Twenty years ago, when I was a college student, I started writing about a then-nameless, niche ideology that seemed to contradict everything I had been taught since I was a child.
It is possible I would not have perceived the nature of this ideology—or rather I would have been able to avoid seeing its true nature—had I not been a Jew. But I was. I am. And in noticing the way I had been written out of the equation, I started to notice that it wasn’t just me, but that the whole system rested on an illusion.
What I saw was a worldview that replaced basic ideas of good and evil with a new rubric: the powerless (good) and the powerful (bad). It replaced lots of things. Color blindness with race obsession. Ideas with identity. Debate with denunciation. Persuasion with public shaming. The rule of law with the fury of the mob.
People were to be given authority in this new order not in recognition of their gifts, hard work, accomplishments, or contributions to society, but in inverse proportion to the disadvantages their group had suffered, as defined by radical ideologues. According to them, as James Kirchick concisely put it: “Muslim > gay, black > female, and everybody > the Jews.”
I was an undergraduate back then, but you didn’t need a PhD to see where this could go. And so I watched, in horror, sounding alarms as loudly as I could.
I was told by most Jewish leaders that, yes, it wasn’t great, but not to be so hysterical. Campuses were always hotbeds of radicalism, they said. This ideology, they promised, would surely dissipate as young people made their way in the world.
It did not.
Over the past two decades I saw this inverted worldview swallow all of the crucial sense-making institutions of American life. It started with the universities. Then it moved on to cultural institutions—including some I knew well, like The New York Times—as well as every major museum, philanthropy, and media company. Then on to our medical schools and our law schools. It’s taken root at nearly every major corporation. It’s inside our high schools and even our elementary schools. The takeover is so comprehensive that it’s now almost hard to notice it—because it is everywhere.
Including in the Jewish community.
Some of the most important Jewish communal organizations transformed themselves in order to prop up this ideology. Or at the very least, they contorted themselves to signal that they could be good allies in the fight for equal rights—even as those rights are no longer presumed inalienable or equal and are handed out rather than protected.
For Jews there are obvious and glaring dangers in a worldview that measures fairness by equality of outcome rather than opportunity. If underrepresentation is the inevitable outcome of systemic bias, then overrepresentation—and Jews are two percent of the American population—suggests not talent or hard work, but unearned privilege. This conspiratorial conclusion is not that far removed from the hateful portrait of a small group of Jews divvying up the ill-gotten spoils of an exploited world.
It isn’t only Jews who suffer from the suggestion that merit and excellence are dirty words. It is strivers of every race, ethnicity, and class. That is why Asian American success, for example, is suspicious. The percentages are off. The scores are too high. Who did you steal all that success from?
Of course, this new ideology doesn’t come right out and say all that. It doesn’t even like to be named. Some call it wokeness or anti-racism or progressivism or safetyism or Critical Social Justice or identity Marxism. But whatever term you use, what’s clear is that it has gained power in a conceptual instrument called “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” or DEI.
In theory, all three of these words represent noble causes. They are, in fact, all causes to which American Jews in particular have long been devoted, both individually and collectively. But in reality, these words are now metaphors for an ideological movement bent on recategorizing every American not as an individual, but as an avatar of an identity group, his or her behavior prejudged accordingly, setting all of us up in a kind of zero-sum game.
We have been seeing for several years now the damage this ideology has done: DEI, and its cadres of enforcers, undermine the central missions of the institutions that adopt it. But nothing has made the dangers of DEI clearer than what’s happening these days on our college campuses—the places where our future leaders are nurtured.
It is there that professors are compelled to pledge fidelity to DEI in order to get hired, promoted, or tenured. (For more on this, please read John Sailer’s Free Press piece: How DEI Is Supplanting Truth as the Mission of American Universities.) And it is there that the hideousness of this worldview has been on full display over the past few weeks: we see students and professors immersed not in facts, knowledge, and history, but in a dehumanizing ideology that has led them to celebrate or justify terrorism.
Jews, who understand that being made in the image of God bestows inviolate sanctity on every human life, must not stand by as that principle, so central to the promise of this country and its hard-won freedoms, is erased.
What we must do is reverse this.
The answer is not for the Jewish community to plead its cause before the intersectional coalition or beg for a higher ranking in the new ladder of victimhood. That is a losing strategy—not just for Jewish dignity, but for the values we hold as Jews and as Americans.
The Jewish commitment to justice—and the Jewish American community’s powerful and historic opposition to racism—is a source of tremendous pride. That should never waver. Nor should our commitment to stand by our friends, especially when they need our support as we now need theirs.
But DEI is not about the words it uses as camouflage. DEI is about arrogating power.
And the movement that is gathering all this power does not like America or liberalism. It does not believe that America is a good country—at least no better than China or Iran. It calls itself progressive, but it does not believe in progress; it is explicitly anti-growth. It claims to promote “equity,” but its answer to the challenge of teaching math or reading to disadvantaged children is to eliminate math and reading tests. It demonizes hard work, merit, family, and the dignity of the individual.
An ideology that pathologizes these fundamental human virtues is one that seeks to undermine what makes America exceptional.
It is time to end DEI for good. No more standing by as people are encouraged to segregate themselves. No more forced declarations that you will prioritize identity over excellence. No more compelled speech. No more going along with little lies for the sake of being polite.
The Jewish people have outlived every single regime and ideology that has sought our elimination. We will persist, one way or another. But DEI is undermining America, and that for which it stands—including the principles that have made it a place of unparalleled opportunity, safety, and freedom for so many. Fighting it is the least we owe this country.
Our friends at Tablet have been amazing collaborators over the past few weeks. This piece was originally published as part of a Tablet symposium about what we in the West should do after October 7.
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