There's another one of those open letters going around, where mostly right-leaning Jews issue a jeremiad against alleged intolerant left censorship in the field of ideas. This letter, apparently organized by the JILV's David Bernstein, purports to acknowledge "the illiberalism and threats to academic freedom emanating from the political right, and in no way downplay these dangers," but for undisclosed and oh-so-mysterious reasons chooses to "focus our attention on ... the political left". Knowing the organizers and scanning the signatories, I can say with confidence that the median participant in this letter absolutely downplays the dangers of threats to academic freedom emanating from the political right. In part, that's evidenced by releasing a letter like this at all right now -- at a moment when the danger from the right is cresting while the most problematic behaviors from the left are receding. But more to the point, essentially the only time the likes of Bernstein "acknowledge" right-ward threats to academic freedom is in a parenthetical aside in the midst of yet another broadside against the left. It is no surprise that parallel letters like this decrying threats to academic freedom and open intellectual inquiry are not organized by Bernstein nor signed by his coterie. Anyone who genuinely believes David Bernstein does not "downplay the dangers" of right-wing attacks on intellectual freedom should please peruse my excellent selection of bridges for sale.
But that's not what I want to focus on. The letter for the most part is a series of banalities about the importance of intellectual freedom and teaching students "how to think, not what to think." There is, however, one more substantive political critique to be found in the penultimate paragraph:
The ascendency of an ideology that reduces people to “oppressed” and “oppressors” and categorizes individuals into monolithic group identities poses a particular threat to the Jewish people. In this stark, neo-Manichean worldview, Jews are frequently grouped with the privileged, and Israel is dogmatically singled out as an oppressor-state–a shallow dichotomy that foments new variants of antisemitism and reinforces old ones.
Some people try to reduce people to absolute, monolithic, and eternal categories of "oppressed" and "oppressor". But this is absurd, as the Jewish example demonstrates. Surely, in the context of White supremacists searching for synagogues to vandalize (or worse), it is evident that Jews are experiencing oppression (and oppression specifically derived from the perception that they're "not White"). Equally obviously, in the context of ability to access the suburbs in post-World War II America, Jews sat in a comparatively privileged position vis-a-vis racial minorities (a privilege tied to the general treatment of Jews as "White"). The former doesn't falsify the latter; the latter doesn't falsify the former. Like any group, Jews are not always oppressed or oppressor; their relationship to these categories will be highly contextual based on place, space, and time.
Whatever else one might say about the above, it is not "neo-Manichean". Its entire point is to reject the notion of some eternal and unyielding oppressor/oppressed binary. Yet that very rejection is, for many, the problem. The evergreen response to any suggestion that Jews could ever be White or enjoy White privilege in any context -- "was my grandfather 'White' when he was sent to Auschwitz?" -- underscores the point: that retort is based precisely on the notion that Auschwitz generates an eternal, unending claim to the "oppressed" side the binary at any point in history, even one miles away (literally and metaphorically).
While there are some people who genuinely adopt a "neo-Manichean" view of Jews that essentially denies that Jews can ever be truly oppressed, some formulation like the above paragraph is, I think, considerably more common -- one where the ways that Jewishness interacts with privilege and oppression is layered and contextual. Now to be sure, even that inquiry can be done well or poorly -- it's entirely possible for someone to acknowledge that context is critical and nonetheless do a bad job of assessing the relevant context that applies to Jews in a particular case. But that vice is not a vice of neo-Manicheanism; it's struggling at the hard work of doing layered, nuanced, contextually-informed analysis. By contrast, the vice of those who are infuriated that Jews can ever be deemed complicit in oppressive and unjust structures are very much engaged in a form of Manicheanism -- they just want to invert the binary.*
It's similar to something I observed about the call to be "even-handed" or recognize "both sides" in discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Recognizing "both sides" is all well and good, and there absolutely are plenty of actors who are justly critiquing for failing to be even-handed. However, it's also the case that frequently the minute someone does proactively criticize "both sides" (by, say, criticizing war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas), they're accused of "equating" and blasted for that. Turns out, the "both sides" critics don't want to hear criticism of "both sides", they want to hear criticism of one side -- the other side (and let's be honest: the Jewish community has plenty of tolerance for one-sided criticism in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict -- so long as the "one side" is Palestine). To the contrary, the very act of engaging in "two-sided" criticism is taken as depriving Israel of its entitlement to be viewed solely as the aggrieved party; the injured; the, well, oppressed.
What is happening here? In part, the problem is a simple lack of intellectual sophistication. But I think something deeper is going on, that's related to the critics' malformed understanding of what they take to be the "neo-Manichean" worldview (a malformation that itself is inextricably tied to some deep-seated racial resentment).
I can't find it anymore, but years ago someone (maybe Jamelle Bouie?) made a crack about what conservatives believe about the Black experience at elite universities -- he said something like "Fun fact: if you're Black at Harvard you don't even need to go to class. They just give you As and White women." Many critics in the Bernstein mold fundamentally believe that the patrimony of oppression as enacted in "neo-Manichean" American academia is a sort of complete capitulation where any desire is automatically met, any plaudit given away as an entitlement, any discomfort immediately scurried away, and any critical resistance dispensed with. To be "oppressed" is to be automatically agreed with and catered to; to be "oppressor" is to endure endless pushback and struggle sessions. This outlook generates the following syllogism:
- Oppressed groups are, under the prevailing ethos, entitled to a patrimony that includes being automatically agreed with and treated as perfectly and inherently righteous;
- Jews are group that has endured oppression; therefore;
- Jews are entitled to be treated as perfectly and inherently righteous and automatically agreed with.
And the fact that line #3 obviously does not characterize how Jews are treated is understood to mean that line #2 is being denied.
Now, the actual flaw in the syllogism is line #1 -- this account of the experience of oppressed groups is off-base to the point of being delusional. But it's also worth underscoring the payoff of line #3, which is precisely a demand for Manicheanism -- just one that, again, puts Jews on the other side of the binary. The misbegotten understanding of how "other" minorities are treated ends up near-inexorably leading to an expressly Manichean demand. The core motivator here isn't a defense of liberal values, it's jealousy -- a (mis)perception that those groups which are truly recognized as "oppressed" get this wonderful bounty, and rage that Jews don't receive it as well. Indeed, I strongly suspect that racial resentment is doing more work in motivating letters like this than any actual desire to protect the interests of Jews in academia.
No wonder that the complaints of Jews not receiving this largely mythologized deference are so frequently paired with the constant wail of "if it were any other minority group...." But in reality, this is the mirror image of the too-common but nonetheless twisted sense that the Holocaust was a sort of bounty for Jews; something we were lucky to experience because now (supposedly) everyone listens to us and nobody can challenge us. In either case, there is a concocted understanding of the experience of oppression that mutates it into an advantage. That it doesn't reflect reality is irrelevant; it becomes the foothold for leveraging grievance and entitlement even as it purports to rail against grievance and entitlement.
The notion that Jews -- or any group -- is always, ever-and-eternally, "oppressed" or "oppressor" is obvious nonsense. Every person and every group will find themselves at times in systems and contexts where we are unjustly advantaged and ones where we are unjustly disadvantaged. Teasing out those connections, figuring out how they work and how the interact with one another when they inevitably crosscut, grappling with what obligations and duties and responsibilities are and are not generated by them -- these are hard questions, and even people considering them in good faith won't always get them right. But the critics of the "neo-Manicheans" are not actually interested in asking the hard questions and thinking the hard thoughts. They have created a strawman and have launched a campaign to receive an entitlement that does not exist. Far from being critics of a Manichean divide between "oppressed" and "oppressor", they are among the most rabid enforcers of it.
If you want to break out of Manicheanism, the place to start is by dispensing with childish notions about how we actually treat persons enduring oppression in our society. They are not catered to, they are not given free passes, they are not just "handed As and White women." Until people dispense with that fantasy, they're always going to indulge in grim cycles of entitlement, grievance, and resentment.
* The only possible exception might be an assertion that any discourse which speaks of any group as "complicit in oppressive and unjust structures" is wrong. Such a view, which would preclude us from saying, inter alia, that "Germans oppressed the Jews during World War II" or that "American slavery was a project of White supremacy" (#NotAllGermans and #NotAllWhites, respectively), essentially obliterates the ability to talk about antisemitism at all and thereby is far more threatening to the safety and security of the Jewish people than the "neo-Manicheans" ever could be.