© John Watson

‘Wokeism’ after 7th October

Philosopher Susan Neiman on her book Left is Not Woke—and how tribalism over Israel-Palestine helps no-one
June 5, 2024

Before she first published her book Left is Not Woke in March last year, the philosopher Susan Neiman expected some backlash. The French publisher that had brought out two of her previous works—to great success, Neiman tells me over a video call from her office in Berlin—refused to publish this one. The fear was that her critique of tribalism on the left could inadvertently boost the right. As she writes in the second edition, which came out in May: “‘The situation is serious,’ I was told. ‘Marine Le Pen could win our next election.’” Neiman went with a bigger publisher. 

Given the attendant controversies of taking on “wokeism”, the 69-year-old had sent the manuscript to friends. “Criticise as hard as you can,” she recalls beseeching them. “I’m sure I’m gonna get it once the book comes out.” 

Most of us have to live with our errors, but Neiman was able to correct hers in this latest edition. What were the alleged gaffes? Among other things, critics said she was “shadow boxing”, having insufficiently defined woke in her argument for a universalist left. In the book, she writes that the notoriously nebulous concept “begins with concern for marginalised persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalisation”. 

Neiman cited far more examples of “wokeism” in practice in the latest edition. But this second chance also meant she could incorporate a major event that seemed to prove her point: Hamas’s 7th October attack on Israel, and the response to it from some on the more radical left.   

“I didn’t see how I could ignore it,” she tells me, of the evident denialism and justifications for the violence, “because I felt it has become, in many ways, such a clear example of what goes wrong when you define your politics tribally, and you do things like saying that Israel is the global north and Palestine is the global south. And Israelis are white and Palestinians are people of colour—all of that stuff, which just was so demonstrably ignorant.”

Born in Atlanta, Georgia during the civil rights movement, the Jewish-American philosopher grew up with a “Jewish universalist tradition that I cherish”. Neiman has spent much of her career in Germany, serving as director of the Einstein Forum since 2000. Her 2019 book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, looked at how Germany had reckoned with its genocidal past.

Neiman is also an Israeli citizen. She moved to the Jewish state in 1995, the era of post-Oslo accords optimism, and left before the Second Intifada. She is “extremely angry” that the current Israeli government is trampling on the Jewish values she holds so dear. “It’s a deeply tribal, deeply repressive government that does not stand for anything I believe in,” she says—its only interest is perpetuating itself as representing an ethno-theocratic state. 

However critical she might be of parts of the left, Neiman seems at pains to clarify that she is also “an extremely outspoken critic of the occupation… and increasingly critical of this [Israeli] government, and of its horrible waging of war on Gaza”. In Germany, where the nation’s history and relationship to the Jewish state make for a particularly unwelcoming environment for such censure, Neiman has “gotten a lot of shit” for her views. 

What does she make of the heavy-handed responses of some universities to campus protests against the Gaza war? In the US, a few “quite ugly” antisemitic statements have gone viral, she says, but “what most people on the ground tell me is that the protests are peaceful”. Neiman thinks some administrations fear being accused of failing to tackle antisemitism. There might be fear, too, that rowdy demonstrations will put off donors. 

At a time of extreme polarisation, Neiman points out the futility “of talking about being pro-Palestine or pro-Israel as if we were talking about football games”. But amid the cacophony, amid the hardening binaries, she says, her rare voice “makes no bloody difference”.  

Neiman is not utterly hopeless, however, the philosopher clarifies via email after this piece was published. She wouldn't keep trying if she had "no hope for reasonable, nuanced discourse".