Last week, Tablet magazine published a bombshell of an article by Jennifer Bilek, “The Billionaire Family Pushing Synthetic Sex Identities (SSI): The wealthy, powerful, and sometimes very weird Pritzker cousins have set their sights on a new God-like goal: using gender ideology to remake human biology.” Bilek argued that several philanthropic foundations, most notably the Pritzker Family Foundation, are funding “Synthetic Sex Identities,” referring to trans and non-binary identities, as part of a larger “transhumanist” agenda to alter the human body through technology. Bikel names several foundations, some Jewish and some not, who support such an alleged agenda.
Progressive Jewish Twitter jumped into action, as progressive Jewish Twitter does, and condemned the article for both antisemitism and transphobia. Yehuda Kurtzer, the head of the Hartman Institute of North America, tweeted, “I think the piece (which I won’t link to) was horrible, dangerous, and antisemitic. And I’m sure there’s a way to talk about the transformation of sex and gender in our society that’s not that.”
That Bilek names a prominent foundation run by a Jewish family comes no where near the standard of evidence needed for labeling someone an antisemite. Jewish groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum name other Jewish philanthropies they don’t like all the time, and they’re not being antisemitic. Of course, sometimes when people name Jews and Jewish philanthropists like George Soros or the Koch Family they are indeed dog whistling that Jews dominate the media, government, progressive causes, rightwing causes, etc. Dog whistling is a real thing. But that doesn’t mean every time someone cites a Jewish philanthropy in a critical manner that they are tapping into this antisemitic trope or that we have the needed proof to say so publicly.
Accusing someone of a dog whistle without evidence that the person is trying to spread hatred toward Jews circumvents the usual high standard of evidence required before attempting to destroy someone’s reputation for being an antisemite. It’s one thing to speak of trends in antisemitism like dog whistles—we should–it’s another to accuse someone of a specific offense, which ought to require significant evidence.
Those who accuse Bilek of antisemitism might say that Bilek cavorts with extreme rightwing forces. It appears she has and does. Bilek did once question why Jews are so active in “transgenderism.” Her full comments were:
“I just report on who the men are (supporters of trans ideology), I don’t single them out for being Jewish and I have never really speculated about why so many are. Quite some time ago I came across Keith Woods’ video on his theory of why this might be. I revisited this today because somebody wrote and asked about the Jewish aspect of the men involved in this agenda and I found it equally as fascinating as I did the first time. I wonder how others might feel about this.”
The Keith Woods video she mentions does offer up some fanciful speculation about why so many Jews are in the “transgenderism” movement. I’d have to go through his other videos to know if he’s a dyed in the wool antisemite but watching one was quite enough for one day. Bilek does seem to have low standards for citing truly shadowy figures in her writing and in some cases all out antisemites, but never spreads the tropes herself. In reading through much of her writing and social media, I didn’t come away with the impression that this is a woman who hates Jews and is trying to spread Jew-hatred.
The question of Bilek being a transphobe is another matter. The term transphobe has been so overused in condemning people who question any aspect of gender ideology that I’m not inclined to use it. It’s been weaponized to shut down legitimate discourse (which is why we should be so careful in haphazardly accusing people of “antisemitism”—it dilutes the power of the term).
Bilek’s use of the term “Synthetic Sexual Identity,” however, strikes me as demeaning to trans people. One can question trans ideology—even the sources of funding for the cause—without calling into question the authenticity of trans identity altogether. What’s more, all identity is “synthetic” in that it is created by humans through the bonds of common experience. Are we going to dis every other form of “synthetic” identity?
Does Bilek even realize that there are many trans people who live quite normal lives and who don’t have a radical political agenda? Whatever their biological sex, they’ve chosen to live as the opposite gender of their birth. Most have gone through excruciating hardship, both internal and external, in living their desired lives. I don’t know why anyone would cast aspersions at their identities or choices they’ve made.
While I disagree with Yehuda Kurtzer’s charge of antisemitism against Bilek, I agree with the last part of his tweet: “I’m sure there’s a way to talk about the transformation of sex and gender in our society that’s not that.” Indeed there are. We must be able to speak about puberty blockers and cross hormonal therapy, the contagion thesis and what should and shouldn’t be taught in schools, the participation of trans women in women’s sports, etc. without fear of being called transphobes. We should also be able to speak of what does and doesn’t constitute bigotry aimed at trans people (who have often suffered from bigotry). Such discourse can occur without denying the authenticity of the trans experience. Bikel’s article makes such constructive discourse harder, not easier to do.
What would make it easier to do is if thoughtful Jews who disagree about trans issues modeled a positive, constructive dialogue on these sensitive issues and set the tone for the rest of the community and society.
David Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and author of the forthcoming “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.” The views expressed in this article are his own.