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Opinion

The Association for Jewish Studies has become a mouthpiece for progressive antisemitism

The organization has taken a sharp turn away from Zionism, Israel and Orthodox Jews.

Protesters in Berlin hold a Palestinian flag and the initials of the anti-Israel BDS movement while then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Germany in August 2019. Credit: Israel Hayom.
Protesters in Berlin hold a Palestinian flag and the initials of the anti-Israel BDS movement while then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Germany in August 2019. Credit: Israel Hayom.
Joshua M. Karlip
Joshua M. Karlip

The following antisemitic canards have so infiltrated progressive discourse that they hardly shock us anymore: 1) Orthodox Jews have developed a powerful political lobby that has misappropriated taxpayer funds for their undeserving schools. 2) The Orthodox Jewish community only cares about itself and silences the voices of women. 3) Israel’s policy towards Gaza mirrors that of Nazi Germany towards European Jewry. 4) Zionism is a racist form of settler-colonialism and Israel as the Jewish state should be dismantled.

Imagine my horror at reading these libels in the latest issue of AJS Perspectives: The Magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies.

Founded in 1969 by a small group of American Jewish studies scholars, the Association for Jewish Studies has grown into the largest scholarly association in the field, hosting an annual conference—attended by over 1,200 people last month—and publishing the academic journal AJS Review and the magazine AJS Perspectives.

For the first 45 years of its existence, AJS functioned as a nonpartisan organization that united Jewish scholars across all religious and political divides. Over the last six years, however, AJS has firmly aligned itself with the progressive left.

AJS’s adoption of the causes and tactics of the progressive movement reached its zenith with the forced resignation of its former president Noam Pianko. The pretext was Pianko’s virtual attendance at a Zoom conference also attended by sociologist Steven Cohen, who has been accused of sexual harassment by female Jewish scholars.

AJS has issued public resolutions on numerous issues, from a condemnation of “institutional” racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd to a statement against Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Although it spoke out following the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, it has remained completely silent in the wake of the almost daily physical assaults on Orthodox men, some of them deadly, in the New York area. It has never condemned the increasing violence and intimidation directed against Jewish students at American universities.

In its just published “The Justice Issue,” AJS Perspectives had an opportunity to address the rich history of Jewish thought on the topic of justice. I was appalled to discover, however, that nearly the entire journal was dedicated to “justice” from the perspective of the progressive left. In their faithful reflection of current progressive orthodoxies, several of the journal’s contributors perpetuated antisemitic tropes regarding two contemporary targets of Jew-hatred: Orthodox Jews and Israel.

The journal’s arts section featured Meirav Ong’s performance “Mourners Kaddish (My Mother’s Yahrzeit),” in which she recited the Mourners Kaddish in various tones for 56 minutes. This was done in an apparently vain attempt to recover her “silenced voice” from her “first year in grief.” Reflecting on her recitation of the Kaddish that year in an Orthodox synagogue where women do not recite this prayer unaccompanied by men, Ong concluded, “My mourning taught me that as a woman, a Jewish woman, to speak my full voice is a radical act.”

Joshua Shanes’s contribution, “Social Justice and Orthodoxy,” was particularly offensive. Shanes has earned a reputation for demonizing Orthodox Jews and Israel via a series of popular articles. Referring to a recent New York Times exposé on the Hasidic community that was widely criticized as biased, Shanes wrote, “Orthodox Jews in New York work their political contacts assiduously to maximize public support for their heders and yeshivas.” Lurking behind this quotation and Shanes’s entire article is the age-old antisemitic stereotype of the greedy, selfish Jew who manipulates non-Jewish society for his own profit.

According to Shanes, Orthodox Jews view the issue of social justice solely in terms of its impact on their communities and think only of how they can impose their values on everyone else. But how can one seriously discuss the relationship between social justice and Orthodoxy without writing about the legion of Orthodox charitable and volunteer-service organizations, most of which serve the entire Jewish community and beyond?

Shanes ended his screed by referring to a “smug confidence in Orthodox superiority” as “the cornerstone of Orthodox identity since its inception in Germany.” I doubt that AJS would have chosen to publish this if it had been said of Muslims or Catholics.

“The Justice Issue” also demonizes the State of Israel. The arts section featured a description of Ruth Sergel’s “Gaza Ghetto,” a social-media exhibit posted during Israel’s conflict with Hamas in 2014. Sergel, in an attempt to “recognize the fundamental humanity of the Palestinian people,” posted images of her arm inscribed with the names of Palestinians killed by Israeli bombs.

Given that a very large percentage of Palestinians killed in that conflict were Hamas operatives, Sergel was effectively memorializing terrorists directly responsible for trying to murder Israelis. Moreover, by inscribing their names on her arm, Sergel deliberately invoked the numbers tattooed on the arms of Holocaust victims, a classic case of an antisemitic inversion of history.

At least as offensive as Sergel’s images was Atalia Omer’s article “Jewish Justice as Historical Praxis in Israel/Palestine.” Omer’s assertions about the essence of Zionism and Israel read like Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas’s dissertation, not a scholarly assessment. According to Omer, Zionists, through their “transnational discursive Hasbarah (or public diplomacy)” have made it “increasingly difficult to differentiate between Zionism and Judaism,” thereby “introducing an ahistorical attitude toward the praxis of Jewish justice.”

Omer further claimed that Zionists invoke the memory of the Holocaust to espouse a “Judeo-pessimism” that sees antisemitism as a permanent feature of world history. They do so to advance their plan for “Palestinian displacement and elimination” camouflaged as “self-defense.”

In addition, Omer decried the Oslo peace process as an “illusion and delusion,” a “profundity of injustice” and a “segregationist peace formula.” Ultimately, Omer chillingly concluded, the antidote to Oslo is the “restorative justice” of dismantling the Zionist project through the end of Israel as the Jewish nation-state. Omer called on “other victims of Jewish history” (read Zionism) such as Mizrahi and Ethiopian-Israeli Jews to liberate themselves from a “colonial identity” and ally themselves with Palestinians in the struggle to end Israel.

In her complete identification with the Palestinian cause, Omer does to Israeli Jews exactly what she claims they have done to Palestinians: She erases their agency and cultural identity by reducing them to the stereotyped role of aggressors.

In his introduction to “The Justice Issue,” AJS’s Executive Director Warren Hoffman wrote of the organization’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce’s creation of a Scholars of Color fellowship program and an annual “summer writing group geared toward women, transmen and nonbinary folks.” It is ironic that, while reaching out to these groups, AJS has chosen to marginalize Orthodox and Zionist Jews.

AJS’s descent into ideological purity has transformed it from a representative of Jewish scholarship into a mouthpiece for the antisemitic demonization of Orthodox and Zionist Jews, as well as the State of Israel. I know that I am speaking on behalf of many colleagues when I say that the time has come for AJS to return to its proud past of nonpartisanship. If it does not, those committed to that principle may be forced to found a new society for Jewish studies.

I sincerely hope that the Association for Jewish Studies will once again live up to its name and original mission, and open itself up to true diversity and the inclusion of all scholarly viewpoints.

Joshua M. Karlip is the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Associate Professor of Jewish History and associate director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University.

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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