On August 24, Mondoweiss – an avowedly Jewish media outlet whose radical leanings make Jewish Currents looks like Israel Hayom – announced with great fanfare the official launch of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism, founded by Professor Rabab Ibrahim Abdulahdi of San Francisco State University. Abdulahdi is probably best known for having attempted to platform convicted terrorist Leila Khaled at San Francisco State University to give a presentation on “resistance.” While the university failed to take measures against what was clearly intended to be an instructional session, Zoom, citing anti-terrorism laws, refused to broadcast the first woman ever to have hijacked an airplane. So Professor Abdulahdi, an unapologetic militant Israel-hater, moved on to her next project: her new institute.
There is nothing surprising in the Institute’s stated mission. Their premise denies that Zionism is a legitimate movement for Jewish national self-determination in our people’s ancestral homeland, arguing instead that it is “a political ideology tightly enmeshed with racism, fascism, and colonial dispossession.” And, much like other anti-Zionist organizations and scholars, they frame their vilification of Israel through intersectionalist social justice: Zionism is centered as a crucial element within the nexus of global imperialism, racism, neoliberal capitalism, militarism, technologies of surveillance, and the violent policing of oppressed communities in such far flung places as the United States and Guatemala. Much as social justice activists today argue that all oppressions are intertwined, the Institute insists that fighting Zionism is necessary for global liberation. And although they are dedicated to scholarship and “critical study,” the Institute proclaims that “Academic research is not politically or morally neutral,” which all but confirms that their approach is unabashedly biased even when the facts suggest otherwise. “Critical Study” in practice means militant resistance couched in academic jargon.
We have already seen institutes, networks, and academic associations demonize Zionism in such a manner, even bringing it into the classroom. And much like their predecessors, Dr. Abdulahdi and her team cite the work of discredited scholars such as Steven Salaita to prove that Zionist organizations are in collusion with academia to malign, eject, and ultimately silence Palestinian voices. Even their mission to decouple Zionism from Jewish identity is not an innovation. Of course, the Institute goes to great lengths to argue that they are not antisemites and, moreover, anyone who accuses them of antisemitism is deliberately misusing the charge to advance their malicious Zionist agenda. So what else is new?
Actually, something is new, and it represents the dangerous crossing of several thresholds that had yet to be crossed. In early August, Jewish studies scholars produced a statement condemning the current Israeli government (and its predecessors) of worsening crimes against the Palestinians along with the intent to impose an oppressive and violent “Jewish supremacist” regime, while “American Jewish billionaire funders help support the Israeli far right.” In an op-ed for the Jewish Journal I accused the statement’s authors of the deliberate use of antisemitic tropes (blaming international Jewish money for Jewish supremacy) that strike a chord with the wider intersectionalist left for whom such tropes are axiomatic. Even if that was not their intent (those I have spoken with continue to deny it), I warned that the non-Jewish left would use this statement (and earlier statements in their campaign to liquidate Israel and erase our right to fashion our own Jewish identity because these “authoritative” Jewish intellectuals have written these words. How can accusing American Jewish billionaires of funding Jewish supremacy be antisemitic if the greatest Jewish minds say otherwise? In less than a month, my prediction sadly came to fruition: the Mondoweiss piece cites the work of multiple Jewish studies scholars who have sought to unmask the deceptive use of money by rightwing Zionist organizations in order to impose their schemes both inside and outside the academy. There is a direct continuum between these articles and statements and the agenda of the new Institute whose mission is to criminalize a core component of contemporary Jewishness.
Academic freedom is sacrosanct and one could argue that everything I have written above falls within its domain. But in fact the opposite is true. The Institute has already announced its first conference, scheduled to take place in October, 2023 at UC Santa Cruz and NYU, titled “Battling the ‘IHRA definition’: Theory & Activism.” The IHRA definition of antisemitism has evoked considerable controversy because its opponents insist it is nothing but a tool to silence Palestinian voices. This conference, though hardly objective given its organizers unabashed anti-Zionism, should in theory not raise any alarm bells. It is a public event and it could provide an opening for IHRA’s defenders in the academy to make their case. What could be wrong with that?
In fact, there is much wrong with it. Open to the campus community does not mean admission to everyone. As their website states, “Who should come: This is a conference for academics and activists who are battling the ‘IHRA definition’ — including students, researchers, faculty, paid and unpaid activists — to build knowledge and strategies to advance that work. We ask that all who attend confirm their agreement with the points of unity before registering.” What are these “points of unity” all attendees must endorse? They too can be found on their website, though the first point speaks to their entirety: “Zionism is a settler colonial racial project. Like the US, Israel is a settler colonial state. The Institute opposes Zionism and colonialism.” Before one is granted entry into this academic space, one must pledge an oath to fight against Zionism and help liquidate the Jewish state.
No, the entire conference hinges on the suppression of academic freedom, even though (and I almost feel foolish having to say this) there should be no place for loyalty oaths and litmus tests within the academy, which prides itself as a market place for the exchange of ideas, however controversial. Students and faculty who believe that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state should not be excluded from a scholarly event, especially one that takes place on a college campus. Is it even legal to impose loyalty oaths on a college campus?
We live in the United States, not the Soviet Union. Call it McCarthyism, call it Stalinism, either way it is a subversion of our education system. We have seen the academic left inching toward this in the past, such as the time multiple Berkeley law clubs banned Zionists from speaking at their events, an affront that Kenneth Marcus of the Brandeis Center described as the imposition of “Jewish-free Zones.” But this is much worse, and, as far as I know, it is the only time in recent decades that a university event explicitly prohibits entry to attendees because of their political views or because of their identification with Israel as their ancestral homeland. Was there an academic conference (and I feel foolish having to ask this) in the wake of 9/11 where attendees had to pledge an oath to fight “Islamism” and its chief perpetrators, such as Saudi Arabia? No, in today’s academic climate the fear of disloyalty only applies to Jews.
I am all but certain that the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism is merely a taste of what is to come. With the Institute’s planned events we have crossed the threshold into “Jew-free zones” that extend beyond invited speakers, now impacting mere audience members. So I will ask once again, where is Jewish studies in all this? Don’t you think it is time to stand up in defense of the Jews? Or will you keep producing documents that bestow legitimacy on those who seek to destroy us?
Note: The link to Institute’s upcoming conference is broken at present, perhaps because of the pushback they have received over the previous week. Here are two separate screenshots detailing the conference and the loyalty oath required to register: