lead us to abandon our responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong based on the facts in front of us, and not follow the dictates of a theory, which even if it is applicable to the United States, which it might or might not be, certainly does not apply elsewhere. We must not desert the unmoveable principles that make it always wrong to beat up a Jew on the street of a western city simply for being a Jew. We live in a Woke age, but I believe that the world has to wake up to that truth, and it is our responsibility to the morality we have inherited, we live by and we must advocate, to make sure that the world does wake up.

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton is the spiritual head of Sydney’s The Great Synagogue


2 Responses to “Critical Race Theory, Jews and Israel”
  1. David Becker says:

    If as soon as a group chooses to no longer be a victim and to become an agent of change that group becomes “White” (which in this case isn’t a skin color but is a stand-in for someone who chooses not to be a victim), why isn’t Hamas “White”? Or even BLM? They are rejecting victimhood and are becoming agents. Or does it only happen when there’s some success? Though I would argue having pried Gaza out of Israel’s hands would appear to be success. It appears that Gaza is “White.” Then it’s just two “White” groups fighting each other, and nobody should care about that.

  2. Robert Schwartzman says:

    Rutgers University is in New Jersey, not New York

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