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Something is rotten in the state of higher education

Antisemitism has metastasized into the academic mainstream.

Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar. Credit: Rutgers University.
Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar. Credit: Rutgers University.
Robert Rozett
Robert Rozett
Dr. Robert Rozett is a senior historian at Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem.

Having already attended many forums discussing antisemitism and heard many reports about increasingly vitriolic campus Jew-hatred, the penny dropped hard in Feb. 2016 when an incident at Vassar College made the news.

Rutgers Professor of Women’s Studies Jasbir Puar addressed students and faculty claiming that Israel intentionally kills Palestinian teenagers, harvests their organs “for scientific research,” and “maims” and “stunts” the growth of Palestinians by preventing basic commodities from reaching them.

These false accusations were reportedly met with no challenge whatsoever from the Vassar faculty members and students in attendance. There was not even a whispered doubt about the credibility of her sources or the validity of her thesis. 

The following year, Puar published a book through the prestigious Duke University Press called The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability in which she repeated her lies. In 2018, the book was awarded the Alison Piepmeier Book Prize by the National Women’s Studies Association, giving those lies a stamp of approval.

As a graduate of Rutgers (class of 1978), I wrote to the president of the university about the Vassar incident, but never received a reply.

For a short time, the Vassar incident was much discussed in the media. Some criticized Puar, others defended her, others excused her, but the controversy soon faded. It should not have done. It should have sent shock waves through the academic community. It should have sounded the alarm about a precipitous deterioration in academic standards and integrity at leading universities and colleges. It should have made people realize that “intersectionality” is no replacement for scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. It should have led to dozens of lectures at institutions of higher learning about the difference between scholarship and polemics, representation and misrepresentation.

Most importantly, it should have been made crystal clear that anti-Israel discourse tainted with one of the oldest antisemitic tropes—the blood libel—has no place on campus or anywhere else.

The seeds of this takeover, which includes some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, were planted well before the Vassar incident. The fact that nobody challenged Puar in the lecture hall demonstrated that, by 2016, the seeds had sprouted. Something was rotten in the state of higher education. Intellectual dishonesty, problematic “intersectional” theories and the conflation of pure terrorism with legitimate attempts to resolve the complex issues that face Israelis and Palestinians were already on the way to becoming mainstream and driving a precipitous rise in antisemitism.

Today, a generation of students has been inculcated with a distorted discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This discourse ignores history, whitewashes complexities and has resulted in a black-and-white understanding of a conflict with innumerable shades of gray. It demonizes Israel and Zionism. It places no responsibility whatsoever on the Palestinians for either the continued conflict or the current Israel-Hamas war.

This biased discourse ignores the long history of the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, the Jews’ ancient homeland, by calling Zionism a colonial enterprise—even though I have never heard of colonists returning to their ancient home. It erases the fact that while most Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel, there was always a Jewish presence there and, for 2,000 years, Jews in exile prayed to return to their land. It refuses to acknowledge that throughout the history of the exile, Jews were subjected to persecution and many times slaughtered, yet Jewish culture and thought continued to develop and even flourish. It covers up the fact that modern Zionism emerged not only out of the ancient desire for return, but also for a safe haven from persecution.

More than anything, this discourse has legitimized racism, rejectionism and terrorism. Regarding the current war, Hamas is and always has been resolutely rejectionist. It rejects Israel not only on political grounds but, perhaps more crucially, on religious grounds. In Hamas’s supremacist theology, the Land of Israel is Muslim land and the State of Israel has no right to exist. Nor do Jews have any right to live on their own land. As Hamas showed so horrifically on Oct. 7, it intends to destroy Israel and ethnically cleanse its Jews by murder and terror. In other words, it wants to perpetrate a genocide.

Support for Hamas on campus and the violent antisemitism that accompanies it are grounded in the kind of intellectual dishonesty practiced by Puar and others. Were this a marginal phenomenon, it might not be so difficult to counter. But having been ignored for so long, it has metastasized into the mainstream. This is a tremendous failure, and one can only hope that academic standards, scholarly integrity and critical thinking are not beyond redemption. 

Concern about innocent Palestinian civilians as Israel pursues its defensive war against Hamas is fitting and proper. Criticizing Israel without demonizing it, delegitimizing it or invoking double standards is fair. But it must be made unequivocally clear that support for Hamas is support for genocide. It must be axiomatic that Jews should feel safe on campus and everywhere else. Today, this is not the case.

As an Israeli, a Jew who wears a kippa and a scholar at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, would I be safe were I to be invited to New Brunswick to speak at my alma mater? Would I be able to deliver my lecture and have it assessed on its merits alone? I am far from certain.

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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