A performer gets up onstage and tells the audience, “Anti-Semitism. Yeah, okay. This is my anti-Semitic song. I know it sounds R&B stuff but don’t think of Rihanna when you sing it, think of, um . . . don’t think of Beyoncé, think of Mel Gibson. Go that anti-Semitic.” He then gets the tittering audience to sing the line “I’m in love with a Jew” in a parodic call and response before launching into his song about a Palestinian stuck in an elevator with a female Israeli:
Her skin is white, my skin is brown
She was going up, I was going down . . .
In the elevator, no electricity
Between us, there was electricity
Was it meant to be? Could she be the one?
Her name ain’t Janie but she’s got a gun
Do I speak Hebrew? A bit hard for me
“YESH AVODA?” means, u gotta job for me?
Does she speak Arabic? She said a word or two
“WAKEF YA BATUKHAK” means, freeze or I shoots
This reminds one of nothing so much as Borat getting the audience at a country and western bar to sing “In My Country There Is Problem” (“Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free”)—except it was an audience of professors and students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the rapper, Tamer Nafar, wasn’t joking. (The official video for the song includes the cute Israeli soldier beating him, acting like a dominatrix, taking selfies with him tied and blindfolded, and so on.) Nafar had been invited to open, and hence presumably set the tone, for the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies Conference “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities,” which promised to give participants “a deeper understanding of the context” of the conflict. What is happening on American campuses?
The March 2019 Duke-UNC conference happened too recently to be included in Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS, the first book published by an academic press to contextualize first-hand accounts from faculty and students who became ensnared in the systematic assaults against Israel—and by extension Jews—that have become commonplace in higher education. Through this collection we get a disturbing picture of how students and faculty in the self-proclaimed progressive movement have demonized and marginalized Israel, its advocates, and anyone who wishes to genuinely learn about the Jewish State. Although such progressives claim that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, because they are attacking a political entity and the ideologues who uphold it, not an ethno-religious community, these essays suggest otherwise. They make a strong case for those who argue that anti-Zionism is the “new anti-Semitism.” Indeed, if the two were distinct phenomena, why in the world would a room full of engaged university citizens ostensibly eager to learn about the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict applaud a performer who urges them to “go that anti-Semitic” and treats being “in love with a Jew” as a parodic badge of shame?
It is a badge of shame because these activists have one objective: to humiliate everyone who can be branded as “complicit in Zionism.” This includes faculty who sponsor events featuring Israeli speakers, students who publicly oppose boycott and divestment from Israel resolutions (BDS), and even those who advocate for the rights of the LGBT community in the Jewish State (rights they in fact possess, as opposed to the citizens of every other state in the Middle East).
As Professors Andrew Pessin and Doron Ben-Atar write, “Where some might see in Israel a prosperous (if flawed) liberal democracy, or the only modern example of an indigenous people reclaiming lost sovereignty over its homeland, the new campus orthodoxy sees only an apartheid regime founded on racism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and colonialist imperialism,” all of which are terms they routinely deploy without empirical evidence. Zionism is illegitimate and “Jewish democracy is an offensive oxymoron” because it is impossible for a Jewish State to exist or to have come into being without the violent dispossession and displacement of the land’s alleged rightful indigenous inhabitants (thus, incidentally, the pitch-perfect phrasing of Nafar’s song: “Her skin is white, my skin is brown,” though of course it doesn’t describe Israeli reality).
This view, belligerently propagated by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and similar activist networks, rejects outright the idea of a two-state solution to the conflict, precisely because it legitimates the Zionist project, which they argue is little more than European imperialism masquerading as Jewish self-determination. Rejecting the legitimacy of the “Zionist narrative” absolves Palestinian activists from any responsibility to engage respectfully with their opponents through debate, negotiation, and empathy. Such absolution is a license to boycott, malign, and threaten anyone who affiliates with Israel.
Anti-Zionism on Campus is not a collection of essays by academic scholars of anti-Semitism; rather it is by academics who have experienced anti-Semitism in the academy. Take, for instance, coeditor Doron Ben-Atar’s experience. “The email arrived on the last Friday of the spring term shortly before 5:00 p.m.,” he writes. “Anastasia Coleman, Fordham’s director of Institutional Equity and Compliance / Title IX coordinator, wanted to meet with me. ‘It has been alleged . . . that you may have acted in an inappropriate way and possibly discriminated against another person at the university.’” Given that Title IX addresses sexual misconduct, Ben-Atar panicked, and he mentally replayed all the caustic and cheeky quips, “the many slips of the tongue I had had in three decades of teaching.” But this had nothing to do with his students or his classroom propriety.
So what had Ben-Atar done? He had taken what he considered to be a principled position against the American Studies Association’s 2013 resolution to boycott Israeli universities. Arguing that the resolution unfairly discriminated against an entire nation’s academics irrespective of their individual politics, Ben-Atar implored his colleagues in Fordham’s American Studies program to explicitly reject it. When his colleagues chose to remain silent, Ben-Atar threatened to “resign from the program and fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry.” The program’s director decided to retaliate against him by filing a specious Title IX complaint, “charging that I threatened to destroy the program,” although how this violated Title IX (or would have even been an intelligible threat from a single faculty member) was left mysterious.
Ben-Atar “went through a Kafkaesque process in which I was never told exactly what I supposedly did wrong, nor was I ever shown anything in writing.” Only later, when the official report was issued, did Ben-Atar learn that “the charge was religious discrimination born out of my opposition to the ASA [American Studies Association] boycott.” He was never given the opportunity to defend himself, and it painfully dawned on him that “[a]dministrators and colleagues failed to protect my First Amendment rights and fed the assault on my character.” While the Title IX coordinator’s report cleared him of that charge, it concluded that he must be guilty of something, since he had hired an attorney, and recommended that he be disciplined. In the end, he was not, but the provost expressed dismay that Ben-Atar intended to go public with his story, which he did, because of “the message conveyed to me and to all those daring to deviate from the new anti-Zionist orthodoxy: if you dare to speak up, we’ll come after you; we’ll spread false rumors and innuendos; we’ll portray you as a sexist bully; we’ll destroy your reputation; and we’ll make you an outcast in your own department and university.”
But there was a larger issue at stake for Ben-Atar: “Antisemitism is protected speech” on campus, whereas speech combating anti-Semitism is not. This is what Corinne E. Blackmer, “an out lesbian, an observant Jewish woman, and a Zionist” professor at Southern Connecticut State University, discovered in March 2008, when an IDF operation in Gaza inflamed anti-Israel rhetoric on her campus. Blackmer arrived at work one morning to find her office door defaced “with profane, hateful language that was anti-LGBTQ, antisemitic, and anti-Zionist.” Justifiably agitated, Blackmer called the campus police. But it was the police officer’s response that truly distressed her:
Throughout the interview, she seemed to assume that I had been the victim of only homophobic animus. All other threats and defacing were ignored, as if incidental, accidental, and, indeed, nonsignifying. I realized she could understand homophobia but, like my students, not anti-Zionism—which was not a recognized form of hate speech, as too many pro-Israel students, faculty, and staff at American college campuses have learned to their dismay.
This, despite the fact that her car “had been daubed with mud in the shape of a swastika.”
It is axiomatic in progressive circles that targeted minorities have the right to define their experience of oppression and discrimination. However, what one finds again and again in the 31 first-hand case studies of incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in this book is university officials at every level, from police officers to provosts and presidents, who are profoundly uninterested in the victim’s interpretation of what happened to them. As Blackmer writes, “They took all the liberal ideals of inclusion and respect for plurality in which I believe so deeply and used them against the Zionist and Jewish components of my identity.” Nor—despite their insistence on making a rigorous distinction between these two components of identity—are campus radicals particularly good at actually keeping it. In one well-publicized incident, Molly Horwitz, a Jewish Latina student who ran for the Stanford senate, was asked during her electoral campaign, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment [from Israel]?”
Moreover, the rhetoric used to attack Zionists and the State of Israel is often replete with anti-Semitic tropes, and not only from historically ignorant 20-year-olds. In 2016, Professor Jasbir Puar gave a now infamous presentation at Vassar College in which she alleged that the Israeli government and IDF were engaged in a secretive systematic plot to stunt the growth of, maim, and harvest the organs of Palestinians, thus colonizing not only their land but their bodies. Leaving aside the outrageous slander of such an accusation—devoid of any empirical evidence—Puar’s talk was deeply troubling because it repackaged the traditional blood libel myth of ritualized Jewish murder propagated by Christians from the Middle Ages well into the modern era.
At Stanford, during a debate over a proposed resolution condemning anti-Semitism, one student senator insisted that saying “Jews control the media, economy, [and] government” is not anti-Semitic because it legitimately questions today’s power dynamics. In other instances, rhetoric that echoes the Holocaust is maliciously deployed—for instance, equating Gaza with Auschwitz. A recent poster at Columbia University from Students for Justice in Palestine announcing Israel Apartheid Week featured a cartoon of a goose-stepping Israeli soldier chasing a young Palestinian graffiti artist. He throws his spray can at the soldier as he flees, giving the soldier a bump on the head that looks suspiciously like a horn.
When the German philosopher Fichte, over two centuries ago, warned that European Jews often acted like a “state within a state,” he was questioning their loyalty, questioning whether they would put Jewish interests before German ones, much as Molly Horwitz’s interrogator suspected that her loyalty to Israel superseded her professed goal of furthering the welfare and ideals of her fellow Stanford students. When the USSR stepped up its persecution of Soviet Jewry in the late 1960s, it was ostensibly over the politics of Israel, loosely framed in a Marxist understanding of history and identity. The Soviet government branded Israel a bourgeois imperialist state that economically oppressed indigenous Arabs, leaving its Jewish citizens under a cloud of suspicion, especially those who sought to emigrate. Finally, the most infamous anti-Semitic document in history, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purports to be the manifesto of a Jewish cabal intent on conquering and controlling the world through the political, economic, and ideological instruments of modernity, such as capitalism, liberalism, communism, and the media.
The use of the word “Zionist” instead of “Jew” gives today’s campus anti-Semites plausible deniability, even though the charges they propagate are often little more than recapitulations of racist tropes with a long and sordid history. And much like the anti-Semites of yesteryear, today’s anti-Zionists claim to be fighting a universal battle for the oppressed, “packaged as a self-sacrificing stand for the sake of humanity,” as Ben-Atar puts it. “We’re fighting an asymmetric war because the Zionist Jew in fact is not privileged,” writes Brown student Jared Samilow, because “[w]e can be attacked, and we are attacked, but we can’t effectively respond without being accused of supporting injustice and inflicting psychological distress on other students.” Nor are these attacks all merely verbal. Three years ago at the University of California, Irvine, more than 50 SJP protesters converged on a classroom where a film about young Israeli soldiers was being shown, screaming “Long live the Intifada!” and trying to force their way into the room. One young moviegoer who had stepped out to call her mother was blocked from reentering the classroom as the mob yelled, “If we can’t go in, you can’t go in.” They then chased her into another building where, to quote an official report, she “hid in terror, crying on her cell phone to her mother who called the police while the protesters searched for [her].”
Much as 19th-century anti-Semites saw the Jews as being the chief perpetrators and beneficiaries of the widespread misery unleashed by political modernization and industrialization, today’s anti-Zionists have centered the Jewish State—a tiny entity that allegedly wields a disproportionate amount of power through its covert machinations—in their cosmology of global oppressions. Social justice and liberation entail the liquidation of Jewish power.
If the legacy of anti-Semitism has influenced campus discourse on Israel, the reverse is equally true: The battle over Zionism documented by Pessin and Ben-Atar is increasingly being waged in American politics and on social media. As Cary Nelson argues, the failed student BDS resolutions have “turn[ed] some students against Israel . . . [t]hose students become tomorrow’s teachers, businesspeople, professionals, religious leaders, and politicians.” The inexorable migration of activism from the classroom and the quad to the public sphere and Twitter has been inflamed by the presidency of Donald Trump. Social justice activists view Trump’s pro-Israel policies as a core element of his America First program. “No ban, no wall from the U.S. to Palestine” is just one of the many simplistic catchphrases frequently heard today at political rallies. Some have gone even further, such as the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace with its “Deadly Exchange” platform. Through a carefully choreographed video, JVP argues that American Jewish organizations, including the ADL and Birthright, recruit American police forces to undergo “racial profile” training by the IDF in Israel, in order to better control, detain, deport, and extrajudicially execute people of color in overpopulated American cities. Israel and its emissaries abroad are thus actually responsible for exploiting and exacerbating American racial violence through a secretive program, much as the mythical early 20th-century Elders of Zion surreptitiously wielded global power from the shadows.
“If the Palestinians stand . . . as symbolic of all the victims of ‘the west’ or ‘imperialism’,” writes David Hirsh, “then Israel is thrust into the centre of the world as being symbolic of oppression everywhere.” In this sense, the Palestinian is the universal victim, the 21st-century incarnation of the Marxist’s proletariat whose liberation would lead to the liberation of all. All that stands in the way is the Jewish State and the diasporic communities who advocate for its existence. Social justice and freedom will only come when Jewish self-determination is undone and Israel is forced to vanish into history.
But it is primarily the Jews of the diaspora, not Israel, who are paying the price for the BDS movement because its goal, write Pessin and Ben-Atar, is “to change the conversation about Israel and Zionism” in America, not to actually help the Palestinians. In fact, they go on, “they have changed the conversation quite significantly. It is now permissible to say things about Israelis and Jews . . . that not long ago were impermissible.” Indeed, if this were about the politics of the State of Israel and not about Jews qua Jews, why in the world would a Palestinian rapper gleefully evoke Mel Gibson’s notorious anti-Semitism, successfully encouraging a room full of North Carolinian students and academics ostensibly there to learn about Gaza to ridicule the very idea of falling “in love with a Jew”?
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In a provocative new work recently published in German, Bernd Witte proposes nothing less than an “alternative history of German culture,” as the subtitle of his finely wrought work of scholarship tells us. Moses and Homer: Greeks, Jews, Germans is a historical and cultural argument animated by powerful indignation. This history, he insists, has yet to be fully confronted.
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