(June 3, 2021 / Jewish Journal) In February 2009, I wrote an essay about a symposium at the University of California, Los Angeles that marked the beginning of Hamas’s penetration into academic circles. I also described the culture of fear that had overtaken many of my colleagues, who felt it was unsafe to admit to supporting Israel. Twelve years later, in the wake of the most recent conflict between Israel and Gaza and the ensuing anti-Semitism on our campuses and in our streets, I have revised and updated my original essay, which is just as relevant today as it was when it was first written.
Remember Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”? Written in the late 1950s, the play describes the transformation of a quiet, peaceful town into anarchy when one after another of its residents is transformed into a lumbering, thick-skinned brute. Only Berenger, a stand-in for the playwright, tries to hold out against the collective rush into rhinocerism.
First, the townspeople notice a stray rhinoceros rumbling down the street. No one takes a great deal of notice other than to say that it “made a lot of dust.’’ It’s a “stupid quadruped not worth talking about,’’ although it does trample one woman’s cat.
Before long, an ethical debate develops over the rhino way of life versus the human way of life. “Why not just leave them alone,’’ a friend advises Berenger. ‘’You get used to it.’’ The debate is quickly muted into blind acceptance of the rhino ethic, and the entire town joins the marching herd. Berenger finds himself alone, partly resisting, partly enjoying the uncontrolled sounds coming out his own throat: “Honk, Honk, Honk.”
These sounds from Ionesco’s play have echoed in my ears twice. First in 2009, when Hamas gave its premiere performance at UCLA, and second, this past week, when rhinos roamed the streets of Los Angeles shouting, “Honk, Honk, Honk.”
Let’s start in January 2009, when an email from a colleague at Indiana University queried: “Being at UCLA, you must know about this symposium…pretty bad.” Attached to it was Roberta Seid’s report on the now-infamous “Human Rights and Gaza” symposium held a day earlier at UCLA.
To refresh readers’ memory, this symposium, organized by UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES), was billed as a discussion of human rights in Gaza. Instead, the director of the center, Susan Slyomovics, invited four speakers with long histories of demonizing Israel for a panel that Seid describes as a reenactment of a “1920 Munich beer hall.” Not only did the panelists portray Hamas as a guiltless, peace-seeking, unjustly provoked organization, but they also bashed Israel, its motives, its character, its birth and conception, and led the excited audience into chanting “Zionism is Nazism,” “F***, f*** Israel,” in the best tradition of rhino liturgy.
But the primary impact of the event became evident the morning after, when unsuspecting, partially informed students woke up to read an article in the campus newspaper titled, “Scholars Say Attack on Gaza an Abuse of Human Rights,” to which the good name of the University of California was attached, and from which the word “terror” and the genocidal agenda of Hamas were conspicuously absent. This mock verdict, presented as an outcome of supposedly dispassionate scholarship, is where Hamas culture scored its first triumph—the first inch of academic respectability, the first inroad into Western minds.
Naturally, when students complained to me about how abused and frightened they felt during the symposium and how concerned they were about the direction taken by the Center for Near East Studies, I felt terribly guilty. “We should have anticipated such travesties,” I told myself, “we, the Jewish faculty at UCLA, should have preempted it with a true symposium on human rights, one that honestly tackles the tough moral and legal dilemmas that the Gaza situation presents to civilized society: How does society protect the human rights of a civilian population in which rocket-launching terrorists are hiding? How does one reconcile the right of a country to defend itself with the wrong of killing women and children when the former entails the latter? What is a legitimate military target?”
In 2009, these were new dilemmas that had not surfaced prior to the days of rockets and missiles, and we, the Jewish faculty, ought to have pioneered their study. Instead, we allowed Hamas’s sympathizers to frame the academic agenda. How can we face our students from the safety of our offices, I thought, when they deal with anti-Israel abuse on a daily basis—in the cafeteria, the library and the classroom—and as alarming reports of mob violence are arriving from other campuses?
Burdened with guilt, I called some colleagues, but quickly realized that a few had already made the shift to a strange-sounding language, not unlike “Honk, Honk.” Some had entered the debate phase, arguing over the rhino way of life versus the human way of life, and the majority, while still speaking in a familiar English vocabulary, was frightened beyond anything I had seen at UCLA in the 40 years that I had served on its faculty.
Colleagues told me about lecturers whose appointments were terminated, professors whose promotion committees received “incriminating” letters, and about the impossibility of revealing one’s pro-Israel convictions without losing grants, editorial board memberships, or invitations to panels and conferences. And all, literally all, swore me into strict secrecy. Together, we entered the era of “the new Marranos.”
Exaggeration? Jewish paranoia? Hardly. I invite skeptics to repeat the private experiment that I conducted among Jewish faculty in a reception hosted in 2008 by the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. I asked each of them privately: “Tell me, aren’t you a Zionist?” I then counted the number of times my conversant would look to the right, then to the left, before whispering: “Yes, but … ,” I am sure that anyone who repeats this experiment will be as alarmed as I was about the level of academic terror that has descended on U.S. campuses, especially in the humanities and political and social sciences. Our generation of Jewish students is paying dearly for the failure of our academic leadership to acknowledge, assess and form a unified front to combat this academic terror.
And this brings me to 2021 and to the latest war in Gaza. To the New York Times front page depicting the victims of Israel’s defense operation, as if they had never heard the word “Hamas” or read Hamas’s charter. To CNN’s anchor Fareed Zakaria asserting that Israel is a military superpower, hence Hamas does not pose an existential threat to it. To New York Times analyst Nicholas Kristof asserting (in an interview with Bill Maher) that Israel, too, positions its military headquarters among civilians. To UCLA Department of Asian American Studies stating (on its official university website) its “Solidarity with Palestine” and its authoritative understanding that such “violence and intimidation are but the latest manifestation of seventy-three years of settler colonialism, racial apartheid, and occupation.”
To the statement of scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies from various universities who, in the Forward, condemned “the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza.” To members of If Not Now, saying Kaddish for fallen Hamas fighters (among other victims). And, finally, to the mob roaming the streets of Los Angeles and shouting, “Honk, Honk, From the River to the Sea.”
Looking back on the past 12 years, there is no question that Hamas has gained a major uplift in status and respectability. It has become, in fact, the darling of the West. True, seasoned commentators remember to add the obligatory, “We are not condoning Hamas, of course, but … ”
Doesn’t Fareed Zakaria imply that it is not the end of the world if 300,000 Israeli children continue to bleed sleeplessly for another 20 years under Hamas rockets? Didn’t Nicholas Kristof imply that if those children suffer post-traumatic scars for the rest of their lives that it is Israel’s problem because Israel, too, positions its headquarters in civilian areas? Western analysts will go to any absurd lengths to fabricate symmetry between Israel and Hamas because symmetry is our new goddess of right and wrong.
But let’s not forget that it all started in academia, with a herd of passionate intellectuals who managed to hijack the name of their academic institution, which hardly cared. Do not blame them. After all, intellectuals are trained to cheer their peers when the marching band starts playing, and academic institutions are too slow to understand what is being done in their names. Sadly, as Ionesco understood so well, we are all herd-honking organisms. Please take another look at the rhinos roaming the streets of Los Angeles, here, and see for yourself how hard it is to hold back and not join them with: Honk, Honk!
Judea Pearl is a chancellor professor at UCLA, co-author of “The Book of Why” and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org), named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Light, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.
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