Reposted from Mosaic
Photo Credit: Time, June 2002.
Ruth Wisse, “Anti-Semitism Goes to School,” Anti-Semitism on American college campuses is rising—and worsening. Where does it come from, and can it be stopped? May 4, 2015, Mosaic Magazine
About the author
Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013)
“I never dreamed that it could come to this!”
In February, a Jewish college student was hospitalized after being punched in the face at a pro-Palestinian demonstration on a campus in upstate New York. His family has insisted on maintaining the boy’s privacy, but other such incidents, some caught on camera, include a male student punched in the face at Temple University, a female student at Ohio University harassed for defending Israel, and a male student at Cornell threatened physically for protesting anti-Israel propaganda. On three successive days last summer, the Boston police had to protect a student rally for Israel from pro-Palestinian mobs shouting “Jews back to Birkenau!” At the University of California-Irvine, this year’s Israel Independence Day festivities were blocked and shouted down by anti-Israel demonstrators. Every year, some 200 campuses now host a multiday hate-the-Jews fest, its malignancy encapsulated in its title: “Israel Apartheid Week.”
The Louis D. Brandeis Center in Washington, founded in 2011 to protect against such intimidation, has reported being startled by the results of its own 2013-14 survey: “more than half of Jewish American college students [have] personally experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism.” The film Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus faithfully captures scenes of the violence that often attends this new academic experience.
Nor are students the only targets. At Connecticut College, to cite but the most recent example, a quietly pro-Israel professor of philosophy has been maliciously singled out and hounded as a “racist” in a campaign instigated by Palestinian activists, endorsed by numerous faculty members, and at least tacitly complied with by the college administration and the campus Hillel organization. At the annual meetings of prestigious academic associations, boycott resolutions against Israel and Israeli academic institutions are routinely aired and often passed.
As one of its first acts in December 1945, the Arab League called on all Arab institutions and individuals to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Jewish and Zionist products or manufactured goods. Seventy years later, calls for boycott of Israel, under the acronym BDS—boycott, divestment, and sanctions—have become a staple of American university agendas, extending not only to Israeli companies like SodaStream but to Israeli scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Last year, a petition by “anthropologists for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions” garnered the signatures of the relevant department chairs at (among others) Harvard, Wesleyan, and San Francisco State. The American Studies Association attracted the “largest number of participants in the organization’s history” for a vote endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
In his introduction to a timely volume of essays, The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Paul Berman provides a witty summary of the efforts by university boycotters to frame their campaigns as “modern and progressive” when in fact they are “disgraceful and retrograde.” But the truth is that anti-Semitism never needed a sophisticated veneer in order to win susceptible recruits among the educated and the allegedly enlightened. Urgent as it is to expose the undeniably disgraceful and retrograde nature of the boycott movement, some of its ancillary effects are already playing themselves out in modern institutions and in “progressive” ways.
One of those effects is the scandalous insult—the undreamed-of this!—that cracked the patience of my academic colleague quoted at the head of this article. The “this!” emanated in reports first from UCLA, then from Stanford. At both universities, Jewish students running for election to the student government had been challenged on the grounds that their “strong Jewish identity,” manifested by travel to Israel, made them untrustworthy candidates for office. For my colleague, who had tried until now to treat anti-Israel agitation as a legitimate political activity, this now-naked move to place Jewish students under automatic suspicion for being Jewish made it impossible to maintain any longer the distinction between anti-Zionism (permissible) and anti-Semitism (impermissible). To be sure, there had always been some kind of link between incitement against Jews in Israel and incitement against Jews elsewhere, but how was she now to distinguish between the two when her colleagues, peers, and students blithely insisted on conjoining them?
For the moment, most of the American public seems free—solidly free—of the anti-Semitism that infects American universities. According to the most recent Gallup poll, seven in ten Americans view Israel favorably, up substantially from the 47 percent that viewed it favorably in 1991 around the time of the first Gulf war. It would be hard to imagine greater enthusiasm for a foreign leader than that shown to Benjamin Netanyahu when he spoke at a joint session of Congress in 2011 and again this year. Appreciation for Israel seems secure when the Wall Street Journal, widely considered America’s most influential newspaper, is also its most effective editorial champion of Israel, with the FOX News channel not far behind.
Jewish students running for election to student government have been challenged on grounds that their “strong Jewish identity” makes them untrustworthy candidates for office.
Which is not to say that grounds are lacking for larger concern. In addition to the catalog of academic offenses I’ve briefly summarized here, a growing number of anti-Jewish incidents—from a swastika-desecrated Jewish cemetery in New Jersey to fatal shootings at a Kansas City Jewish community center—has been registered by agencies like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. At the government level, more ominously, and perhaps for the first time in recent American history, it is the White House, rather than the once notoriously Arabist State Department, that has taken the lead in threatening to isolate the Jewish state. President Obama’s frankly contemptuous treatment of Israel’s prime minister smacks more of the university than of the Senate in which he once served, but he is the president, and his words and actions give license to others.
At any rate, the basic truth is this: Israel and the United States, unlovingly paired by their Islamist enemies as the Little Satan and the Big Satan, are prime targets of the same antagonists. It remains to be seen, then, whether the rise of anti-Semitism in America—itself an extension of the Arab- and Muslim-led war against Israel and the Jewish people—will fatally penetrate America’s thick constitutional culture, in which some of us still place our trust.
Universities are the obvious place to begin investigating that question.
I. Anatomy of an Attack
Although no single scenario can represent the workings of the anti-Israel syndrome among the educated, a recent UCLA initiative demonstrates how the movement achieves its goals. The steps go more or less like this:
(1) A consortium of self-declared pro-Palestinian student organizations devises a “statement of ethics” asking candidates for the student council to pledge that, if elected, they will not participate in trips to Israel organized by groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, or Aish International’s Hasbara Fellowship on the grounds that these trips are discriminatory or, in student shorthand, “Islamophobic.” (At UCLA, the consortium comprises Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Muslim Student Association, Afrikan Student Union, Armenian Students’ Association, and Samahang Pilipino; at Stanford, the umbrella group is the Students of Color Coalition [SOCC], which is formally aligned with Students Out of Occupied Palestine [SOOP].)
(2) Most candidates at UCLA, and the largest student party, decline to sign the pledge, but among the signers is the student who is elected student-council president.
(3) Before and after the elections, Israel’s defenders on campus urge UCLA’s chancellor to condemn the pledge in the name of the university.
(4) After the elections, in an email to students, faculty, and staff, Chancellor Gene Block (a) offers reassurance that the pledge was strictly a voluntary affair: “No one was barred from running for office, participating in the election, or serving on the council as a result of not signing the pledge”; (b) defends the pledge on the grounds that the core issue is one of free speech: “The decision to circulate this pledge and the choice to sign it or not fall squarely within the realm of free speech, and free speech is sacrosanct to any university campus”; (c) nevertheless goes on to say that he is personally troubled: constitutionally protected speech is not necessarily “wise, fair or productive,” and he is “personally concerned any time people feel disrespected, intimidated, or unfairly singled out because of their beliefs.”
(5) The chancellor’s statement is followed by an expression of “shared concern” from Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California.
On the face of it, the outcome at UCLA might seem to indicate a “win” by the pro-Israel side, since administrators, even if they did not condemn the pledge outright, as they were asked to do, did bring themselves to express a degree of discomfort with it. At least, that is the positive face that the pro-Israel groups on campus chose to put on the affair. A similar sense of satisfaction issued from events at the annual meeting in January of the prestigious American Historical Association, where, after strenuous efforts by pro-Israel members, it was finally decided (by a vote of 144 to 55) not to pursue further resolutions denouncing the Jewish state. Jeffrey Herf, a historian at the University of Maryland who spearheaded the opposition, took rightful pride in reporting that “a group of determined scholars fought the good fight and . . . won far beyond our expectations. . . . The momentum of BDS,” Herf concluded, “runs up against academic integrity and respect for evidence.”
But what kind of a victory is it, and how much integrity and respect for evidence are on display, when every anti-Israel referendum, exhibit, assembly, protest, and campaign reinforces the air of normalcy that this political minuet has acquired? Regardless of their outcome, anti-Israel allegations achieve their aim by negatively singling out the Jewish state from among all others and forcing its supporters onto the defensive. Aggression against Israel is by now reminiscent of the joke that circulated after World War I. The mayor of a town tells his deputy to round up all the Jews and all the bicyclists. The deputy replies: “Why the bicyclists?” Those who don’t get the joke apparently find nothing remarkable about Jews being apprehended. Yet just as it was never “normal” to single out European Jews for roundup, so it is not “normal” to single out Israel for censure.
Regardless of their outcome, anti-Israel campaigns achieve their aim by negatively singling out the Jewish state from among all others and forcing its supporters onto the defensive.
Contrary to the claims of administrators like the chancellor of UCLA, prosecuting the war against the Jews is not an issue of free speech, “sacrosanct to any university campus.” Had UCLA’s chancellor and president faced a campaign to reinstate segregation, recriminalize homosexuality, or bar women from the faculty club, they would have reacted with more than “concern.” Yet behind the banner of free speech, they tolerate, however squeamishly, campaigns to undo the Jewish homeland and to demonize the already most mythified people on earth. Anti-Jewish politics are no more innocent when pursued by left-wing American SOCCs and SOOPs than when they were prosecuted by right-wing European blackshirts.
Indeed, institutions that enforce “sensitivity training” to insure toleration for gays, blacks, and other minorities may inadvertently be bringing some of these groups together in common hostility to Jews as the only campus minority against whom hostility is condoned. On almost every campus in the land, the norms of political correctness are rigorously enforced; punitive speech codes proliferate; a phalanx of administrative functionaries labors so that nothing said, or read, will ever offend the sensibilities of any student—with one licensed exception. Multiculturalism has found its apotheosis in a multicultural coalition of anti-Zionists: a uniquely constituted political phenomenon with its own functions, strategies, and goals.
Surprising as this may sound to today’s activists, freedom of speech and the practice of anti-Semitism are not necessarily bedfellows. Both the United States government and Israeli courts have found ways of drawing the line between liberty and incitement. In the mid-1970s, at the height of the Arab boycott of Israel and at the very time when the Arab-Soviet coalition succeeded in passing United Nations Resolution 3379, which demonized Zionism as racism, the U.S. enacted laws to prevent citizens and companies from participating in other nations’ economic boycotts or embargoes. By prohibiting compliance with the boycott of Israel that had been enforced by the Arab League since 1945, the United States greatly reduced the damage being done to Israel through this branch of warfare.
More recently, the hyper-liberal supreme court of Israel upheld the provisions of Israel’s own “Anti-Boycott Law,” which withdraws accreditation from actors pursuing boycott campaigns by means of false and distorted legal or factual claims. Although the United States is reluctant to thwart American trade, and Israel prides itself on free speech, both recognize that democracies must also protect the freedoms they enshrine.
So, too, universities and the academic community, without limiting the free-speech rights of groups that promote anti-Semitism, whether through BDS or demonstrably false accusations leveled at Jewish students or faculty, could deny them accreditation and university funds. Student groups that justly demand respect for their own particular religions and ethnicities should be held to the same standards of mutual respect that govern formal group behavior toward gays and women. Newton’s first law of motion operates equally in politics: anti-Semitism in motion will remain in motion—and will pick up ferocity—unless stopped by resistant power.
II. Why the Academy?
The contrast I have drawn between the college campus and the rest of American society is counter-intuitive: why should anti-Semitism flourish in the sweet groves of academe rather than in the fouler corridors of power? How does intolerance for a Jewish state thrive in the very institutions that advertise their tolerance for threatened minorities? The political columnist Bret Stephens often asks college audiences why, if they claim to be liberal, they don’t support the only liberal society in the Middle East. On what grounds do American universities, considered liberal to a fault, assail the only liberal democracy in that part of the world?
The question harbors its answer. Israel is attacked not despite but on account of its liberal democracy and its buoyant pluralistic culture: two commodities held in notable disesteem in the nominally liberal but in fact anti-liberal environment of the contemporary American university. The boycotters wrap themselves in the mantle of free speech only to silence those who stand for the kind of genuine individual and human rights that flourish in Israel. They shout down liberal speakers like Israel’s ambassador to the United States just as they shout down and shut out champions of Muslim women’s rights.
In these respects, today’s anti-Israel campus coalitions are heirs to the anti-liberal coalitions that raged in the 1960s against the war in Vietnam and against the traditional American values embedded in America’s constitutional culture. Already then, America’s radicals recognized in universities a softer and more conquerable target than the government. Within the twinkling of an eye, school after school, tutored in the higher wisdom of political correctness, fell into line. Divinity schools de-valued Christian or Judeo-Christian religion; humanities departments scuttled their commitment to Western civilization and foundational Western texts; ROTC was banned from the campus to make the point that America was not worth defending; the idea of American exceptionalism was denounced as a racist and imperialist excuse for war.
Anti-Semitism, to steal a talmudic image, would seem to suit this new anti-Americanism like a red ribbon on a white horse. In fact, anti-Semitism has never been solely or even primarily about the Jews. As a political idea, it was invented in Germany in the 1870s to oppose what “the Jews” represented—civil rights, individual freedom, and the ability to benefit from the features of liberal democracy that others feared, resented, and wished to undo. Wholly negative in its goals—indeed, a prototype of the negative political campaign—anti-Semitism promised and still promises progress not through social reform, which must be seen to keep its promises, but through destruction, symbolized in the destruction of what the Jews have attained.
The anti-Semitic component of modern anti-liberal ideologies like fascism, Communism, pan-Arabism, and now Islamism has allowed alliances to form among otherwise competing groups, thereby facilitating anti-Semitism’s acceptance and normalization and in turn gaining for these ideologies a greater durability than they could likely achieve without it. On the merits, Arab and Muslim students could never have persuaded their American peers to sympathize with repressive regimes and homegrown terrorists; blaming the Jews for these and other deformities was the key that unlocked the door.
In the campus culture of victimhood, where it pays to be even one-sixteenth Cherokee, someone must be cast as the invader. It was thus inherent in the “logic” of left-wing campus politics that the anti-American revolutionaries of yesteryear would morph into the so-called pro-Palestinian protesters of today; once Arab and Muslim students began pressing the case against Israel in the familiar terms of victimized natives vs. Western imperialists, they filled the vacuum previously occupied by Students for a Democratic Society. It tells us much that the cause of anti-Zionism, forged and perfected in Stalinist Russia, should have become the strongest legacy of the phony “idealism” of ’60s radicals, and anti-Jewish campus coalitions their logical heirs.
What a relief to have a Jewish state on hand to represent the world’s worst criminal! Without it, activist students might have to worry about Iran, or jihadist beheadings, or mass female enslavement in Africa.
And what a relief to have Israel on hand to represent the world’s worst criminal: occupier, racist, exploiter, warmonger, aggressor-in-chief extraordinaire! Were it not for the Jews, activist students might still be relegated to attacking ROTC or occupying college buildings. Were it not for Israel, one might actually have to worry about—say—Iran, or jihadist beheadings, or the hundreds of thousands of casualties created in Syria, or the atrocity of mass female enslavement in Africa, about all of which, to my knowledge, scarcely a tear has been shed or a nickel raised.
And this in turn helps explain something else: the role of liberal enablers, from fellow students to sympathetic professors to administrators like UCLA’s. For today’s campus radicals could hardly operate without the acquiescence, if not the tacit complicity, of the liberal majority, or the impotent tut-tutting and exquisite moral contortions of administrators in the face of challenge to the liberal façade they are paid to uphold.
The incapacity of liberalism to defend itself from its enemies on the left is by now an old story, well documented in histories of the violent disruptions of college and university campuses in the late 1960s. And indeed, who today would not be relieved to turn away from the implacable threats to liberal democracy now gathering on the near horizon and join the assault on the Jews, or at a minimum refrain from objecting?
And that leads to the next chapter in this sorry saga.
III. What about the Jews?
What if anything have American Jews done about the rise of anti-Semitism? How do they react to a phenomenon that even ostriches can no longer ignore?
Like UCLA’s chancellor and president, many American Jews admit to being troubled and concerned by a gratuitous aggression that they cannot seem to stop. Accepted as equal citizens in a country that respects freedoms of religion and association, at liberty to affirm, alter, or deny their Jewish affiliations as they wish, they have willy-nilly become associated with a state and a people subjected to the most disproportionate and least negotiable assault in the history of the world.
If this sounds hyperbolic, consult a full-scape map of the Arab Middle East and consider that, for 70 years, most Arab and many Muslim countries have not even granted recognition to Israel. This refusal violates several core principles embedded in the founding charter of the United Nations, including “the sovereign equality of all . . . members” and the proscription of “the threat or use of force against the . . . political independence of any state,” and it should long since have constituted grounds for suspension or expulsion. Instead, the world body has provided its members with collective rights of a different kind: rights of attack against the state of the Jews.
Confronting this international threat, some American Jews, to their credit, have risen to the defense of Israel in ways that distinguish their behavior from alleged communal lapses during World War II. The postwar slogan “Never Again!” originated as a response to the helplessness of Jews facing Hitler’s Final Solution and the dismal record of Jewish communities in lobbying on their behalf. Now that they are more politically experienced and better organized than the largely immigrant community of the 1930s, American Jews have mustered significant material and political assistance in Israel’s behalf. As is the case with other American ethnic and religious minorities, support of the Jewish homeland has become part of a common responsibility.
That responsibility is exercised on a variety of fronts. Defense agencies have arisen to fight disinformation and bias in the media, to guard against abuses of international law, to investigate terrorism with special concern for Jewish targets, and to monitor and counteract anti-Israel propaganda. A growing number of organizations now specialize in arming high-school, college, and university students with information that refutes the distortions and overcomes the ignorance they are likely to encounter in their educational institutions.
Yet it must be said that the negative campaign against the Jews has also revived older and more damaging patterns of Jewish political behavior. What, for instance, is a “Jewish Voices for Peace” doing within an avowedly anti-Israel campus coalition? Why should an organization like J Street form to undercut united Jewish action on behalf of Israel? Ukrainian Americans have not mobilized to urge the capitulation of Ukraine to Russia. American Greeks do not rally to force Greece into bankruptcy. Hispanics do not join the call to prevent all immigration from Mexico. Tibetans and Taiwanese in America try to expand—not to contract—political options for their beleaguered people. If some Cuban refugees want to bring down Communism in Cuba, or Russian émigrés warn against Putin’s concentration of power, it is because Cuba and Russia aren’t liberal democracies.
Ukrainian Americans have not mobilized to urge the capitulation of Ukraine to Russia. Hispanics do not join the call to prevent all immigration from Mexico. So why do so many American Jews organize against Israel?
American Jews who propagandize and organize against Israel are the only members of a threatened minority who turn against the democratic homeland of their people on the pretext of promoting some higher cause. Whence such demoralization?
To those who know their Jewish history, this is a painfully familiar story, and rehearsing it gives no comfort. In his 1890 travelogue of a journey through the Tomaszow region of Poland, the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz provided pen portraits of the Jewish types he encountered: shopkeepers, market-women, rabbis and their wives, children, tavern-keepers, artisans—and the moser, the obligatory Jewish informer. In the course of my studies of Yiddish literature, the cascade of synonyms I discovered for this figure testifies to the proliferation of snitches who reported to the authorities on the evils of their coreligionists. English is paltry by comparison.
To be sure, exceptional political pressures in 19th-century Europe created exceptional responses. Jews may be admirable in having no incentive to aggress against other nations, but the intensity of hostilities against them could sometimes generate less than admirable aggression against their fellow Jews. Moreover, it has to be stipulated that Jews who ratted for pay or personal advancement were less dangerous than the reformers who persuaded authorities to impose by fiat the “improvements” their fellow Jews would not voluntarily undertake.
Unhappily, the type persisted even in the radically changed circumstances of American democracy. David S. Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews (1984) describes failures by the American government to intervene during the Holocaust and by American Jewish leadership to assign top priority to rescue, but says little of those Jews who worked against Jewish interests.
One such group was the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942 as an organization committed “to the proposition that Jews are neither a nationality nor a race in the modern world, but rather a religious group consisting of people of many nationalities and all races and from all streams (or denominations) of Judaism.” Regrettably for the Council, despite its reinvention of the Jewish people in what it hoped was an inoffensive form, the Nazis chose not to respect the distinction. They pursued Jews as the very race or nationality that the Council claimed did not exist. The only hope for the Jews was to react as a people to save their people, which is what the Zionists had been doing for a half-century by trying to become politically autonomous. The Council constituted an anti-Zionist faction at a time when Palestine was the only potential escape hatch for the Jews of Europe, the only place that wanted the unwanted Jews.
A second and much larger sector of American Jewry that worked against Jewish political interests was the far left, including members of the Communist party, fellow travelers, and Trotskyist opponents of Stalin who shared his Marxist opposition to Jewish religion and nationality. Defining politics in terms of class conflict, the radical left insisted that the mission of the itinerant Jews was to pioneer the international transformation of humankind. In so doing, radical leftists, like their opposite numbers in the American Council for Judaism, reinvented politics in a way that falsified the war actually being waged against the Jews. They falsely claimed that the German proletariat was friendly to the Jews and would stand up for them against Hitler, and no less falsely claimed that Marxism was the only hope for Jewish salvation. But never mind what the left said it stood for; it stood against Jewish self-determination and it worked to prevent European Jews from reaching and securing the land of Israel when that was the route they needed and sought.
Soviet policy aimed at the dissolution of the Jews by incremental means. At home, despite boasts of having outlawed anti-Semitism, the Soviet Union through its Jewish enforcers prosecuted anyone who observed the Jewish religion, studied Hebrew, or affirmed attachment to the land of Israel. Abroad, Soviet policy supported the Arab anti-Jewish pogroms in Palestine as the catalyst of an Arab revolt against “British and Zionist imperialism.” American Jewish Communist newspapers relayed these slogans, knowing that the Jews of Palestine were themselves battling British imperialism. In fact, Soviet anti-Zionist campaigns of the 1930s provided the source for the later parallel drawn between Zionism and Nazism, and for other attempts to criminalize Jewish self-determination. As I noted above, that legacy persists to this day.
Although party members and fellow travelers constituted only a small percentage of American Jewry, anti-Zionism was the essence of their Jewishness. And so I emphasize what today’s American Jews have suppressed in their commemoration of the Holocaust: during the years of the Nazi mass murder of Europe’s Jews, the loudest American voices against the return of the Jews to Zion were those of American Jews claiming to be on the side of pluralism, justice, and world peace. Whatever may have been their intentions, those intentions had no bearing on the consequences of their deeds.
Thankfully, in the same decade that Jews lost one-third of their people, other Jews recovered Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” said Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August 20, 1940. He was talking about the Royal Air Force, but he might just as well have been talking about the Jewish pioneers of Palestine. Arab leaders, for their part, performed no analogous miracle. Though they emerged from the war better positioned than they had been for centuries, they thought less of building strong and healthy societies than of mobilizing those societies to undo the Jewish miracle. Three years later, having failed to defeat the Jewish state that came into being, the Arab nations refused to grant it recognition, thereby keeping open, with the aid of others, the question of Zionism that had been settled once and for all by the establishment of the Jewish state. Arab denial or rejection kept Israel contingent.
The protean war against Israel prosecuted by Arab and Muslim rulers after the end of World War II contributed to recreating some of the old political reflexes within Jewry. One might have thought that just as Israelis were conscripted into the IDF, Jews outside Israel would fight for the unequivocal and unconditional recognition that is every country’s due. Indeed, some American Jews went and continue to go even farther than that, by volunteering to serve in the IDF alongside their Israeli counterparts. But many more Jews took a different route. Perhaps they thought: so what if the Arabs don’t recognize us? Who cares? Or perhaps they believed that the problem would resolve itself in time. If so, they failed to understand that the Arab and Muslim refusal to recognize reality conveyed an intention to overturn that reality.
And we—for I participate in American Jewry’s failures as well as in its accomplishments—failed to understand, or to remember, something else: the talmudic teaching that those who are soft on evildoers will end by being hard on their intended victims. Those who, tacitly or otherwise, defend anti-Semites will end by aggressing against Jews.
Thus, Israel’s ability to defend itself against Arab aggression in the Six-Day war of 1967 gained it a reputation, including among liberal and leftist Jews, for “conquest,” “militarism,” “expansionism,” and “imperialism.” As with older charges once used by Jewish leftists to justify attaching themselves to the political battle against their fellows—“capitalists,” “exploiters,” and so forth—the new pretext for assailing Israel was that it had become an “occupier” of another people’s land. In reality, Israel’s “imperialism”—that is, its presence in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan—was to Arab hostility as the length of Jewish noses was to the Final Solution: irrelevant to the facts of the case but a useful pretext for those who wanted to deny them.
Israel’s citizenry has grown increasingly sober in assessing what it stands to risk by relinquishing territory to people with no record of feasible self-governance. Where are American Jews here? Rather than throwing all of their efforts into trying to gain for Israelis maximal political leverage in so lopsided a conflict, many have taken to blaming Israel for the war being waged against it, with Israel’s current prime minister as their favorite whipping boy. The escalating propaganda war against Israel within America, a war so conspicuously waged on university campuses, has tempted many into demonstrating their own innocence by excoriating their allegedly culpable fellow Jews.
Some go to great lengths in this sordid exercise, as was seen last summer when Hamas rocket fire from Gaza penetrated Israeli civilian areas to an unprecedented degree. In the course of this bombardment from territory that Israel had given up to Palestinians in 2005, the Jewish Forward ran anti-Israel cartoons by Eli Valley. One of them envisioned “a conversation on Zionism and the course of Jewish history” between two Israeli pilots “during a military mission over Gaza”:
Pilot One: “For 2,000 years of exile we faced crushing anti-Semitism for a simple reason: we were not in charge of our destiny.”
Pilot Two: “Agreed. We were a withered people, scattered like the wind and subject to the whims of those with an irrational, never-ending hatred.”
Pilot One: “But now, with a state of our own we have full autonomy. We control our destiny, thereby liberating ourselves.”
In the final panel, the pilots have dumped their load, leaving behind a gigantic billowing cloud evocative of Hiroshima:
Pilot Two: “And finally, at long last, the world’s irrational hatred will disappear.”
The cartoonist, whose work can also be seen in the Nation, has here outdone Arab propagandists in projecting a destructive passion onto the Jews, who allegedly enjoy destroying others in the spirit in which they themselves were once destroyed. Going a step farther, this Jewish insider also takes down a caricatured “Jewish history,” mocking the “rationality” of Zionism now that Jewish autonomy has issued in the supposedly wholesale, irrational murder of others. Back in the 1930s, it was the Communist Yiddish daily Freiheit, not the nominally democratic-socialist Forward, that ran anti-Zionist cartoons of this nature. If real Jewish history is any guide, Arab aggression will bring on more Jewish anti-Semitism of this kind.
To the fun of thwarting Israel, J Street adds the fun of doing it as Jews.
The Forward is among several Jewish publications that specialize in what they like to call “provocative” messaging; but at least it was not created, as was the organization J Street, explicitly to foil political action on Israel’s behalf. Meeting with President Barack Obama on April 13, Jewish members of J Street asked him to lift the longstanding American veto protection of Israel at the United Nations, promising publicly to defend this proposed American sellout should the Security Council, now with Washington’s consent, call for the creation of a Palestinian state. Concerning the latest American nuclear deal with Iran, a country whose leaders ceaselessly proclaim that “the Zionist cancer” must be eliminated, J Street boasted of having joined the Arab American Institute and the National Iranian American Council in congratulating the president and his team for their “historic agreement that . . . averts a disastrous war.” To the fun of thwarting Israel, J Street adds the fun of doing it as Jews.
And then there are the campuses. The BDS movement is the crown of the propaganda war against Israel. “There should not be any equivocation on the subject,” states one BDS champion, As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University: “Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.” Again, where are the Jews? Some of them are also professors, and some of these professors produce defamatory works of doctored scholarship, organize anti-Israel demonstrations, disseminate anti-Israel propaganda—and sponsor BDS initiatives at their universities and in their academic associations. Others stand by in fastidious silence, or chastise their pro-Israel students and colleagues for, essentially, making them uncomfortable.
Ostensibly more “even-handed” in its approach is the relatively new Jewish campus organization Open Hillel. According to its student founders, Open Hillel seeks to “encourage inclusivity and open discourse”—in plainer English, to include anti-Israel voices and groups in Hillel’s programming. This, it claims, has hitherto been disallowed by the international Hillel organization. From my experience, these students could have saved themselves the trouble. Many Hillel directors have already tipped so far to the Palestinian side of the “narrative” that at least once a year they have to parachute in a “pro-Israel” speaker for the balance they would not otherwise achieve. I know because I have been that speaker. I have met with Jewish students who stand up for Israel and America—for the liberal-democratic side—and I have met Jewish students who employ “inclusivity” as a code-word for bashing that side. Are we required to pander to the latter on account of their youth, ignorance, and demoralization? It is a rhetorical question.
War differs from other forms of human interaction in dividing us into those for and those against. The organization of politics against the Jews constitutes an unusual form of warfare in that all the aggression is on one side and all the hunger for resolution on the other. The desperation or “pessimism” that is generated by this genuinely irrational barrage has tempted some Jews to hold other Jews responsible, preposterously, for the suffering of Palestinian Arabs. Anti-Semitism thrives on the “hopeful” idea that if Jews are responsible for a crisis, it can be easily solved by the Jews’ transformation, or elimination. Some Jews, seduced by this irrationality, help to stoke its fires.
Anti-Semitism has by now thoroughly corroded Arab societies and is making its way back into Europe. Can America prove exceptional by recognizing the threat and fighting it off?
When the current enemies of the Jews first chose the universities as a primary battleground in America, they met little or no opposition from liberal administrators or faculty, including Jewish faculty. Anti-Semitism, after all, is just an idea—is it not?—and ideas, which is what universities traffic in, can be the springboard for the best of human endeavors. Indeed they can; but they are also the springboard for the worst, and not even God can help those who fail to distinguish between the two. Anti-Semitism, among the very worst of human inventions, has by now thoroughly corroded Arab societies and with great force and determination is making its way back into Europe. Can America prove exceptional by recognizing the threat and fighting it off?
The creation of Israel proved what a people can do with faith in its own restorative powers, and the defense of Israel proves that a robust democracy can stand up to evil. How good it would be if American Jews, on campuses and off, behaved in ways that emulated Israel’s self-respect and self-reliance, thereby bolstering the pro-Israel efforts of their fellow Americans who cannot help wondering why, with the danger so great, so many Jews are flaccid and disengaged, if not actively engaged on the other side. How astoundingly wonderful if, by dint of such moral self-reclamation, American Jews could help American universities, and the young people sequestered within them, to heal themselves of this most deadly pathology to which they appear all too willingly to have succumbed.