Much has been written about the social justice wars being fought in the halls of academia — university classics programs targeted as foci of white supremacy to be dismantled; professors leaving academia because of its increasingly repressive climate; an illiberal atmosphere in which dissent to “progressive” dogma informed by critical race theory (CRT) is muzzled.
Pamela Paresky, a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago, indicates that “despite its laudable goal of opposing racism and white supremacy, CRT relies on narratives of greed, appropriation, unmerited privilege, and hidden power.”
These are evocative of the anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories that have been used against Jews for centuries, so it’s unsurprising that CRT provides a convenient guise to attack Jews today. As Paresky notes, “the subtlety is that, instead of targeting Jews directly, the target of critical social justice is ‘whiteness’.”
A case in point is the public dispute over the legacy of Heinrich Schenker, a Jewish music theorist from Galicia who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In Autumn 2019, Hunter College Professor Phillip Ewell, a self-described black practitioner of “white music theory,” authored a critical-race analysis of the field to explain how black musicologists are disadvantaged. His central theme accused Schenker of being an ardent racist and admirer of Hitler who shared the Nazis’ ideology of biological/genetic supremacy. He argued that Schenker’s music theory was imbued with the hierarchical belief of inequality that guided his racial supremacist view, joining his musical and supremacist theories into a cohesive, racist worldview.
He condemned Schenker’s musical analysis as an “institutionalized racialized structure,” comprising a “white racial frame” to benefit the dominant white race of music theory and blamed generations of Schenkerian scholars for maintaining this frame by “whitewashing” the music theorist’s racist views and separating them from his musical theory. Any disagreement with this view was condemned, a priori, as complicity in the perpetuation of racism.
Timothy Jackson, a tenured music theory professor and director of the Center for Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas (UNT), saw this as a case of character assassination and, with fellow scholars at the university, put out an open call for papers responding to the attack on Schenker for publication in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies that he co-founded.
A symposium of responses — both positive and negative — to the CRT study were published, with Jackson authoring an article refuting Ewell’s assertions. Jackson pointed out that Schenker (1868-1935) had started off as a German elitist with cultural superiority views typical of Germans during the Great War period, but that those views evolved and Schenker categorically rejected the Nazis’ racist ideology.
• • •
According to Jackson, Ewell had distorted history by erasing the music theorist’s proud Jewish identity, faith, and the discrimination he suffered for being a Jew ― which necessarily precluded any admiration for Nazi ideology. He pointed to Ewell’s alteration of certain German-language passages, which were removed from their context or misconstrued, to provide proof of Schenker’s racism. (In a subsequent article, Jackson further detailed how quotes were manipulated in Ewell’s article to paint Schenker as “a virulent racist” akin to German Nazis and American white supremacists).
Jackson tied these charges of racism attributed to Schenker and his mainly Jewish students to larger currents of Black anti-Semitism that holds Jews as white supremacists at fault for Black suffering.
As a result, Jackson was pilloried on social media. The Society for Music Theory condemned the journal’s symposium as designed to “replicate a culture of whiteness.”
A censure resolution signed by professors and graduate students accused Jackson of promoting anti-Black racism. UNT ordered an investigation of the professor and the use of the journal to publish the responses. Jackson was removed from the magazine and funding ceased for the Center of Schenkerian Studies he directed. He became a pariah among his fellow faculty members and graduate students, many of whom left, fearing negative repercussions for their future employment prospects were they to complete their dissertations under his supervision.
The professor, in turn, filed a federal lawsuit against faculty members and a graduate student for defamation of character and against the university for retaliating against his right to academic free speech.
• • •
While the case is certainly not the first to pit scholars against those who use critical race theory to discredit classical studies, it demonstrates the ease with which anti-Semitic tropes of supremacy and racism are incorporated into trending ideologies — often with adherents unaware of the sordid history behind these tropes.
The theme of Jewish supremacy was a mainstay of Nazi indoctrination. The age-old anti-Semitic canard about Jews seeking to dominate the world’s non-Jews was popularized in the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion and resurrected by the Nazis who promoted it as incontrovertible truth.
Similarly, the Nazis projected their own racism — the notion of the racial superiority and purity of the Aryan race — onto Jews. In this way, the Nazis falsely accused Jews of the evil and immorality that was at the core of their own ideology: They imposed upon their subjects their belief of German supremacy while accusing Jews of being supremacists. They aspired to Aryan racial purity while accusing Jews of being racists.
“With every means [the Jew] tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate,” Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf.
Schenker was targeted as a white supremacist and racist, rather than as a Jewish supremacist. His Jewish identity was erased from the charges against him, as accusations of white supremacy against Jews necessitates the erasure of their non-white, Jewish identity and the accompanying context of anti-Jewish bigotry.
• • •
CRT proponents reject racial colorblindness as a form of racism. In fact, Ewell argues that “colorblind racism is the most significant form of racism in music theory’s white racial frame and has been used for decades to dismiss those who wish to cite our racialized structures and ideologies.”
Yet the very same CRT adherents practice “Jew blindness” when it comes to depicting Jews as white supremacists. They erase the Jews’ unique experiences of discrimination. And this paves the way for their targeting under the more acceptable aegis of social justice.
That was the case in May 2020, when, against a backdrop of legitimate protests against the killing of George Floyd, the local leader of the LA chapter of Black Lives Matter called for “an uprising, a rebellion, a revolt” through Fairfax, an orthodox Jewish enclave and the oldest Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Businesses were vandalized and some of the area’s synagogues were defaced with spray-painted obscenities and anti-Israel slogans, provoking fear and apprehension among the neighborhood’s Jewish residents and business owners. The leader later explained that the decision to target this neighborhood was “very deliberate” in order “to disrupt spaces of white affluence” so “it’s not just black people who are suffering at the hands of white supremacy.”
By painting a predominantly Jewish community as a bastion of white supremacists, the rioters could deflect and challenge accusations of anti-Semitism against them. In their minds, this was a social justice battle against white supremacy. Social justice warriors contend that charges of anti-Semitism deflect attention from the real racists, the “white supremacists,” even when those so labelled are the targeted Jews themselves.
And so, it was in the battle over Schenker. Among the charges leveled on social media against Jackson, whose Jewish grandparents fled persecution in Europe and whose family members perished in the Holocaust, was that he is not only an anti-Black racist but one motivated by “a disguised form of anti-Semitism.”
The attacks against Jackson were meant to shut down academic debate about Schenker’s legacy. Any question of Schenker’s Jewish experience negating the characterization of him as a white supremacist was dismissed as evidence of the questioner’s own racism, thus keeping alive the anti-Semitic trope without resolving the question.
Professor Jackson resolved the question by exploring Schenker’s Jewish identity and its impact on the accusations against him. He observed that while Schenker was a complex person with human foibles, he was certainly not the racial supremacist he was accused of.
Whatever the motivation behind such charges, one thing is certain: the vilification of Jews as racists and supremacists, disproportionate to their actions and stripped of context or nuance, is yet another iteration of an all-too-familiar anti-Semitic trope.