Silence of the Lambs: Dissecting the failure of Jewish-studies programs

Whenever events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heat up and the academy singles out Israel, Jewish studies faculty either remain silent or publicly side with the anti-Zionists, much as they did in May 2021.

McCosh 50, the largest lecture hall on campus, renovated in 2021. Credit: Politics Is Exciting via Wikimedia Commons.
McCosh 50, the largest lecture hall on campus, renovated in 2021. Credit: Politics Is Exciting via Wikimedia Commons.
Jarrod Tanny
Jarrod Tanny

In August 2017, after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, and in October 2018, after the Tree of Life mass shooting, there was an outpouring of anger and grief from Jewish studies faculty across U.S. colleges.

This suddenly changed in May 2021, during Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, when Israel’s alleged crimes prompted threats and violence in the United States and Europe against Jews. This time, the response from Jewish faculty was a collective letter from over 200 self-professed Jewish studies experts blaming Israel for all that had transpired.

This harsh reaction raised an alarming question: To what extent are Jewish studies professors propagating anti-Israel narratives for political purposes in their classrooms, given that they do so in public? Many in the wider Jewish community have come to believe that this is now a widespread phenomenon.

But is it true? Are Jewish studies professors imposing their politics in the classroom? It’s impossible to know for sure. Until recently, most anti-Zionist indoctrination came from outside of Jewish studies, from courses in ethnic studies, Middle Eastern studies, disability studies, women’s and gender studies and other such programs—programs that have all become trendy in recent years because they are grounded in identity politics and a commitment to advocate for social justice at the expense of critical inquiry.

What we do know is that in refusing to push back against this perversion of education emanating from virtually every corner of the humanities, Jewish studies faculty have failed.

Whenever events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heat up and the academy singles out Israel, Jewish studies faculty either remain silent or publicly side with the anti-Zionists, much as they did in May 2021, when they issued a statement unilaterally condemning Israel, ignoring Hamas terrorism and offering nothing but a rather anodyne rejection of all “expressions of antisemitism or Islamophobia.”

But by denouncing Islamophobia in the same breath that you condemn antisemitism, at a time when Hamas apologists were harassing and attacking Jews in the streets of America, you are saying “All Lives Matter” to the Jews. You are siding with the antisemites. As an insider who saw earlier drafts of this statement, I know that the condemnation of antisemitism was an eleventh-hour insertion because its authors had received pushback on social media, including from me.

I have no intention of revisiting at length why anti-Zionism is more often than not antisemitic on today’s academic left. Many scholars, including this writer, have described how the infusion of “Zionism” into domestic social justice discourse, proclaiming Palestine to be a queer issue, a disability issue, a climate justice issue, centers Israel and its supporters abroad as a “global” threat on par with imperialism, racist capitalism and white supremacy. Intersectionality, as interpreted on campus today irrespective of the term’s original meaning, claims that all oppressions are linked: unless everyone is free, nobody is free; you cannot fight against one oppression without fighting against them all.

In 2020, the notorious ex-academic Dr. Steven Salaita tweeted that “if you’re serious about a safe, more livable world, then ending Zionism needs to be part of the calculation.” Or to paraphrase Fatima Mousa Mohammed’s May 2023 CUNY Law School commencement speech, we must “fight against the global threat of capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.” Israel is not merely being held to a double standard. Anti-Zionists are demonizing the Jewish state and its backers as a threat to all of humanity, using language reminiscent of Soviet propaganda.

Where is Jewish studies in all this? Why are Jewish studies professors signaling to the public that they are willing to go along with what is unquestionably antisemitism? To answer this question, let me tell you the story of how I became aware of the corruption of Jewish studies and descended into the rabbit hole of Zionist activism, a move that irreparably changed my academic trajectory.

When I embarked upon my academic career in Jewish studies more than 20 years ago, I never expected to find myself on the frontlines of defending Jewish students and scholars within the academy from antisemitism. In retrospect, I should have foreseen this. I completed my PhD at Berkeley, an institution that led the way in normalizing anti-Zionist discourse on college campuses. But at the time all that was background noise to me.

In those days, I spent my time with the Russian historians who were more concerned with producing scholarship that was not compromised by activism or predetermined by an ideological agenda. I could have been hired for a Russian history position, but because of the dismal state of the academic job market in 2008, I was hired for Jewish history. I am equally trained in both fields (and love both subjects), but did not participate in the wider Jewish studies conversation until I was hired for a teaching fellowship at Ohio University.

I mention this to underscore that I entered Jewish studies without having any sort of Zionist activist agenda. Sure, I have always been a Zionist, and I have taught a course on Zionism and Israel every other year since 2009. But I am fortunate to teach at a university in North Carolina where anti-Zionist activism is not an issue. My students do not believe that Palestinian freedom is inextricably linked to Black Lives Matter, climate change and LGBT rights. My colleagues in the history department are wonderful; they do not waste their time on strategizing how to liquidate the Jewish state through public statements and partisan scholarship.

I have had a total of one hostile encounter with a colleague on my campus relating to Zionism and Jews: a professor from communications and disability studies who had absorbed and repeated all the antisemitic tropes that have found their way into her corner of the humanities through intersectionality and critical race theory. Just one encounter. I turned it into a widely circulated op-ed published in the Jewish Journal (and blocked her on social media). Although she later claimed to have considered legal action against me for “ruining her professional reputation” nothing further came of it.

So then how did I get drawn into this universe of Zionist activism if my campus is free from the anti-Zionist politics that have become pervasive across the United States? The answer is as simple as it is tragic: Anti-Zionism is the normalized climate within the wider national and international Jewish studies community. Jewish studies as an academic field has become a hotbed of anti-Zionist activity in a way that it was not a decade ago.

Although the field was heading in that direction for quite some time, it exposed itself in full force during the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2021, when several hundred Jewish studies professors authored a statement blaming Israel entirely for the carnage. The document contended that Israel was shaped by “settler colonialist paradigms” leading to the “unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians.”

At that moment I realized what we had was not a case of silent complicity, but of active engagement, or rather active appeasement of the wider anti-Zionist academic left—faculty in gender studies, ethnic studies, middle eastern studies and other disciplines that had all issued their own statements vilifying Israel in the days leading up to the statement from Jewish studies.

What shocked me was the number of Jewish studies faculty who went along with this statement, not the document itself. I had hitherto been convinced that only a small minority of militant Jewish studies faculty were pushing an anti-Zionist agenda, whereas the vast majority remained silent; they were scholars who simply did not want to get involved, whatever their feelings toward Israel may be. I knew the militant minority of anti-Zionist activists in Jewish studies well because I had already experienced a series of altercations with them, not merely over Israel, but over their utter refusal to acknowledge the antisemitism of the left that was growing exponentially in the early days of the Trump era.

In early 2017 I was invited to join a private Facebook group called “The Jewish Studies Activist Network” (JSAN), whose stated purpose was to fight “fascism” in America. Although I was skeptical of the “Trump is a fascist” mantra then making its rounds, I nevertheless recognized the burgeoning threat of extremists on the political right. How could opposing what they called “fascism” be a bad thing? Why not condemn the inhumane treatment of immigrants at the border and the hounding of anyone suspected of being anything other than a true American? Charlottesville and the Tree of Life all but confirmed the grave danger of white supremacy in the United States.

But it soon became clear that the group, which had hundreds of members, including dozens of prominent ones whose work we rely on to teach our classes, had a different agenda that was never explicitly stated, at least not at first.

Their agenda was anti-Zionist, even though this often entailed ignoring antisemitism on the left. But why would Jewish studies faculty ignore and even endorse bigotry against the community they studied? Perhaps it is because, as the sociologist David Hirsh has argued, professing anti-Zionism is the price of admission into leftist academic circles. If Jewish studies scholars insist that antisemitic tropes propagated by Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Marc Lamont Hill, Jasbir Puar and others are not actually antisemitic, then the academic left gets to enjoy a kosher seal of approval from the experts in Jewish history and politics. And, in return for denouncing “Zionist Apartheid,” Jewish studies can thus be granted entry into the academic social justice club.

JSAN’s agenda became obvious over the next few years based on the conversations that transpired within the group and in the statements its members issued. They spoke out against the appointment of Ken Marcus to the department of education; they condemned David Friedman as the selected ambassador to Israel because he was allegedly a racist; they rejected Trump’s executive order against antisemitism; and of course its members opposed the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem. Did they ever speak out against antisemitism? Yes, but only when it emanated from the political right, from white supremacists.

Nevertheless, I naively assumed at first that JSAN would be willing to take a stand against the antisemitism of the left if it were abundantly clear that innocent American Jews were bearing the consequences. I experienced a handful of incidents before I was excommunicated through a rather cold and impersonal text message from one of its coordinators. I never expected JSAN to be Israel advocates, but the very idea that the loudest collective voice in Jewish studies would tolerate and even collude in leftwing antisemitism was beyond the limits of my imagination.

In the summer of 2017, several altercations involving the bullying of LGBT Jews took place. Most notorious was the ejection of a contingent of LGBT Jews from the Chicago Dyke March for having displayed a rainbow flag with a white Star of David. The flag allegedly represented apartheid and imperialism, and many involved with the March found it “triggering.” Palestinian national flags were more than welcome.

But earlier in the summer a more troubling incident occurred at an Israel parade in New York, which was disrupted by the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace. As shrewd militants seeking maximum payout they went after the most vulnerable—a contingent of gay Jews. Many of those targeted were gay orthodox Jews, some of whom had just come out or were in the process of coming out. Some were out in public as proud gay Jews for the first time in their lives, after having grown up in a homophobic religious world.

It should have been one of the greatest moments of their lives: being Jewish and queer in public. But JVP proceeded to harass, taunt and bully them. They deliberately chose them because they were gay and perhaps orthodox, making them especially vulnerable. For JVP, they were no better than any other Zionist imperialist; perhaps they were even worse, because as Jewish supremacists they were betraying their natural allies in the gay community, queers for the liberation of Palestine.

When I read about what had happened, I raised the issue in the Jewish Studies Activist Network. I assumed that JSAN would have an interest in combating behavior that was antisemitic and deliberately homophobic. But nobody cared. Some admitted to being members of Jewish Voice for Peace, or at the very least staunch supporters. They did not consider this an antisemitic incident. I persisted in arguing because it was only 2017, and I had yet to understand that the very Jewish studies scholar-activists who wrote statement after statement condemning Islamophobia and anti-immigration xenophobia had zero interest in defending LGBT Jews if their assailants were anti-Zionist crusaders. Had JSAN defended them, the network would have been branded as complicit in Zionism and faced recrimination in progressive circles, which is something academics can ill afford. It is a sin to be on the side of “Israeli Apartheid” in academia.

I was eventually thrown out of the network after I raised another incident involving antisemitism from the left. The specifics are immaterial, because nobody chose to address the issue, opting instead to smear me. I was called a “racist Islamophobe” because I publicly opposed Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. A few posted screenshots from my social media accounts. Some of the comments were so defamatory that I posted them on my own Facebook wall. It was then that I was ejected from the network, because I had violated their terms of membership by releasing screenshots from this secretive private group, even though I had blotted out their names to hide their identity.

Not one person in Jewish studies came to my defense. Not one. I even counted some of the members of the JSAN coordinating committee as my friends. They owed me support not because of the position I took, but because of the way I was treated by the people who attacked me. I no longer count these people as my friends or my colleagues.

What I endured hardly rises to the level of “cancellation” and harassment experienced by so many other academics who have postulated “errant” political positions. But it placed me on the path of becoming a pariah in Jewish studies, or at least among powerful people in Jewish studies who are vocal and militant in their anti-Zionist politics. In fact, over the past two years it has come to my attention that a senior scholar in Jewish studies has contacted one academic publisher and advised them to not publish me based on my stance.

Several months later a friend informed me they had also been contacted by this senior scholar, who likewise advised my friend to have nothing to do with me. In a profession where power and prestige shape and break careers, such “advice” is little more than professional pressure that comes with a cost should the so-called advice not be heeded. It’s the kind of advice Robert Duvall proffered on behalf of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” Has this senior scholar contacted anyone else? I have no idea, but twice suggests a pattern, and I would be surprised if there have not been more instances.

Speaking out against anti-Zionism because it all too often bleeds into antisemitism, jeopardizes the security of and vilifies the identities of American Jews (particularly on college campuses) caused me to become ostracized in my field. I have demanded accountability from Jewish studies as a collective for remaining silent or for going along with the progressive line in academia even when all evidence points to antisemitism.

I am sharing this story so that others can understand that there is a problem within Jewish studies. The public often looks to Jewish studies professors as the guardians of Jewish knowledge and practices. People turn to us whenever antisemitism rears its head, whenever violence breaks out in the Middle East, and whenever there is a social dispute in the United States that intersects with Jewish issues. This is why in statement after statement these professors begin their documents with the words: “As scholars of Jewish studies, we insist that….” But they abuse their expertise, their training and their academic credentials for political ends. And unfortunately, one of their political ends is to be welcomed into the wider progressive movement that has inundated college campuses, for whom anti-Zionism is the ticket of admission.

There are some professors affiliated with Jewish studies who have spoken out against anti-Zionism. One colleague was so outraged by the events of May 2021 and the response he received from his university’s Jewish studies program—which sided with the anti-Zionists and advised him to choose his battles more carefully—that he decided to disaffiliate himself from Jewish studies, concluding that as a law professor he could do meaningful scholarship in a less toxic environment.

Even though I am a historian and am housed in my university’s history department, I do not have that luxury. I hold an endowed chair in Jewish studies. I teach all the Jewish history courses on my campus. I do a great deal of communal outreach and public programming. As the lone full-time Jewish studies professor this is my mandate. I find it rewarding. But such a position—should I wish to continue researching and publishing, attending Jewish studies conferences, bringing fellow colleagues to speak on my campus—requires me to be part of the larger national Jewish studies community of scholars. I no longer feel as if I am part of this community. For having spoken out on behalf of Zionism, Israel and the right for Jews on campus to express their identity without fear of ostracism, I have become persona non grata.

Not one to back down from a fight, I concluded that it was time to push back more forcefully. I knew there must be other Jewish studies scholars who had no interest in following the anti-Zionist party line. In June 2022, I launched an association called the Jewish Studies Zionist Network (JSZN). We define ourselves as a network of “scholars and educators in Jewish Studies who affirm that Zionism is a legitimate movement for the national self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.” As scholars of Jewish studies, we espouse critical inquiry, empiricism and open debate. As of now, over 180 Jewish studies scholars have signed our mission statement.

Although our work is just beginning, we have already issued multiple statements condemning specific incidents of antisemitism in academia, such as the decision of 15 Berkeley law student clubs to ban Zionist speakers from their organizations, and the Association for Jewish Studies publication of an “art installation” that graphically compares life in the Gaza Strip to Auschwitz, which prompted a public backlash from dozens of AJS members.

Will our efforts to combat the intellectual war against Israel bear fruit? At the very least, we are not going down without a fight. Sanctioning the deliberate exacerbation of antisemitism is a morally indefensible position, because one thing is clear: If the accepted experts in Jewish history, politics, religion and culture refuse to combat the demonization of the Jews, well, then let me ask you, who exactly will?

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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