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Critical Race Theory, and the Jewish Community

We really must thank Whoopi Goldberg. If it had not been for her recent controversial statement on “The View” about the Holocaust not being about race we would not be having this national discussion about race. Ms. Goldberg is not alone in thinking that race is only about white people subjugating black and other people of color. Yet, the history of race and race theory of eugenics in the United States clearly did not just focus on African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. It also included Jews and Catholics, the Irish, the disabled, the mentally ill and anyone who was not connected in some fashion to the white, Anglo-Saxon elites of America and Europe. Race was a socially constructed concept to justify both slavery and discrimination. In fact, Jews were not considered white until the 1960s. Yet, race does not exist as human trait.

What Ms. Goldberg does not seem to know, in spite of her chosen name, is that the racial designation given Jews by the racists does not represent who we are. We are not just a religion, we are a people with our own land, language, religion, culture. We are a Middle Eastern people, like the Kurds, Armenians, Yazidi and a host of other non-Arab Middle Eastern people. We will talk more about this later in the essay.

Ms. Goldberg’s comments come at a time when racial concerns have risen in the United States, just as antisemitism has risen. Racial hatred and antisemitism go hand in hand.
The African American situation in the United States is one in which racism has been so embedded into the fabric of society that it has become both systemic and structural. In fact, a group of law professors have come up with a method for understanding the issues of race in the United States. This method has become known as Critical Race Theory. We shall address CRT at the end of this extended essay.

To help Ms. Goldberg and others understand that the complexities of race in the US really goes far beyond white suppression of African American we need to begin with some history.
First of all, there is no such thing as race. Both the American Anthropological Association and the American Sociological Association have noted that racial theories have no basis in fact. Racial theories were constructed in the 19th century to justify both slavery and antisemitism and to promote the supremacy of white Christian male elites over all others as a part of the growing imperial and colonial expansion of European powers of England, France, Spain, and Portugal. Race before the 1800s in Shakespearean time was used as a general classification or typology of humans like a “race of Bishops” or a “race of saints” as the Encyclopedia Britannica notes. In the 18th and 19th century race was used “used for sorting and ranking the peoples in the English colonies—Europeans who saw themselves as free people, Amerindians who had been conquered, and Africans who were being brought in as slave labour.”

It was Arthur de Gobineau, whose “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races,” (1855) changed how race was viewed from a generalized category to a specific theory of the superiority of white European Christians he identified as Aryans, specifically white German Christians. While Gobineau was not obsessed with antisemitism as some of his contemporaries were, he “saw the Jews as praiseworthy for their ability to avoid miscegenation while at the same time depicting them as another alien force for the decay of Aryan Europe.” (Wikipedia.org) His essays though became the basis for the new force of political race-based antisemitism promoted by prominent antisemites such as Richard Wagner, his son in law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Romanian political professor A.C. Cuza and eventually, the leaders of the Nazi Party.

Gobineau’s real attack was on Africans, Asians, and native peoples who he clearly defined as inferior to Aryan whites. Two American white supremacists, “race scientists” Josiah Nott and Henry Hotze translated the essay into English as a way to justify the slavery of Africans and to respond to the anti-slavery attacks of the Abolitionists. Nott and Hotze reduced Gobineau’s original 1600-page essay to 400 pages, only keeping those parts related to the inferiority of blacks and leaving off Gobineau’s strident attack against American whites as “a very mixed assortment of the most degenerate races of olden-day Europe. They are the human flotsam of all ages: Irish, crossbreed Germans and French and Italians of even more doubtful stock.”
It was up to Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin, to come up with a pseudo-science of eugenics which he coined in 1883. It was Galton’s essays and lectures which became the core of the Eugenics movement in the US just as “Jim Crow Laws” were being promulgated across the US against African Americans; as well as laws and policies affecting Jews, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asia Americans, the Irish and Italian Catholics, the disabled, the mentally ill, and even the poor and homeless. He advocated selective breeding of humans to rid bad traits and improve the traits of Aryan white people, he also advocated for sterilization programs for undesirable people. His writings just brushed up to the border of a call for genocide ultimately was embraced by the Nazis and other fascist and nativist-nationalist groups.

Groups, organizations, and individuals promoting eugenics included: the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, Henry Ford, the Harriman railroad fortune, the J.H. Kellogg family who found the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, The Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York established in 1911 by Chales B. Davenport, in addition other American leaders such as Leland Stanford, and a variety of women’s organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National League of Women Voters at one time or another lobbied state and federal governments to institute eugenics based policies. Many states enacted sterilization laws, marriage laws, laws to stop racial mixing, laws to stop land and property purchases, anti-immigrant laws to favor Anglo Saxon “superiority” over Jews, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
It was during this period from the slavery of Africans to after the Civil War and during the rise of the “Jim Crow” era that racism became systemic in the United States. Not only were African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian American not considered white but also Jews were considered not white. Jews, like African Americans and other minority groups, were not permitted to have jobs in banking, insurance and a host of other professions, Jews were not permitted to practice law in many areas, were not able to practice medicine in many hospitals and medical schools, could not go to many hotels and resorts, buy houses in many neighborhoods. In response Jews created their own hospitals and medical schools, law practices, banks, hotels.

The systemic nature of this monumental discrimination effort covered almost all aspects of American society. Even intelligence tests were developed liked the Stanford Benet test to week out minorities and immigrants from educational opportunity or even worse to identify candidates for sterilization. There was even an attempt during WWI to use eugenics to impact the draft. It was that attempt that finally led Woodrow Wilson and the War Department to finally step in and stop the eugenics movement briefly. Eugenics and race theory continued to have its impact on American society with increased levels of discrimination focused on African Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans. The power of the eugenics movement coupled with the increased political power of the KKK, and the rise of American Nazis brought the United States to levels of hate and discrimination on par with Nazi Germany and Italy. Early polling efforts during the 1940s showed that a significant percentage of Americans feared Jews more than they feared the Nazis and the Japanese. The end of WWII brought about a shift in American attitudes toward Jews and at the same set-in place a growing civil rights movement for African Americans. For Jews, the realization of the real impact of race theories and eugenics in causing the genocide of six million Jews, as well as the creation of the State of Israel had an impact in changing American negative attitudes toward Jews more positive attitudes. Prior to the 1960s, Jews were considered by many including local, state and federal officials as not being white. At the same time American attitudes began to change for Jews, a burgeoning nascent civil rights movement began to assert itself for African Americans. Little by little the civil rights movement became more and more active and had greater impact in American politics. The March on Washington organized by Reverend Martin Luther King where he delivered his “I Have Dream” speech did a great deal to move the US government to in act laws to overturn “Jim Crow” laws and systemic policies to restrict African American voting, and to desegregate American schools.

Today, even though Jews, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities have made great strides, the systemic long-term influence of racism and antisemitism still is pervasive and growing, as shown by the murders of African Americans by police and others and the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway, California.

Now let’s address the issues surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) and their implications for the Jewish community.

The Jewish community is between a rock and a hard place on the issue of CRT. We will be condemned if we support it and condemned if we oppose it. Yet, there are reasons to both support CRT and condemn it. The recent stunning defeat of the Democrats in Virginia, in part, because of the issue of parental rights in determining education policy and Critical Race Theory, which, by the way, is not taught in Virginia K-12 schools shows how important this issue may be for the 2022 elections and certainly for local school board elections and state elections. Republican success in Virginia will catapult the issue of CRT into all kinds of elections coming up to 2022 and Democrats and the Jewish community needs to be prepared to deal with the fallout from this issue. We see Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida already jumping on the band wagon of anti-CRT hype by advocating legislation to ban the teaching of CRT in Florida schools.

More than 40 years ago legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado and others developed an academic legal theory they called Critical Race Theory. The basis of CRT is the idea that race is a social construct, as I argued in part 1 of this essay. Racism is not just based on individual bias or prejudice but as the authors of CRT argue is “embedded in legal systems and policies.” (Sawchuck, Eduweek, May 2021)

Stephen Sawchuck has noted that, “today, those same patterns of discrimination live on through facially race-blind policies, like single-family zoning that prevents the building of affordable housing in advantaged, majority-white neighborhoods and, thus, stymies racial desegregation efforts. “(Eduweek, May 2021)

CRT has been used as the jumping off point for other theories which make connections between race and political and economic power; race and language; and race and social structure. CRT, following in the footsteps of ethnic studies, has also limited the scope of those minorities affected by race to African Americans, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islander and Hispanic minorities, ignoring the impact of racial theories on such groups as Jews.

Some adherents of both CRT and ethnic studies exclude Jews from their theoretical construct because they see Jews as privileged white people. Even though the racial theories I discussed in part 1 clearly show that the racists themselves clearly see Jews as not being white and certainly being outcasts.

This irony would be humorous if it were not the basis of significant policy decision making for some of the groups who make their policy and argumentative positions based on the structural nature of racism identified in CRT.

One of the major critics of CRT is the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation has made CRT a wedge issue for weaponization of culture to be utilized by Republican candidates against Democratic candidates.

Sawchuk points this out in his article for Eduweek. “One conservative organization, the Heritage Foundation, recently attributed a whole host of issues to CRT, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations, California’s recent ethnic studies model curriculum, the free-speech debate on college campuses, and alternatives to exclusionary discipline—such as the Promise program in Broward County, Fla., that some parents blame for the Parkland school shootings. “When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,” the organization claimed.”

Governor Youngkin in Virginia and Governor DeSantis in Florida have both turned the Heritage Foundation faulty understanding of CRT into policies which attack teachers and schools and even wander into authoritarianism and defense of white supremacy.

The use of CRT as a political weapon is dangerous in part because it is a solution in search of a problem. CRT is not being taught in the K-12 school system in the states in which it is banned and banning something not being taught is a ridiculous effort.

Yet, CRT represents a peril of sort for the Jewish community. While CRT in general is a theory which explains much of the historical, structural racist antisemitism and public policy of the United States toward Jews, the adherents of CRT have problematically and purposely not included Jews as a discriminated group. This exclusion is sometimes the basis for left wing discrimination against Jews. On the other hand, the peril for Jews is coming from the massive use of CRT as a Republican and white supremist wedge issue, full of white supremacist, neo-Nazi dog whistles and white angst over being made to feel guilty about past forms of white racist discrimination. This last bit about white guilt is at the heart of Florida Gov DeSantis’ and the Florida Republican parties legislative agenda this winter.

So, the Jewish community are damned for supporting CRT and damned for opposing it. That is why Jews in battleground states need to carefully navigate this very contentious issue. We also need to argue with our brothers and sisters in other minority groups that they need to recognize that the United States Jewish community has suffered and continues to suffer from the legacy of racism in the US and therefore we need to be at the CRT table.

The actions of some in the right to weaponize CRT is a direct threat to the attempt by the Jewish community to teach about the Holocaust; to draw moral conclusions from the teaching about the Holocaust about getting students to see the thin line between perpetration and resistance and rescue. The idea that differentiating between the decision making of perpetrators versus the decision making of rescuers gives moral clarity for students and provides them with role models for their own existence. Those of us who have taught teachers about the Holocaust for decades have seen the value of this teaching method in dealing with gang behavior and with bullying and taking individual and group responsibility for our actions. We have used this teaching as well to give moral vision to engineers, scientists, medical professionals, and even military officers as to when to say no to blindly following orders that harm others unjustly.

In conclusion, the Jewish community in general must be wary of navigating the dangerous shoals of both acceptance and denial of the implications of Critical Race Theory.

Antisemitism, like other forms of racism, in the United States is raging. The ADL has recently reported that Jews who make up around 2% of the population suffer from 60% of all the hate crimes perpetrated in the US. Antisemitism, the longest hate, does not go away in part because it is systemic in parts of American society. And Jews, as a small minority with a high profile, are a convenient target for hatred from both the left and the right. We do not have the luxury of hiding from these issues and must confront them directly to stop Republicans from using this as a wedge issue in politics and to stop the adherents of CRT from ignoring the fact the Jews too are suffering from the impact of systemic racism. This will not be an easy fight.

About the Author
Dr. Samuel M. Edelman has served as the first executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Currently he is one of the founding faculty members of the new Academic Council for Israel, and its executive director, and a member of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN).
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