In the introduction to the Almanac of my 2023 essays, I wrote that it is my moral responsibility to be an agent of positive change. My new, aligned me will not be avoiding important but difficult topics.
If this essay does not make some readers upset with me, I will be surprised. If you are not reading people with whom you disagree, then you are locked in an echo chamber — you cannot blame YouTube or social media for showing only what you want to see. You are your own worst algorithm.
My goal with this essay is to bring an important issue to the surface for those who were oblivious to it (as I was a few months ago) and to possibly change the minds of those whose minds are still changeable.
Article available in Spanish here.
Part 1: A Small Country with a Big Story
My relationship with Israel has always been complex. I am Jewish and was born in Soviet Russia but have lived in America for two thirds of my life. My family immigrated to the US in 1991 and has never looked back. (I pinch myself all the time because I get to live in this wonderful country.) I am an agnostic. Israel is supposed to be my historical homeland, the land of my ancestors — a very academic concept, since I struggle to relate to ancestors more than a few generations back, most of whom came from Belarus or Ukraine.
After October 7, something changed inside of me. But it was not just the horrific events of October 7 alone. It was a combination of the massacre in Israel, which echoed the cruelty of the Nazis, and the demonstrations that took place in the US and Europe, as well as letters signed by Ivy league students, all condemning Israel before it had a chance to fire a single retaliatory shot at Hamas.
Antisemitism, which I had gladly forgotten since leaving the Soviet Union, was once again on display. Israel went from being a merely theoretical place of safe harbor for Jews who are unwanted, to a very real, tiny island of refuge, as the world continues to repeat its difficult history with the Jewish people.
I have never connected the survival of Israel to the wellbeing of my descendants. However, today I see this so clearly. If this tiny light of democracy, surrounded by a desert of darkness, goes out, it will not only mean the demise of the Jews there but also of those around the world. Unfortunately, history is on my side when I say this.
Four of my good friends from Denver recently took time off from work and went to Israel to help. They told me they were shocked by what they saw when they got there. What really amazed them about Israel is how this country, which was so deeply divided over judicial reforms before October 7, came together and united. This country of eight million Jews turned into one big family, which is single-mindedly focused on winning the war and taking care of each other.
On October 8, tech companies that had opposed the government on the issue of judicial reforms went to the government and said, “We’ll do anything we can to help.” Within a week, the Israeli government had AI software that could help identify Hamas terrorists. Tech companies created free “Airbnbs” where people can post, “I have a spare bedroom in Jerusalem for a displaced family that needs an emergency place to live.”
The Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, which has been under construction for a long time and had a soft opening a few months ago, has been turned into a logistics center for all incoming aid to Israel. And there is a lot of aid coming from all over the world. Everyone I know (including my friends) who is traveling to Israel is bringing items, from socks to gun holsters, in duffle bags for soldiers.
The population of Israel has increased by 3% since October 7 — not something you usually see happen in a country at war. In part that is due to reservists coming home from all over the world, but volunteers like my friends are also going to Israel, taking time off to help their historical homeland.
My friends have been making sandwiches for the soldiers, cleaning houses for refugees to move into, and working in the fields collecting potatoes that are rotting because a large part of the population has mobilized.
Billboards in Tel Aviv no longer display advertisements but instead show images of hostages taken by Hamas, with a single message: “Bring Them Home!” The country is calm and determined; people want the hostages to come home, and they want to destroy Hamas. Micah Goodman, an Israeli philosopher, said, “Israel is a small country with a big story…. Big enough to give you meaning and small enough for you to have influence on it.”
This is why Israelis are so at peace with the awful reality of going to war. When they wake up every morning, they know they can make a difference for their county. They have a purpose. This war in Gaza is not “eye for an eye” retaliation but the elimination of a terrorist regime which, if given the chance, will repeat the cruel events of October 7 across the whole of Israel and then go after other infidels — the rest of the non-Islamic world.
High (unintended) civilian casualties in Gaza are heartbreaking, but I keep asking myself, what choice does Israel have? Hamas continues to launch rockets into Israel daily and has been doing so for years. Show me a developed country on this planet that would tolerate that. Hamas just massacred 1,200 Israelis — the group’s leaders are not shy about repeating that October 7 is just the beginning.
What would the US do to protect its citizens if we were attacked? We have an answer for that — just look at what we did after 9/11. What would France do? We have an answer for that, too. In 2015, ISIL terrorists killed 130 French citizens. France bombed Syria for months. I don’t remember any calls for restraint or a proportional response. I don’t remember the UN condemning the US or France for unintended civilian casualties. I also don’t remember the US or France dropping leaflets or making phone calls warning Afghans or Syrians about the locations of attacks. Israel is always judged by a different (and impossible) standard than any other country.
My friends have talked to IDF soldiers who have told them: “You cannot imagine how careful we are at trying not to shoot civilians, especially kids. I have kids at home. I don’t want to be desensitized to the crying of my kids.” The humanity that is often lost during war isn’t lost in Israel.
The IDF is liberating Gazans from Hamas; unfortunately, it is doing it in a densely populated area. It is trying very hard to spare civilian lives, which is incredibly difficult — Hamas fighters are not wearing uniforms. A 16-year-old kid in front of you can be a civilian or a suicide bomber. A 20-year-old Israeli-American soldier from Atlanta was stabbed to death in Jerusalem by a 16-year-old Hamas fighter.
This war is taking place on the borders of Israel, but this is not just Israel’s war. The war against Hamas is a battle between good and evil. The evil will not stop with Israel. Islamic extremists want to rebuild an Islamic caliphate all over the world. The Middle East, Europe and the US are next. We are the infidels — yes, if you do not accept Muhammad as your prophet and role model, you are an infidel. Our lives and values do not matter to them. We must either bend the knee or die.
Israel will prevail in this war; Israeli Jews have nowhere to go. But I realize that for my historical homeland to survive, the US, which welcomed me with open arms and has been my home for 32 years, needs to prosper as well. I’ll discuss that next.
Part 2: Wokeness Is Destroying America — One Student at a Time
[The topic I am about to discuss may have political overtones. You may decide to pigeonhole me as a member of a political tribe. Please don’t. I do not belong to a political party. I am registered as an independent and have voted for candidates belonging to three different parties in the last six presidential elections.]
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” –George Orwell
I love the United States and want it to be strong and prosperous. I am embarrassed by the fact that it took a catastrophe in Israel to wake me up to the realization that American universities have become epicenters of “wokeness” and green shoots of socialism that are gradually destroying our awesome country.
I know what you may be thinking: Wokeness is the enemy? Really? Next, he’ll be picking on Winnie-the-Pooh.
I don’t blame you.
I looked up the definition of wokeness: “The quality of being alert to and concerned about social injustice and discrimination.” Sounds fair and innocent enough, right? Marvel should create a superhero: Wokeman — “fixing injustice 24/7, always stays woke.”
I am not a political science scholar, but I have an inkling how wokeness started. It was an aftershock of the equal rights movements that tried to fix the side effects of our society’s ugly past and bring equality to everyone. It came from a good, kind place in people’s hearts. However, I am a student of economics and have learned that ideas should not be judged solely on their intent but also on their outcomes. We are often preoccupied with the intent and ignore second order effects, the unintended consequences that often make things a lot worse.
This is exactly what has happened to wokeness.
Sometime, while we got up to the get the popcorn, the wokeness movie went from being a Marvel superhero flick to an Orwellian dystopian Animal Farm nightmare: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Although the idea of elevating minorities may sound great on the surface, the US took a wrong turn and started turning into a country where the majority is often penalized for not being a minority.
Which brings me to the college HQ of wokeness — DEI. I am embarrassed to admit I did not know DEI existed before October 7. If you think these three letters stand for some cool government agency, no, they are way cooler than that. They stand for “diversity, equity and inclusion.”
How can anyone be against these three awesome words?
To my great surprise, DEI has turned into antisemitism on college campuses. Billionaire investor Bill Ackman explains DEI’s role very well in this essay:
“Under DEI, one’s degree of oppression is determined based upon where one resides on a so-called intersectional pyramid of oppression where whites, Jews, and Asians are deemed oppressors, and a subset of people of color, LGBTQ people, and/or women are deemed to be oppressed. Under this ideology … one is either an anti-racist or a racist.”
Ackman, a Harvard University grad and major donor, goes on to say: “There is no such thing as being ‘not racist.’ Under DEI’s ideology, any policy, program, educational system, economic system, grading system, admission policy … that leads to unequal outcomes among people of different skin colors is deemed racist. As a result, according to DEI, capitalism is racist, Advanced Placement exams are racist, IQ tests are racist, corporations are racist, or in other words, any merit-based program, system, or organization which has or generates outcomes for different races that are at variance with the proportion these different races represent in the population at large is by definition racist under DEI’s ideology.”
As a result, on some campuses the DEI objective became what Tabia Lee, a former equity director at De Anza College in California, to “de-center whiteness,” and thus it allowed antisemitism to spread. If you fall under DEI “protection,” you become part of a superclass that plays by its own rules. Since Jews are not classified as a minority, they have now been put into the category of oppressors.
Yet, Jews are indeed a minority — there are only 15.7 million of us in the world! That’s right, in the whole world. More than half of our population perished in the Holocaust – an event whose occurrence is now up for dispute not just in Iran but among the TikTok-educated younger generation here at home. (According to an Economist survey, 20% of 18-to-29-year-olds think the Holocaust is a myth.)
Growing up as a Jew — an underclass in the Soviet Union — I never wanted special treatment for being a minority. I just wanted society to be blind to the line in my passport that said “Jewish.” I don’t want my kids to be added to the DEI “superclass.”
So, if you are attending an American college and are not classified as an oppressed minority under the protection of the woke, you will be treated by a different set of rules. As we have learned from the presidents of Ivy League schools, cries for your genocidal extermination will require “context” and the actual death of Jewish students before college administrators will act — all while you can be expelled from a university for using the wrong pronoun.
A lot of this starts in colleges, but it does not and will not stop at colleges. Colleges are the factories of our future. They are the production lines of future workers and thinkers.
People cannot control their gender, the color of their skin, their ethnicity, or their sexual preference — this sort of discrimination was our sin of the past. People should not be punished for these traits; others should not be favored for them (this is the reverse punishment of others) — the current sin of woke.
I am going to say what everyone knows but doesn’t want to admit — there are differences between groups of people. Blacks dominate the NBA — they account for 73% of all players. Whites are only 17%. (Something similar but less extreme is happening in the NFL.) Meanwhile, Asians account for only 0.4% of NBA players — they are clearly underrepresented. Yet we find the idea of creating an “equality” NBA by hiring 5’8” Asians so they can get crushed by 6’10” Black athletes laughable.
However, in the effort to create “equality” in colleges — until the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in 2023 — we were fine with reverse discrimination against Asian students to limit their admission to elite colleges, which, just like the NBA and NFL, were supposed to be merit-based. But Asians are neither a superclass nor a protected group; therefore, we didn’t care.
When we hire people based solely on their identity (not on their merit), we do not elevate them but rather bring them down. On some level they know that they got the job based not on personal strengths but on their superficial identity.
This creates a victim and victimizer mentality. It is anti-evolutionary: People possessed by the victim mentality don’t progress or evolve; they see obstacles in their lives as someone else’s fault and thus not their responsibility to overcome. As the eminent English rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, if you are possessed by a victim mentality “you hand over your life to somebody else.”
Life is full of obstacles. History is often unfair, and not just to the DEI superclass. It has not been kind to Jews for centuries. Jews choose to not be victims but to be agents of change. This attitude is deeply ingrained into Jewish culture. Obstacles only make us stronger. If you have the attitude that obstacles are someone’s else fault, you’ll never try to grow beyond them. As Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, said: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
America — the country of meritocracy — is turning into a country where your identity determines how you will be treated along the road of life. A person, be it a Supreme Court justice, a college administrator or an employee at the local DMV, should get a job not because of their identity but because of their accomplishments and their character.
As a society, we must accept a hard truth: By acting solely based on our hearts and artificially trying to make things better for this or that group of people, we end up not improving things for them but instead creating different injustices. Everyone should be treated equally. Some people should not be more important (protected) than others. And yes, all lives matter, and that statement should not require context. Finally, we should stop living in fear of being canceled for saying the above.
I was shocked to learn that DEI is already nesting in large corporations and our government. Imagine if air traffic controllers, people who have the lives of hundreds of others in their hands, were selected based not on their skills but on their DEI status. Well, you don’t have to imagine this very hard — it’s already happening. Think about that the next time you board a plane.
It is not hard to visualize the consequences of someone hired solely based on their identity (not on their skill) colliding planes in the air and killing hundreds. If this woke cancer continues to spread through our economy, it will suck meritocracy out of it and weaken, or even worse, crash the economy. Unlike a plane crash, you won’t see it unfold on the news; it will happen slowly, one DEI hire at a time.
I wonder how Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech would be received today on American campuses, especially when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”
Orchestras have a perfect model for how to hire performers. During auditions, the jury sits in the audience. Each performer has a number assigned to them. They play behind a curtain; the jury cannot see them.
We should copy that model. When I came to the United States in 1991, I was told that in this country we treat all people according to their merits and values, by what they bring to society. I miss that US.
Part 3: The Socialism of Grades
“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” –Winston Churchill
Socialism is a terrific idea in theory. Who would not want everyone in society to have a house with a white fence, the job of their dreams, 2.5 kids and a dog? But plain vanilla socialism has failed every single time it has been implemented, and it turned each of those countries into a totalitarian state: Cuba, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Venezuela — the list goes on.
In a socialist state, success is pushed down, and failure is elevated — this is how equality of outcome is created. In the Soviet Union’s version of plain vanilla socialism, we were taught to hate the wealthy and empathize with the poor. This empathy was easy for us because everyone (with the exception of the tiny ruling-class bureaucrats) was poor.
Capitalism does not offer the sexy, utopian promise of socialism, but it works in practice. Capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty; but it is now under threat, ironically, from those who have benefited the most from it — academics. Universities have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the wealth created by capitalism.
As I am writing this, I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s “Socialism is a great idea until you run out of other people’s money.”
Universities used to be spartan gyms for our minds, places where opposing ideas collided and gave birth to new ones and where our thinking got challenged through healthy debate. This growth came with healthy pain, the type that accompanies and stimulates intellectual growth.
Today, many universities have been turned into day spas, where for $300,000 a student’s mind will be pampered and coddled. Now they are “safe places” from opposing ideas, which are considered as microaggressions. This is where free speech goes to die, unless it calls for the genocidal extermination of Jews; then you can speak your mind.
College administrations are afraid to upset their spa customers (sorry, I meant students). They are not focused on challenging their thinking (the point of education) and producing the brightest but are instead fixated on making students feel better about themselves and giving them their money’s worth.
I was not surprised to learn that socialism is slowly poisoning our universities, but I was surprised by its new avenue — the socialization of grades. Professors at a local law school are required to grade to a B+. When professors submit their grades, if the average is below a B+, the system will reject it. The university is afraid of making students feel bad about a low, albeit deserved, grade and wants every student to have a high grade-point average upon graduation.
However, what is inflation for one group is deflation for another. This practice punishes hardworking students, as their work may result in a lower grade than they deserve, compared to classmates who are preoccupied with attending “TikTok University” during lectures.
Universities are on a quixotic mission to right a wrong — they are fighting against grade inequality. This is what socializing (equalizing) outcomes looks like. In fact, this seemingly innocent practice of equally high grades has the familiar ring of a Karl Marx slogan that I heard endlessly in the Soviet Union: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Law students need a B+, so they get a B+.
With each graduating class, our capitalistic (equal-opportunity) society is being slowly diluted by equal-outcome dogma (socialism).
Grade inflation is happening in virtually every college across the country, but colleges should not receive all the blame for this, as unfortunately it starts in high schools, which are suffering through super grade inflation — grades have gone up while reading and math skills have fallen (with minorities experiencing the largest grade inflation).
Bad (deserved) grades are a necessary part of education. How else would you know that you had not learned something as well as you thought you did? I failed English as a freshman in college. I had been in the US for two years. My English was objectively horrible. I’m glad I didn’t receive special (woke) treatment for being “fresh off the boat.” I studied a lot harder, retook the class and passed it my senior year. If I had not, my English would not have improved and I would not have written several books or received national awards for writing.
The beauty of the Declaration of Independence is that you are guaranteed the “pursuit of happiness” — you are given an equal chance to pursue it. You are not guaranteed the outcome, just the opportunity. There is enormous value, and yes even happiness and meaning in the pursuit of happiness. This pursuit will often take you down a harder road, but it will result in the best version of you and bring a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Part 4: How to Save America and Israel
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” –Marcus Aurelius
October 7 awakened me; it changed my relationship with Israel, and this country of my ancestors became dear to me. But as importantly, it opened my eyes to the decaying of the country that I love, that has been my home for 32 years — the US.
The US is becoming a laughingstock of the world, deservedly so. We are still the strongest democracy in the world. People still want to move here, but we are resting on the laurels of our past glory, which was achieved by elevating meritocracy and excellence. Our successes and our grocery stores full of food have gone to our heads and are turning us into a society focused only on pleasant outcomes, independent of how much work we put in.
We are a society that is losing its pragmatism. We used to be a country of practical, innovative problem solvers, and now we are turning into a country of useful idiots, where a tiny woke minority leads us into self-immolation.
Israel will not exist 50 years from now without a strong US. I have to fight for the US – it’s a two-for-the-price-of-one type of deal: A strong United States that supports Israel is mandatory for Israel to survive.
I learned an important lesson from longtime Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger, who recently passed away. I have been attending the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting since 2008. At these shareholder meetings, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger would sit on stage in a giant sports arena and answer questions from shareholders for five hours. Buffett would usually have the first chance to answer the question, and then he would direct it to Munger.
If the question was controversial, Buffett would go into politician mode and give a non-answer answer. Munger would say what he really thought and didn’t care if his answer upset someone who disagreed with it. Buffett was shackled by the fear of public opinion, while Munger was free.
Munger said, “I think that one should recognize reality even when one doesn’t like it; indeed, especially when one doesn’t like it.” And thus, he told the truth because it mattered more than someone’s hurt feelings or criticism of him.
Buffett was afraid, Munger was not.
The most important thing is that we should stop being afraid. This is how the loud minority gained their power. The silent majority — that’s most of us — is afraid to speak up and is thus being accused of bigotry or racism. We are afraid of being canceled, and in the process, we stay quiet while the woke minority is killing our country.
Fighting against antisemitism and the woke cancer is one and the same fight, as we are fighting the same enemy.
I cannot tell you how much I did not want to write this essay. But I had to. I could not write anything else until I darkened these pages with my thoughts. I realized I can no longer have tunnel vision. As my son Jonah reminded me, with greater power comes greater responsibility.
Yes, this is the time to fight. Each of us has a different role in this fight, and we all have different strengths. Israelis are fighting Hamas. Some of my friends have gone to Israel and joined that fight, lending a hand wherever it’s needed (farming, cleaning, feeding soldiers).
I have another Jewish friend who was never involved in politics. He told me that after October 7 he realized, “I won’t need money in the concentration camp.” He is now contributing to opposition campaigns to replace antisemitic politicians.
If you are a donor to universities, work to defund those with DEI departments that are promoting racism and inequality. Redirect your money toward universities that promote free speech, the ones whose objective is not to coddle our youth but to challenge their thinking. If you want to change society’s future, change its universities.
We all have special gifts. Use them. Fight for what is right, while we still have something to fight for.