From Prophets to Loss: Woke Activism and America’s Jews

Since the late eighteenth century, Ashkenazi Jews have aspired to full acceptance by and integration into their surrounding host societies.  This came during the Age of Enlightenment when ghetto walls were taken down and Jews granted national citizenships. The lengths to which some Jews went in an effort to achieve this acceptance, especially in the Germanic states, stand as an ignoble chapter of modern Jewish history, echoes of which continue to this day.  Conversion to Christianity, for social reasons, was the most extreme act.  It was the path taken by four of Moses Mendelsohn’s six children, the parents of Karl Marx, and the poet Heinrich Heine.  The founding of Reform Judaism during this era and its adaptation of Christian worship practices was, more than anything else, part of a strategy for achieving wholesale social acceptance. 

Acceptance and integration among gentiles, it seemed self-evident, would guarantee safety and security, a blessed change from centuries of persecution; perhaps at a later stage Jews might enjoy a level of comfort few had ever known.  But this would be dependent upon living in an open, democratic society that prioritized the values of brotherhood and social justice, one in which Jews were treated no differently than any other group. 

Unlike countries in which Jews throughout their long diaspora were required to dwell separately, the United States, divorced from so many of the cultural mores and traditions of the Old World, appeared mostly free of Europe’s endemic, deeply rooted antisemitism.  This was the first time that Jews were promised full equality under the law of the land.  If there was any country where Jews might finally find acceptance, integration, and the peace of mind they sought, it was in America.

The American public square in the nineteenth century was unabashedly Protestant Christian in character even though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” The United States retained its Christian spirit well into the twentieth century.  Christian America carried on an ambivalent relationship with the growing number of Jewish immigrants.  Many Christian Americans harbored resentment towards Jews for their difference and it may not be said that anti-Semitism was unknown.  At the same time, American Christians were also intimately familiar with and venerated the books of the Hebrew prophets. 

The Reform Movement of Judaism in America, small as it was during its first few decades, recognized the value of this shared reverence.  By placing an emphasis on what came to be known as “Prophetic Judaism,” an interpretation of the Torah that includes only ethical teachings and discards all legalisms, the leaders and ideologues of this movement felt Jews could more easily find their place in Christian America.  Prophetic Judaism, then, was a vehicle to help American Jews achieve acceptance and integrate among their Christian neighbors.  In the twentieth century, American Jewish theologians burnished the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition” as a means of reaffirming the rightful place of Jews in American society.

But the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition” lost currency in the latter part of the twentieth century.  The counter-culture revolution of the 1960s weakened the authority of established religion in America.  Many young Americans, Christians and Jews, turned to eastern religions and cults; some abandoned religious belief altogether.  At the same time, the social and political unrest of the 1960s, best exemplified by the civil rights movement and the anti-war in Vietnam movement, engendered an emphasis on “social justice” untethered from any formal religious doctrine.    The staid words of the Hebrew Prophets and the “Judeo-Christian tradition” did not speak to the upcoming generation.

In this new era of heightened social activism, liberal Christian circles easily adopted the term “social justice.” Many liberal Jewish activists, particularly from within the Reform movement, sought a Jewish imprimatur, something to replace “Prophetic Judaism” that would resonate with the Zeitgeist.  If the Hebrew Prophets now seemed less inspirational, then something redolent of justice, equality, and inclusiveness, but still identifiably Jewish, was called for.

This search was concluded with the (mis)appropriation of a Hebrew phrase that is found in the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer, le-takken ‘olam be-malkhut shaddai”—"to fashion (repair) the world in the Kingdom of God.”  In order to adapt the phrase to the present need, and as belief in God is not a necessity among social activists, the crucial second half of the phrase, “in the kingdom of God,” was jettisoned entirely.  The world needs repair, declared Jewish activists, and it is up to all of us, Jews and non-Jews as equals, to do our part in an effort to make it a better place. 

Tikkun olam spread rapidly throughout the 1980s and 1990s among Reform, Conservative, and other liberal Jewish interest groups that have since cast it as the essence of Judaism. Orthodox Jewish spokesmen criticized the seeming effort to substitute almost all Jewish tradition and practices with tikkun olam.  

Jews mixed with non-Jews in any number of tikkun olam missions throughout the world, from local community service projects on behalf of the poor, sick and elderly, to volunteering in underdeveloped third world communities, to planting forests, to collecting plastic bottles for recycling, to cleaning up beaches, and of, course, saving the whales.  Jews and non-Jews, worked together to achieve social justice; they toiled shoulder to shoulder in a spirit of universal brotherhood and inclusiveness; race, religion, nationality were irrelevant.  Over time tikkun olam became synonymous with any good deed.  The Hebrew phrase was taken up by non-Jews, including American presidents, but sans its deeper Jewish theological origins.

And then…. social justice woke up.  A term that had emerged from African-American vernacular, “woke” originally referred to a general awareness of the social and political issues, particularly discrimination, affecting black Americans; it meant to be “awake.”  However, in 2014, following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the term was adopted and promoted widely by the Black Lives Matter movement.  Soon after it became identified with a broader social justice agenda that included an array of left-wing ideologies, such as women’s and LGBT issues, with an emphasis on identity politics and grounded in “Critical Race Theory.”

During the tumultuous summer of 2020, many Jews joined the ranks of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in cities across the United States, raising BLM placards and chanting Leftist social justice slogans (in spite of open displays of antisemitism at some of these events).  To these American Jews, and to the many more who chose not to march, their full-throated support for the Black Lives Matter movement was, yet again, an expression of tikkun olam.

However, progressive politics in America was now becoming “woke.”  The implication of this for many Jewish liberals was shocking.  Woke ideology categorized American Jews as white and with no claim to the oppression visited by western culture upon people of color.  Individual Jews might be acceptable, but Jews as a group lacked standing among America’s darker-skinned minorities. 

Even more egregious within woke circles was that American Jews were kith and kin to the Jews of the State of Israel.  And Israel, as falsely perceived in progressive circles, was guilty of practicing racism, Apartheid, and genocide, and stealing and illegally occupying Palestine land.  Moreover, Israel was identified as the enemy of all African-Americans as it stood accused, again falsely, of training American policemen in the brutal tactics they employed against the black community, including that used in the death of George Floyd.  Israel was the very nemesis of woke.

Up until this point, American Jews had found the pursuit of liberalism to be a useful and legitimate means of achieving social integration and acceptance; a liberal society is an inclusive society.  The emphasis placed on “Prophetic Judaism” and “tikkun olam” were the means of this pursuit.  Some of the most successful and highly acculturated American Jews, those with little formal Jewish background and without any meaningful Jewish communal ties, nevertheless attribute their liberal, beneficent worldview to their “Jewish values.” 

But for Jews who view the pursuit of social justice as the crux of Judaism, woke politics and culture pose a dilemma.  How much of their particularistic Jewish identity and their association with Israel are they willing to forfeit in order to find acceptance among the woke? 

The transition from Prophetic Judaism to tikkun olam offered greater opportunities for social activism, even with minimum Jewish commitment.  The move from tikkun olam to Woke, which currently serves as the gold standard of social activism in America, would seem to be the natural next step for liberal Jewish activists.  However, woke posits a world with no borders, no distinctions among peoples, and, in the words of John Lennon, “no religion too.”  For some Jews, this may represent the ideal path to full social assimilation, integration, and acceptance. For others, those who refuse to sacrifice their Jewish selves, it portends a rude awakening.

Ardie Geldman is the director of in Efrat, Israel 

Image: MaxPixel / public domain

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