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December 31, 2021 12:06 pm
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Should We ‘De-Judaize’ the Curriculum?

avatar by Joseph Mintz

Opinion

Social distancing dividers for students are seen in a classroom at St. Benedict School, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Montebello, near Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The Nazis raided Sigmund Freud’s house in Austria in 1938 after the Anschluss, and it was only international intervention which allowed him to emigrate to England. His sisters died in concentration camps in 1941. So, was Freud white?

I ask this question because his intellectual legacy and that of other major Jewish intellectuals is under threat in our universities and schools. The movement to “decolonize” the curriculum has existed for decades, but has gained renewed impetus since the Black Live Matters movement arose, particularly on US and UK campuses.

The argument is that for too long, the Western intellectual tradition presented to children and students has perpetuated historical biases and power structures that have favored “dead white men.” Instead, the curriculum needs to be revised to reduce these influences and replace them with authors from more diverse backgrounds.

Yet no one has stopped to think that many of the people being replaced are in fact Jewish. To take just two areas of academic endeavor — psychology and sociology — a huge number of leading theorists since the 1850s have been Jews. From Jerome Bruner and Noam Chomsky, through Jacques Derrida, Emile Durkheim, Victor Frankl, Steven Pinker, Karl Popper, and ending up (alphabetically at least) with Lev Vygotsky and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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That’s not even mentioning Karl Marx; I could go on, and on. At my own institution, its most world renowned sons, Basil Bernstein and Karl Mannheim, were both Jews. The latter, an eminent sociologist, was another refugee from Nazi persecution, ousted from a professorship in Germany and forced to flee to England. Yet to the identitarian hard left who have promoted the idea of decolonization, Jews are “white adjacent,” their privilege and power assumed. So much so that, not once in the many discussions on changing the curriculum , have I ever heard anyone even stop to think or wonder about the place of Jews in this process of intellectual cleansing.

The problem is, though, that Jews were and are not white and powerful — certainly not to the Nazis who killed Freud’s family, and tortured Frankl in the concentration camps. Neither were they either white or powerful in the eyes of the Russian antisemites who carried out pogroms amongst the Jewish community where Vygotsky grew up. Derrida, growing up in French Algeria in the 1940s, was not a wielder of structural power when the Vichy government turfed him out of his school due to antisemitic quotas. They were not powerful, they were persecuted.

Of course, the idea of decolonization per se is not without merit. It is no doubt the case that due to embedded pre-conceptions about the relative importance of European thought versus that of the Global South, that important ideas from intellectuals outside of Europe and the US, as well as minority voices within, have gone unrecognized. This is something that we need to and should address. One pertinent example across many academic fields is the contemporary rise of prominent thinkers from China, and it is important that these are given equal footing when we develop curricula.

We should be thinking globally when it comes to ideas. This is not the same, however, as suggesting that who says something is more important than what is said – ideas need to flourish or sink based on their intrinsic merits. The identitarian hard left argues for the opposite, proposing that we can simplistically layer society in to two strata: the good and the bad, based on people’s cultural and racial heritage. It is no surprise, then, that when such simplistic approaches to solving humanity’s problems are adopted, the Jews are placed in the category of the bad. As former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted, justifications for antisemitism change over time: in the Middle Ages, it was religion; in post-Enlightenment Europe the “scientific” study of race; and now, it is human rights. Jews are placed on the wrong side of the hierarchy of the oppressed.

Sadly, some (although certainly not all) who argue for decolonizing the curriculum share this worldview. We have seen almost daily how antisemitism has infected the hard left and its cheerleaders in the universities.

The reality, of course, is that Jews have had to fight through oppression and persecution for their place in society, and Jewish intellectuals have had to fight to have their ideas accepted and it was on the merit of the quality of those ideas that they were. We cannot —as Jewish academics, or as a Jewish community — accept attempts to “decolonize” Jews from the curriculum. It’s based on a false premise – that ideas and truth don’t matter, but that rather it’s who proclaimed an idea and their supposed place on the ladder of oppression that counts.

It’s a dangerous idea. Karl Popper, an eminent Jewish philosopher (and another émigré from Austria before the war) argued that it is the search for truth, through open intellectual inquiry, that in the end underpins the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority in democracies. We, as Jews, need to fight for that openness in our universities and our schools.

Joseph Mintz is an Associate Professor in Education at UCL Institute of Education.  

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