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Be Careful What You Wish For

In the early days of Jewish studies, academics yearned for objective universalism over self-referential particularism. The hyperpolarized anti-Israel discourse in today’s departments is a far cry from that vision.

by
Menachem Kellner
September 14, 2021
Library of Congress
A 1967 pro-Israel poster, or an early ‘Statement on Israel/Palestine’ decades before the one now circulated by ‘Scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies.’ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
A 1967 pro-Israel poster, or an early ‘Statement on Israel/Palestine’ decades before the one now circulated by ‘Scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies.’ Library of Congress

Roughly half a century ago, when I began my career in the field of Jewish studies, the Association for Jewish studies was in its infancy, and its membership could easily fit into the Harvard Faculty Club, where many of its early meetings were held. In my own subfield, medieval Jewish philosophy, and in my generation, I was one of the few practitioners who was neither an ordained rabbi nor clearly identified with one of the then-dominant streams of American Judaism. By and large, those who had been ordained at (the Orthodox) Yeshiva University under Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik earned their PhDs under Rabbi Soloveitchick’s son-in-law (Rabbi) Isadore Twersky at Harvard. Of those who had been ordained at New York’s (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary, many earned their PhDs at Brandeis under (Rabbi) Alexander Altmann. At Brown University (Rabbi) Jacob Neusner reigned and supervised a very large number of PhD students in rabbinics.

Jewish studies at that time was considered exotic; most universities that hosted chairs or small departments in the field relied on (Jewish) donors for their funding. Many (most?) of these donors, in the decades after the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, were motivated by a variety of Jewish concerns, not academic concerns.

Given these realities, it is hardly surprising that those of us in the younger generation sought mightily to earn the respect of our new, almost invariably gentile colleagues and to prove that we were motivated by universal academic concerns, not narrowly Jewish ones. While most of us were “narrowly Jewish” in our personal lives, we thought it inappropriate to give expression to our “Jewishness” in our teaching and interactions with our colleagues. We were concerned that our whole discipline would be judged academically inappropriate, tolerated in some cases only thanks to the Jewish money we brought into our institutions. I clearly remember the excitement with which we greeted new colleagues who were not Jewish or had no particular Jewish commitments—Jewish studies was coming of age!

Over the past half century we have truly come of age, but what sort of age? Those of us who were in at the beginning remain committed to the ideals of our youth: We seek to practice scholarly objectivity, we prefer facts over narratives, we seek to keep our personal views out of our classrooms and our professional organizations, and we understand that academic freedom carries with it academic responsibility. Given realities in contemporary academe, we are dinosaurs.

Looking at the world from our antediluvian perspective, we see specialists in Jewish studies who do not know Jewish languages and “scholars” of Israel studies who cannot read Israeli newspapers. All too often these are individuals infected by all the ills of contemporary academe: incoherent, jargon-filled writing; fear of breaking ranks with the “herd of independent minds”; confusing criticism with silencing (but having a willingness to silence others); taking stands on matters far outside of one’s areas of competence, let alone of specialization; and ignoring facts in favor of prejudices. Add to all this a willingness to take public stands “as a Jew” (often by people whose Jewish identity appears to be peripheral at best) and “as a scholar of Jewish/Israel studies” (often by people with no discernible credentials in either field), and you end up with the statement signed by some 250 self-described scholars of Jewish and Israel studies that is highly critical of Israeli actions in the “Guardian of the Walls” operation, which had ended precisely one day before the statement was published on May 22, 2021. As a new academic year begins, it seems worth taking a look back at that document in order to discern where discourse about Israel within the field of Jewish studies, as well as about the field of Jewish studies itself, situated within the overtly politicized context of American academe, is headed.

Of the 250 signatories, three are individuals whose scholarship I know and admire; two of them surprised and disappointed me, while the third is an inveterate signer of anti-Israel petitions. The statement itself is poorly written and filled with jargon; it accepts without question or reservation a Palestinian-centered narrative; it absolves Palestinians of any responsibility for their plight; it implicitly blames Israel for all the ills of the Middle East; it ignores Hamas’ oft-expressed intention to destroy Israel; and, to my mind, most shocking, it both buys into the settler-colonial paradigm of Israel and confuses open support for BDS with academic freedom. To my surprise, the statement at least managed to avoid accusing Israel of apartheid and of ethnic cleansing, though I would expect those terms to become normative very soon. Once departures from evidence-based methodology are normalized, why stop at condemning “checkpoints” meant to stop suicide bombers? Why not condemn “genocide”?

I sought but did not achieve a meeting of minds with the two signatory colleagues whom I know and whose work I admire. I could not convince them that they were wrong to have signed the document, and they did not convince me that they were right to do so. I was reminded of discussions I used to have with Arab students when I was dean of students at the University of Haifa. They saw Israel as a monolithic Goliath and could never understand why Jewish Israelis saw themselves as an embattled David confronted with millions of Arabs backed by a billion Muslims. Both of our perspectives made sense considering where we were coming from and given our attachments. But while I never sought to deny their perspectives, they had no interest in examining the evidence for mine—making rational discourse impossible.

One of my colleagues asked me why I did not join him in calling out Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank (at least he did not have the indecency to claim that Israel occupied Gaza) with all that occupation implies for the Palestinians living there. As it happens, I used to agree with him. Slowly, facts on the ground—including that Israel’s complete withdrawal in 2005 from Gaza, where Israeli military rule was replaced by the rule of Hamas, has resulted in an unending series of destructive wars—have forced me to accept that the goal of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority, to the extent that they remain viable political actors, is likewise not the reversal of 1967 but the reversal of 1948.

You can bemoan these realities and inveigh against the many mistakes of Israel’s governments over the past 20 years all you want—as I often do. But none of that changes the universe of real-world facts and events one iota. Of course, every human being is entirely free to accept or ignore any set of realities, as he or she wishes. However, if you choose to ignore reality, then you are not a party to an evidence-based rational discussion of the kind that academia, including the field of Jewish studies, were once premised upon.

“As an” opponent of the settlement project, as someone who only wants to live in peace and quiet with his Palestinian neighbors (as I do now with my Arab Israeli neighbors in Haifa), as someone who would love for there to be a Palestinian state in the future, I do understand the wishes of my colleague, both those personal and political. But, while I may be a lily-livered (ex) “leftist,” I am not suicidal. Given how loudly the voices of so-called progressives (The New York Times in the United States, Ha’aretz here in Israel) consistently present Israel in the worst possible light, and given how so many people who think of themselves as progressives buy the false Palestinian narrative lock, stock, and barrel, I do not enjoy either the moral or personal privilege of joining the pile-on. As a Jew, I live here with my family.

I still think I have a responsibility to try to understand those of my colleagues who have joined the anti-Israel bandwagon, so let make a stab at that. Most of the critiques of Israel and Israeli policy that I have read—certainly the document that prompted my exchange with colleagues—give every indication of being written by individuals who know very little about the current situation in Israel or the history of the Jewish people. Rather, they seem to get their information and “insights” from deeply biased sources who take an empirically false, emotive narrative as a given, in the face of mountains of historical evidence. In other words, politics and power aside, there is no reason to take them seriously. However, I know that some of the people who signed the document are thoughtful individuals who are also highly literate Jews; this, despite the fact that they loaned their names to the statement. I want to understand what might have motivated them.

Perhaps one way of understanding determined and historically informed Jewish anti-Zionists is to recall Hermann Cohen’s alleged critique of Zionists: “They want to be happy.” To seek to be happy, Cohen affirmed, was to cease seeking to redeem the world, to accept the real as opposed to the ideal. To accept Israel as it is, as opposed to what we would like it to be (and as opposed to Israel as it was presented to us as children), demands a dose of realism not often found in faculty lounges. Those of us who work to build an Israel as we would like it to be, and as we are convinced it can be, are all too often faced with critiques that propose no reasonable alternatives to Israeli policies and practices. Israel appears to be the only country in the world held to such a messianic standard, perhaps because the messianic strains within Judaism became part of the inheritance of the secular Western left.

Jews as diverse as Isaac Deutscher and Tony Judt believe that nationalism is not only passé but also a source of great evil in the world. Israel, they maintained, came into the world too late, once the nationalist moment had passed. More and more people who identify as “progressives” (despite their support, implicit or explicit, for some of the most regressive regimes on earth, such as Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank) also appear to hate their own countries. In that sense, “licensing” the particularistic existence of a Jewish state is absurd in a thought-world where the rejection of nationhood is a given (why only Western nations are to be rejected, while the nationalism of countries such as Iran or Venezuela is to be admired, is a subject for someone better versed in the psychology of the Western left than I am).

Israel presents itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This certainly riles individuals who, “as Jews,” are seemingly desperate to avoid being tarred with the brush of what much of the “progressive” world insists on seeing not just as Israeli immorality but as the wider immorality of the West. To be a good progressive, it is necessary for Jews to reject Israel, just as they must reject the United States—or else their progressivism becomes suspect. Yet no one in progressive circles seems to require Italian progressives to reject Italy, or American academics of Swedish origin to denounce Sweden.

Jews, it seems, are a special case, with a double obligation to reject the nationhood of their own countries and the State of Israel—and to reject the State of Israel with a special fervor. The existence of this odd requirement admits to one of two possible lines of explanation: Either progressivism itself, for ideological or politically contingent reasons, contains an important strain of antisemitism which should make it uncomfortable for educated, self-respecting Jews to remain good progressives—or there is, in fact, something uniquely evil and monstrous about Israel’s behavior and indeed its very existence that requires that progressives, especially Jewish progressives, condemn it unstintingly and on principle while tolerating or ignoring the seemingly worse behavior of dozens of other countries, whose seeming evils are only contingent or illusory.

On the page, the results of my correspondents’ attempts to square this circle is a kind of foolishness that so plainly defies basic political and experiential logic that it is hard to imagine erudite people reading over sentences they have written and not recognizing what they mean, and what they betray.

“Most impressively (to my mind),” one correspondent wrote, “was that the statement treated settler colonialism not as some kind of determinist flag that dictates any particular political course of action but as an issue and a category of analysis to be discussed and grappled with. I thought that adding nuance and historical context to a discussion was a pretty reasonable thing for academics to try to do. The statement also read to me as sympathetic to Palestinians without being at all sympathetic to Hamas (or the PA for that matter). (In fact, the end of the first paragraph condemns Hamas’ rocket attacks.)”

You don’t have to be either a political or a psychological genius to see the forces at work here in my correspondent’s normally capable brain. “Settler colonialism” as a description of the Jewish national project? Why not? After all, it’s only “a category of analysis to be discussed and grappled with,” with no real-world consequences whatsoever, which is surely an “impressive” win for all reasonable people acting in good faith, the proof being that in addition to denouncing settler colonialism, the statement also condemns Hamas rocket attacks! The idea that my correspondent has in fact signed on to a declaration that Zionism is not a legitimate national movement, and instead belongs to a species of moral and historical evil that the world has pledged itself to undo, seems to have escaped him entirely, which is a feat that takes some extreme mental gymnastics.

Of course, some of the signatories do precisely understand the meaning and potential real-world consequences (for others) of what they were signing. In this connection, one of my correspondents wrote something that made my hands tremble at the keyboard: “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Hermann Cohen (among others) indeed thought that Zionism was a betrayal of precisely what is distinctive, and distinctively valuable, about Jewish peoplehood, and I increasingly think they were prescient in that critique.”

Unless one wants to follow the Satmar Rebbe (and many other antisemites) and blame the Holocaust on the Jews, how anyone whose brain has not been addled by anti-Zionist propaganda could write such a thing is beyond my comprehension. Anti-Zionism was indeed the view of many Jews around the turn of the 20th century. Can anyone seriously believe that Hirsch (who died in 1888, long before the first Zionist Congress) and Cohen (whose wife was murdered by the Nazis) at the turn of the 21st century would defend the notion of Jewish peoplehood without a Jewish state? The fact that educated people, including Jews, believed things in the late 19th century does not in any way make those beliefs normative or rational responses in the 21st century—or else we would all gladly embrace racism, phrenology, and the power of the ether.

This same correspondent, a justifiably respected philosopher, rejects the notion that Israel is the product of “settler-colonialism,” a claim clearly implied by the statement. He opposes BDS. But he still signed a document that implies that Israel matches the settler-colonialist paradigm and that supports the right of colleagues to support BDS—on the grounds of “academic freedom”! Personally, I can almost see defending BDS supporters on Voltairian grounds. But the concept of “academic freedom” is meant to enable academics to research and teach evidence-based truths in the fields in which they are competent. It is not meant to protect academics who introduce their personal politics into their research and teaching in order to browbeat their students and foment an atmosphere of prejudice and hate designed to silence rational inquiry. That the signatories of the statement under discussion want to defend supporters of BDS on the grounds of academic freedom makes me wonder if the serious people among them actually read the document that they signed.

Finally, even without the pernicious doctrine of intersectionality, groups whom progressives see as natural allies have in many cases allowed themselves to be co-opted by anti-Zionist elements. It is difficult not to make common cause with movements with which one sympathizes. Add to that the way in which former PM Netanyahu turned Israel into an instrumental branch of the U.S. Republican party, and one can begin to understand, if not admire, the way in which some Jews, particularly within academia, have joined the anti-Israel bandwagon. Do I have to add that I didn’t like Bibi either?

Yet despite my efforts at understanding, I end up deeply disappointed in those thoughtful colleagues who signed the statement. Fifty years ago, we wished for scholars of Jewish studies who saw their academic identity in strictly professional terms and who would be accepted as such by colleagues in allied disciplines. Is that what we achieved? Hardly. We now have a field in which a distressingly large number of self-identified practitioners are willing to sign a poorly written, one-sided, factually confused, and morally obtuse document attacking Israel’s right to defend itself, and in which the willingness to provide signatories for such documents has become in some ways the source of political and academic “legitimacy” for their field.

Given current academic realities, the signatories will surely be applauded by their colleagues for their political correctness. Will they advance the cause of scholarship? Hardly. Will they accomplish any material improvement in the lives of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East? Hardly. Will they advance the cause of peace? Hardly. Will they pat themselves on the back for their “moral courage”? Undoubtedly.

Menachem Kellner is the chair of the Philosophy and Jewish Thought Department at Shalem College and co-author of Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019).

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