Frazzled by recent discussions with her American Jewish counterparts, an Israeli friend recently asked me, “What alien species has taken over the American Jewish community?”
There has indeed been an abrupt shift in political attitudes among a segment of American Jews and other elites, which, unabated, will corrode US–Israel relations and Israel’s national security. My recent book Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews investigates how the ideology behind this shift disenfranchises the American Jewish community. In addition, woke ideology undermines American national resolve and hence its confidence and projection of power in the world, which creates a leadership vacuum and strengthens the hands of bad actors. It exacerbates the negative media environment for Israel, diminishes bipartisan support for the Jewish state, and has the potential to affect international investment in Israel. In light of this admittedly gloomy assessment, I offer some recommendations for how Israeli officials should maneuver in the current highly charged political environment.
What is Woke Ideology?
Woke ideology holds two core tenets: first, that bias and oppression are not just matters of individual attitude but are embedded in the very structures and systems of society; and second, that only those with lived experience of oppression have the insight to define oppression for the rest of society. The second of the two tenets is known as “standpoint epistemology,” the idea that knowledge is derived from one’s position in the power structure. In this framework, knowledge is tied to identity and to a group’s experience and perceived ability to see inequities.
A person who is deemed oppressed can insist that a non-oppressed person lacks moral standing to question his or her assertions about race, gender, power, or oppression and that the critic is “speaking out of privilege.” Standpoint claims are thus the ideological foundation of “cancel culture.”
Woke ideology began as an academic study, grew into a faddish campus ideology, and then morphed into corporate diversity programs. From there it became a dominant ideology in mainstream American institutions, including government bodies, medical associations, the movie industry, mainstream media, and even the US military. US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday added to his recommended readings Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist in which Kendi argues that “Capitalism is essentially racist,” and that “to truly be antiracist, you also have to be truly anticapitalist.” Woke ideology is both, according to public surveys, highly unpopular and, judging from its continued expansion, remarkably unflappable in the face of resistance.
An Altered Media Environment
The May 2021 fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas illustrated a change in media coverage of Israel. In each prior round of fighting in Gaza (2008, 2012, 2018) media coverage—both news and opinion—unfolded in a predictable pattern. The stories and editorials generally acknowledged that Israel must have leeway to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilians. Then, as casualties mounted, the coverage turned against Israel, and within a few days, the same outlets condemned the Jewish state for using “disproportionate force.” In May 2021—when this latest round occurred—even in the earliest stages of the conflict Israel was not extended the usual benefit of the doubt and was vilified as the oppressor in many outlets.
Consistent with the oppressed/oppressor binary in the mainstream press, polling shows Americans on the center-left and young people are less sympathetic to Israel. From 2002 through 2014, Democrats were significantly more likely to side with the Israelis than the Palestinians. Since 2014, not uncoincidentally when protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri and Black Lives Matter became a household name, that preference for Israel has gradually faded, and now Democrats are about equally as likely to sympathize with Palestinians as with Israelis. In a poll commissioned by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, respondents were asked if they believe Israel to be a sovereign nation with the right to defend itself or an occupier and a colonizer that uses modern military power to attack defenseless Palestinians. Progressives and young voters were more likely to agree with the colonizer narrative.
Defender or Colonizer?
Poll commissioned by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, August 2022. Blue indicates Israel is a defender, orange indicates settler-colonialist, and gray is don’t know/refused to answer.
Installing Woke Software into Young Americans
Over the course of five decades, anti-Israel forces focused on US college campuses have transformed the American university into a vector for their activist agenda. Having enjoyed considerable success, they are now turning to K-12 education. They are playing the long game—what activists call “the long march through institutions”—in inculcating a stark ideological worldview that portrays anyone with power or success (success is a function of power, in this worldview)—America, Israel, Jews, Asians, men—as oppressors. Many schools teach students to see people’s identities as markers of privilege and power and to “recognize and resist systems of oppression.” With this ideological software running through kids’ brains, the school system does not have to even utter the word “Jew” or “Israel” for Jews and Israel to be ultimately implicated in oppression.
Decline in Support from Young Jews and Young Evangelicals
Neither are young Jews immune from the effects of ideology. A poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in May 2022 revealed that 53% of US Jews ages 25–40 feel connected to Israel. Among those who do not feel connected are those who disagree with Israel’s policies and those who fear social ostracization driven by feeling out of synch with their peers. “Our survey indicates that millennial US Jews may be willing to suppress their Zionism, or even their Jewishness, to remain in good social standing,” stated the AJC.
Surveys of young evangelical Christians show similar trends: In a poll of evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 conducted in the spring of 2021, only 33.6% sided with Israel, a marked shift from 2018, when 69% of young evangelicals supported Israel. Both young evangelicals and young Jews are immersed in the same ideological environment as their peers and aren’t immune from its effects.
Erosion in American National Resolve
Woke ideology not only lessens support for Israel among Americans, it also diminishes enthusiasm for America and for the nation’s sense of purpose in the world. According to a recent survey, pride in their country has reached record lows among Americans. In 2013, 56% of Democrats were “extremely proud” of being American; today the figure is 26%, reflecting not only a change of leadership in the White House but shifting political attitudes. Asked about the state of American foreign policy, Henry Kissinger responded that “A minimum condition for great achievement for a society is to believe in its purposes and in its historical record. And if the educational system of a country becomes increasingly focused on the shortcomings of its history and less on the purposes of the society, then its capacity to act internationally will be diverted into its internal struggles.” An American society that loses faith in its own sense of purpose and moral standing is likely to be less assertive on the international stage and less likely to be a reliable ally facing down global threats.
Exploitation by Bad Actors
An Islamist–progressive alliance—European in origin with an anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Zionist agenda—has now planted itself in this country. In a report called “The Red Green Alliance is Coming to America,” the Reut Group describes how woke ideology has been exploited by radical Islamists forces who use it to influence American foreign policy in the Middle East. The Reut Group points out that in the US, this cooperation is accelerated by a process of “progressivization” of Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which are steadily adopting the rhetoric of progressive politics.
The Islamist–progressive alliance focuses its foreign policy criticism on the pro-Western axis of US allies, and it seeks to undermine US support for the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements signed in 2020 between Israel and four Arab countries.
As woke ideology has set into the corporate and financial worlds, the already growing movement toward Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) has gained further steam. Companies have adopted environmental, social, and governance metrics to rate business performance. Along with standards of “equity”—proportional representation of marginalized communities in companies—are human rights scores as well. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has pushed UN human rights reports on Israel to affect investors’ decision making. While previous BDS efforts had little if any effect on the Israeli economy, the growth of SRI practices, fueled by wokeness, could affect Israeli companies over time.
Effects on the Democratic Party
The effects of woke ideology are being felt within the Democratic Party. Jewish operatives on Capitol Hill see up close how the ideology impacts members of Congress who are constantly looking over their left shoulder at the activist wing of the party. It wouldn’t take a significant drop in support for Israel for a future Democratic president to withhold backing for the Jewish state in the UN Security Council. Daniel Gordis, the Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, recently stated:
I don’t think you have to move the needle too far to the left of the Democratic Party to get to a place where those vetoes (in the UN Security Council) might not come . . . And that obviously itself . . . could be a hugely dangerous thing. One could see, for example, a growing international sentiment designed to ostracize Israel and you could foresee the next time there’s a May 2021 (Israel–Hamas conflict) . . . European air carriers say we’re not flying to Israel, and they also say that Israeli lines like El Al cannot fly to the US. And you could imagine in a different kind of precedent, the United States copying that even for a week or two, reminding Israelis that they are fundamentally completely surrounded (Israel from the Inside Podcast, October 2022).
If the ideology continues to take hold, it is possible but not inevitable that we will see a major shift in the Democratic Party toward the “settler-colonialist” narrative of Israel.
Recommendations for Israeli Policymakers and Diplomats
In light of the challenges posted by woke ideology, I recommend
- Israel policymakers and planners should be educated and fully briefed on the ideological trends in the US;
- Israelis should speak openly to select American Jewish leaders about their concerns with woke ideology and how it will impact US–Israel relations and Israeli national security;
- Israeli embassies and consulates should shift their outreach and engagement efforts away from political progressives and toward political centrists among ethnic and immigrant communities;
- Israel should take steps to rebut the SRI narratives on Israel and support efforts of alternative, values-based investors that are not biased toward Israel;
- Israeli officials should remain steadfastly nonpartisan and avoid tying Israel’s brand to either party so as to avoid accelerating the politicization process.