Life & Culture

Yascha Mounk is showing the way out of today’s culture wars

The American writer is pushing back against the ‘woke’ identity theories that fuel antisemitism


Yascha Mounk is an optimist. In his recent book, The Identity Trap, he tells the baleful story of the capture of universities and other US institutions by the “tyranny” of “woke” ideas, leading to witch-hunts against those seen as “privileged” or to hold “unacceptable” views. Speaking on the phone from New York, he tells the JC that this crude, Manichean vision of the world, which divides and ranks everyone by categories such as white and black, oppressor and oppressed, is also the prime reason for surge in antisemitism seen on American campuses since the Hamas massacre of October 7.

But Mounk believes that what he terms “the identity synthesis” can be beaten – by argument and reason. The pushback, he writes, “is already showing first signs of success”, because “the more advocates of the identity synthesis try to put their aspirations into practice, the clearer it becomes that they stand in direct tension with the moral convictions of the great majority of Americans”.

Mounk, 42, who will be interviewed on Monday at a Jewish Literary Foundation Book Week event by JC editor Jake Wallis Simons, was brought up in Germany, where his mother, a Jewish socialist, had fled from Poland after facing antisemitic persecution by its then-Communist regime. He is now an associate professor at the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

The fight may be winnable, Mounk says, but the challenge is severe – especially for Jews: “If you believe the only way to understand racism is structural, then it becomes impossible for someone ‘privileged’ to be a victim of it.” Jews, he goes on, are seen by much of America’s left as “white”, and Palestinians as “black”; Jews as colonisers, Palestinians the colonised. Needless to say, he points out, this takes no account of the inconvenient fact that a plurality of Israeli Jews are Mizrachi, “thrown out of their own former countries, with nowhere else to go”.

But the consequence since October 7 is that at many US universities, “it has been a very hard time to be Jewish”, and the shock to the collective American Jewish psyche has been profound: “In Europe, the notion that you might need police to protect a synagogue or a Jewish kindergarten has been normalised” – because thanks to Europe’s history, Jews there know they may find themselves at risk. “But American Jews have never felt that before, never felt they might need protection. Deep down, American Jews felt they were fully American and would always be safe here. Over the past five months, many have come to feel their sense of belonging is conditional, in the same way European Jews have.”

For the many whose political home is the Democrats, this has been especially difficult, Mounk says: “American Jews tend to be on the centre left, to identify with causes such as racial justice. Now they are fighting to demonstrate they are not guilty of the crimes the far left accuses them of, that people they thought were reliable allies do not wish them well. They are starting to realise that spaces where they felt welcome are hostile to them.”

Unlike other intellectuals who have joined the culture war against identity politics, such as Douglas Murray or Jordan Peterson, Mounk is a man of the liberal left: indeed, he has been described as Barack Obama’s favourite philosopher. This explains his book’s title: the “trap” is that an ideology derived from intersecting species of identity turns out to be a feeble and ineffective means of achieving social change: “Gaps between races become the key to everything, so that the real problem of inequality is not seen as the widening of economic disparity, but that there just aren’t enough black billionaires.”

He highlights other grotesque consequences, such as a US Centres for Disease Control decision in late 2020 not to give Covid 19 vaccines to elderly people first, on the grounds that racial minorities were “under-represented among adults aged over than 65” – although this age group was at much the greatest risk.

The backlash against identity may well hand victory to Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election, Mounk says. But as we end our conversation, his optimism and faith in human nature return. Despite his critique of identity politics, he says he has never felt at risk of being “cancelled”, and neither has he felt tempted to throw in his lot with the right: “I think my ideological anchoring is strong enough to stop me going off the rails, and I’m not tempted by the right-wing echo chamber.

“If you formulate your concerns about these ideas in a respectful, principled way, you can convince people. And if you can’t, then you probably don’t want them to be your friends in the first place.”

‘The Identity Trap’ is published by Penguin. Yascha Mounk will be talking to Jake Wallis Simons at 8pm on 4 March at Kings Place in London. Tickets available at

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