Gila Berkowitz

A Tyranny of Professors

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Since when did professors become the arbiters of all things Jewish? As much as Jews value education should a cartel of scholars have the right to make political, moral, even existential decisions on behalf of the Jewish people?

Recently a group of 240 Jewish and/or Israeli professors demanded the reinstatement of Peter Schafer to the chairmanship of the Berlin Jewish Museum. Schafer had submitted a prompt resignation after being caught tweeting support of the BDS movement under the museum’s account. BDS, Boycott, Divest and Sanction seeks to punish Israel for supposed inhumanity to Palestinians. It is not just anti-Semitic, it is the very definition of anti-Semitism as it singles out Jews for special treatment. The only Jewish state is the only country designated for such punishment, an action straight out of the Wannsee playbook.

Schafer’s tweet was not only offensive, it was outrageous. The German parliament recently declared BDS anti-Semitic and the Berlin Jewish Museum is funded by the German government. What’s more, the act was not Schafer’s first provocative move. Earlier he had invited a Palestinian to speak at the museum—no doubt he finds such persons uniquely suited to opine on Berlin’s Jewish life, death and history. Another professional coup was a personally guided tour of the museum for an attache at the Iranian embassy.

Nevertheless the 240 professors deemed Schafer beyond reproach. He is, after all, an admired scholar in his own right, an expert on the history of Jews of antiquity and an authority on such arresting topics as Jewish magic. What he does not have is any record of political activism except for barbs slung at Israel. Neither does he have the support of the organized Jewish community in Berlin.

These and other professors declare that they have a “moral obligation” to protest the “occupation.” Apparently this obligation does not include the genocide of the Rohingya or the ongoing slaughter of millions—yes millions—in the Congo. What they claim is, in fact, not moral obligation but the academic privilege to criticize and condemn Jews. Either as Jews themselves or as experts on some aspect of Judaism, like Schafer, they give themselves permission to indulge in anti-Semitism lite.

Not anti-Semitism, the less radical professors sputter, just opposition to the Netanyahu government. You know, like Tel Aviv taxi drivers, half of whom also excoriate Bibi. It’s just that cabbies don’t claim a moral imperative to condemn, just the human right to opine.

That not-so-fine distinction is evident in the seepage of academia into Holocaust remembrance. Volume after volume of “research” is published, yet survivors trudge their aging selves from publisher to publisher, unable to muster an audience for their memoirs. It is as if the imprimatur of the academy is necessary to make something true. The experiences of individuals of the full range of occupations and stations were virtually ignored for half a century until someone with the popular heft of Steven Spielberg began the Shoah Foundation. Even then it was thought necessary to place it under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

Do professors have any special moral credibility? Defenders will argue that philosophers or professors in humanities have day-to-day experience with moral matters, giving them special sensitivity to ethical issues. However, time and again, we see moral failure in even the greatest

professors of humanities. The influential deconstructionist Paul de Man comes to mind. He not only wrote enthusiastically for anti-Semitic, collaborationist papers in wartime Belgium, but consistently lied about it throughout his career at Harvard. And then there are Germany’s universities, which capitulated to Nazism with barely a whimper.

No one appreciates intellectual achievement like the Jews but let’s keep a perspective of its limits. Intelligence is a great gift and its cultivation as a career is admirable, but there’s a reason they call decency common.

About the Author
Gila Berkowitz was born in Haifa and received a B.A. from the Hebrew University. The daughter of survivors, she grew up in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. Her curiosity is so intense and her interests so broad that friends have dubbed her "the walking Wikipedia." She has been a news reporter in Israel as well as a science writer here and abroad. She taught journalism at Stanford University and has written best-selling novels. Two of these novels are about women in the Holocaust, "The Ugly Sister" and the forthcoming "Your Sister's Blood."-- as victims and survivors, heroes and perpetrators -- books based on real events and people.
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