A few years ago, when travel was a verb, I welcomed a delegation of African-Americans on a mission to Israel. During the opening night’s educational exercise in Jerusalem, we went around the room, inviting everyone to explain what they hoped to learn on their journey. One young attorney, dressed in a way that conveyed confidence and success, electrified the room with his question. “I am here,” he said, “to learn how the Jews healed, to understand how Israel could be such a success only seventy years after the Nazis murdered six million Jews.” Then he added, “because we were freed from slavery over 150 years ago but many of my people still seem much more stuck in it.” I, of course, avoided judging the black American experience, but began with a one-word answer to explain the Jewish recovery: “Zionism.”
During these days of ongoing racial fury and fragility, even quoting an African-American’s assessment of his community is tricky. But as controversial as it is to address African-American trauma, it is even more politically incorrect to acknowledge African-American success. Fortunately, John McWhorter violates all such rules in his blockbuster: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.
I feel cheap identifying McWhorter as African-American because his arguments should rest on their merits, not his color. But he is a well-known contrarian on racial issues, who is appalled by this woke ideology which infantilizes his people, treating them “as mentally and spiritually deficient children.” He is dismayed that “so many black people settle for” this worldview, rooted in the notion of being awake to systemic racism, but now deems American racism intractable, reducing whites to racist bullies and blacks to passive victims.
McWhorter commits the thought crime of seeing America more positively, because “despite its flaws,” it is “a functioning democratic experiment in which open racism is prohibited… to a degree that would have been considered science fiction as recently as three decades ago.” Note the progress that has occurred, McWhorter insists, resisting the despair clouding the current conversation – when The New York Times blithely runs op-eds entitled “As a Black Man in America, I feel Death Looming Every Day,” with the writer saying that, although his father “died of natural causes,” he thinks his 72-year-old father “died because he was tired of living… tired of a country that neglected him from the moment he was born.”
Rejecting this pessimism, this nihilism, McWhorter celebrates the speed with which “segregation was outlawed, and outward racial attitudes began changing” in the 1960s. “By 1970 Jim Crow was gone, and educated whites, at least, were acutely aware of what racial prejudice meant… This was a wonder,” he writes, boldly, subversively, acknowledging progress. “It is under acknowledged today what a badge of honor this was, upon a nation we are now told is so morally irredeemable on race.”
Given this breakthrough, McWhorter still wonders how so many of his people fail to appreciate their advances and buy an ideology treating them as failures and as doomed. He then makes two remarkable insights that shed light on Jewish history’s last 75 years. Blacks, he mourns, have a “damaged racial self-image” because there “is no mother country to look back upon in any real way – a black woman from Atlanta is much more like a white one than she is like a woman from Senegal. Black Americans will never occupy a separate nation of any kind to start all over again.”
Even more vexing, he says, is that the very triumph over racism and segregation came at a great price. Just as the whites defined blacks for 350 years under slavery and Jim Crow – whites now defined the blacks as equals. An overwhelmingly white Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. With this evil “outlawed from on high,” this “moral advance for the country” deprived blacks of the healing that would have resulted from a “long, slow clawing our way into self-sufficiency.” Carving out equality rather than being accepted as equals, would have fostered “true, gut-level, no-questions-asked pride.”
While poignantly capturing the African-American predicament of living in a country that once enslaved them, McWhorter implicitly salutes Zionism, politically, ideologically, and psychologically. Zionism returned the Jews to history, seizing control of their destiny. With the founding of the State of Israel, the newly-empowered Jews not only had a mother country to return to, they had a mother country to rebuild – while being rebuilt in the process.
This revolutionary shift explains one of David Ben-Gurion’s most outrageous acts – his assault on the identities of the non-Ashkenazi traditional Jews from Arab lands. Ben-Gurion was building a nation – and healing a people. He felt he needed to impose a new model, the New Jew, on everyone, to help Jews regain their footing, and once again become the authors of their own story. This does not excuse his behavior, justify his mistakes, or undo the damage he caused. But it clarifies his motivations – and Israel’s success.
Reading McWhorter you realize that not only did this Jewish democratic miracle in the Middle East help Israeli Jews heal – despite all the menacing enemies; it healed the entire Jewish people. Today, we all know that wherever we are, we have a state that we built and now perfect, freedoms we have earned, a dignity that is priceless, that doesn’t depend on anyone else, and “true, gut-level, no-questions-asked” Jewish pride.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.