Earlier in his career, Edward Rothstein spent much time criticizing the influence of postmodernism (or “PoMO”)—and its stepchild, postcolonialism (“PoCo”)—on the arts, and on American intellectual life in general. But now, Rothstein writes, the relativism of the 1990s has been supplanted by the moralistic and censorious set of ideas commonly dubbed as “woke,” or, as Rothstein has it, Woko. Woko ideology tends to embrace identity politics, and urges every group (white males excepted) to define itself by how it has been oppressed. Rothstein then asks us to “consider the Jews.”
Why? Because here is an identity that has weathered the millennia by developing a very different perspective on history and memory. In a Woko world of atomistic identities, surely we should find some archetypal characteristics here. Among Jews there are often regional physical resemblances that have remained stable over centuries. Male Jews have been given an indelible mark of their distinction for millennia. The identity has been maintained during extensive interactions with other civilizations and cultures. And if accompanied by religious observance, it affects every aspect of life. Moreover, as in identities celebrated by Woko, those who embrace this identity have also been singled out over centuries for hostility, massacre, and sometimes enslavement.
But to all of these identities and the purposes to which they are put by Woko, the example of the Jews offers a profound systemic challenge. Jewish identity is not created in reaction to the Other or because of a shared fate in encountering the Other. It is based on a set of ideas and beliefs and obligations originating in the Hebrew Bible and the commentaries on it, including a commitment to the land from which the Jews were once exiled, but to which they began to return in numbers beginning in the late-19th century. There is really a different form of memory at work here—and a different kind of self-definition.
Every Passover, Jews are instructed to recall what Pharaoh did in enslaving the Israelites, and how the people were then led to freedom. In many ways, the Exodus tale provides the narrative model for today’s identity museums. The point of the Passover story, though, is quite different. The emphasis is not on the suffering endured. Nor is the end a celebration of the politics of identity. The emphasis is on a process of redemption, which is far from simple and actually imposes obligations on the people.