Today, thanks to postmodern assaults on objectivity on the one hand, and woke radicalism on the other, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have become increasingly willing to make declarations about public life that go beyond the strict confines of their disciplines. Jonathan Sarna, a leading historian of American Jewry, argues that those who do so dangerously abuse their expertise—even when they are acting for a good cause. To illustrate his point, he cites a controversy that ensued in 2019 when a study claimed that “Jews of color represent at least 12-15 percent of American Jews.”
Two highly esteemed Jewish demographers, Professors Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, challenged these claims on scientific grounds, . . . arguing that “the percentage of Jews of color is almost certainly closer to 6 percent nationally.” . . . To their—and observers’—surprise and horror, their well-argued, dispassionate scholarly critique met with a torrent of politically motivated abuse, first in dozens of anguished and angry comments [online] and then more substantially when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote an op-ed accusing the scholars of racism.
To activists, the admirable political goals of combating racism and embracing Jews of color may justify distorting the empirical truth in favor of sentiment.
Unsurprisingly, subsequent data bore out the more modest estimates. Sarna draws a contrast to the attitude of the scholars of the middle of the last century:
Politics above all was anathema to the pioneers [of Jewish studies in America], for its values were seen to be antithetical to those of the scholar. Scholars pursued truth; politicians pursued power. Scholars might discuss politics and even express political judgments; several did over my parents’ Shabbat table. But in their research, they abjured politics lest it taint and distort the timeless scholarship that they yearned to produce.
I watch with a mixture of incredulity and horror as colleagues and friends cast aside the scholarly values on which we were raised and replace them with ideologically tainted political ones. A growing list of books and people may no longer be published, cited, or even mentioned, never mind met with, even for scholarly purposes academic departments and learned societies debate political resolutions.