James R. Russell
James R. Russell

Bearing False Witness: On a Statement against Israel

A few dozen students and university teachers of Jewish and Israel studies in the USA recently affixed their John Hancocks to a savagely worded “Statement on Israel/Palestine” that has been circulating on the worldwide web. A number of cantorial and rabbinical students from heterodox sects of Judaism published a similar declaration in the New York Jewish paper The Forward, more gently phrased to evade the possible disapprobation of readers. (This is sheer cowardice: the paper’s editor was the hostile Israel correspondent of the anti-Semitic New York Times. Many of the Forward’s clientele nowadays are comfortable with defamation of the Jewish state.) Here are a few highlights from the Statement:

“As scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies based in various universities, departments, and disciplines, we condemn the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza; their evictions of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; and their suppression of civilian protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jewish-Arab cities, and Palestinian towns and villages in Israel. We express profound sadness at the recurrence of intercommunal violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens… We share and hold the pain of Gazans, who have lost and are losing family members, homes, property, businesses, cultural institutions, medical facilities, and civilian infrastructure to Israeli bombings and of Palestinians in the West Bank who have lost loved ones in shootings by security forces. We affirm the pain, fear, and anger of Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel who have lost loved ones and homes to unjustifiable and indiscriminate Hamas rockets… As such, we stand with our Israeli, Palestinian, American (including American Jewish), European (including European Jewish), and other international colleagues who are working towards a process of structural change that would bring equality and justice in Israel/Palestine, a systemically unequal space that, nonetheless and inescapably, has a common history and future…

We also acknowledge that the Zionist movement, a diverse set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies, also was and is still shaped by settler colonial paradigms that saw land settlement as a virtuous means of solving political, economic, or cultural problems, as well as modern European Enlightenment discourses that assumed a hierarchy of civilizations and adopted the premise that technological progress and development of an ‘underdeveloped’ territory would be an unqualified good. These paradigms, as implemented by the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in twentieth-century Palestine, have contributed to unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians…”

And so on.

Is it even worth a response? One turned one’s back on American academia long ago; and it is hard to respect a professor or student at an American university today in any way that one human being might like or respect another. There are more lies in just this little selection than raisins in a tall Easter cake or cockroaches in a country kitchen at night. But let’s highlight a few: State violence. Systemically unequal space. Settler colonial paradigms.

1. The IDF as practitioner of “State violence”: Yeah, right. Israel defends itself in the most humane and careful way any army in history has ever acted, trying to save innocent people who are being used as human shields by an enemy sworn to our destruction. Hamas is deliberately targeting of thousands of missiles against our civilians. All the so-called civilized world is really upset about is that more of us didn’t die.

2. The State of Israel as “Systematically unequal space”: Sure. Israel, the only regional democracy, the only place in the Middle East where religious and ethnic minorities can coexist in freedom. Ask Yezidis, Kurds, Iraqi Christians, Egyptian Copts.

3. Zionism as “Settler colonial paradigm”: We cut a sorry figure as imperialists. In the 19th century, the age of empire, German frat boys howled “Jerusalem is lost!” and European Christians yelled “Go back to Palestine!” In the Russian Empire there were pogroms. As Dreyfus was humiliated the French mob screamed “Death to the Jews!” Their message was: “Don’t be here!” We ourselves never abandoned Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim in our prayers, thoughts, memories, and hopes. Some of us did take the advice of the Europeans and go. Israel would be a poor example of apartheid or oppression. There are more Arabs there now than ever before, with a better standard of living than elsewhere. They enjoy free education and free health care. If the British– the real colonial power– had not shut the gates in 1939, millions would have escaped the crematoria. Here’s your Zionist settler colonialist exploiter: a skeletal kid who’s seen his parents go to the gas chamber. A Jew returning to his native town and being set upon by Polish pogromists. A passenger on the St. Louis being turned away from the shores of Cuba and the USA, to be returned to Europe as offal, as cargo, and left to die.

Now the world’s looking at Israel and saying “Don’t be there either.” The early and later messages boil down to this: “Don’t be.”

One out of every five Israelis is an Arab, Muslim or Christian or Druze. There are Arab parties in the Knesset. There are Arab kids in the army. How many Jews live in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan? Zero. How many Jews live in the “Palestinian Authority”? Zero. How many in Iraq, in Syria, in Saudi Arabia? Zero. I think there was one in Afghanistan but he either emigrated or passed away. No prize offered for guessing the right systemically unequal space.

One could adduce more examples but what’s the point. This is the sort of mendacity that passes for Jewish and Israel Studies in America today. A Jewish parent who spends one thin dime for their children to be indoctrinated into this farrago of nonsense is a dupe. Better to train as a plumber. An agronomist. A motorcycle mechanic. A carpenter. And if you do go to a college in this lunatic asylum of a country, stick to the sciences (though I hear they’re now blathering about “racism in mathematics”). And best of all, if you’re young enough to have any kind of a future, just get the hell while the going’s good and make aliya.

Victor Klemperer, a German Jew who was dismissed from his teaching post at the University of Dresden by the Third Reich, survived the Holocaust and after the war published Lingua Tertii Imperii, a classic study of totalitarian duckspeak. The latter word, a derisory term, comes of course from the Ingsoc Party lingo, Newspeak, in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. You remember the book. “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. That triad would, incidentally, be a great motto to grace the escutcheon of an American university. The crests of Yale and Columbia sport nomina sacra from Biblical Hebrew. Might one suggest that the Almighty reassert His copyright, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

Klemperer noted in his secret diary that some ordinary Germans– grocers, streetcar conductors, passing strangers– tried one way or another, by a whispered word of encouragement here, a smuggled gift there, to show some support and solidarity during the long night of Hitlerian barbarism. The only people who did not belonged to a profession exempt from any spark of human decency— academia. Klemperer went on to recommend that after the war every single administrator and teacher at every university in Germany be publicly strung up and the corpse left hanging as long as hygienically possible. It wasn’t done but it was a very good idea.

Normally one wouldn’t waste one’s time on anything teachers or students of the humanities or social sciences her have to say. This is a little different since nearly all the signatories of the manifesto are Jews and some are Israelis. That’s a great pity, but really so what? The original text of the Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is in Hebrew, after all, not Akkadian, Armenian, or Afrikaans. The good Lord addressed it, not only to the entire created universe– let’s make an alphabetical list of tongues and be sure not to omit Dothraki, Esperanto, Klingon, and Middle High Martian– but more specifically to His chosen people, to those conversant with Oldtestamentspeak. And don’t we dutifully ask God in the weekday ‘Amida, u-le-malshinim al tehi tiqva, “and let there be no hope for delators”?

By “we” I mean the Children of Israel, not the proverbial Wicked Son of whatever gender, traditional or other; by “hope” one envisages not just the World To Come, but life down here. We’ve met traitors and scoundrels like these in our midst before: the Jewish police in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kapos in the concentration camps. The chronicles of the Middle Ages are replete with meshummadim, apostates who turned their knowledge of Tanakh and Gemara against their own people, in the service of the Roman Catholic church. Hell, wasn’t the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, from a converso background? Let Pharaoh, Antiochus Epimanes, Titus, the Benedict Arnolds, SS officers, Baltic and Ukrainian Einsatzgruppen, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, the “Squad”, and American instructors in Jewish and Israel Studies link arms and sing “We are the world”. Or maybe “Kumbaya”. While loudly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Just not our own lives. For a Jew to do anything but die is racist.

The thing is, one of the signatories to the Statement is a former student of mine. They– let’s leave gender out of it to protect the guilty– took several courses with me, including one on the literature of the Jewish exile. They were a guest at my synagogue, welcomed and fussed over by the congregation and of course fed at kiddush. Once when they fainted, I went with them on the ambulance to the ER and spent the whole afternoon there till they got better. They and their fellow seekers after knowledge were frequent dinner guests at my home. When they were traveling in Israel, they visited my relatives, who opened wide the doors of the family home in Jerusalem and treated them to a sumptuous and friendly dinner.

And here is how they have repaid our many kindnesses: with a knife in the back. To put it in Orwellian terms, they are an unperson. To rephrase that in Orwellian 2.0, they are canceled. Deleted. I’m sorry I taught them, fed them, treated them as a friend.

The Russian Jewish bard Vladimir Vysotsky wrote a song, Я не люблю, “I don’t like it.” It’s a litany of the failings he sees in himself and others. “Я не люблю, когда мне лезут в душу,/ Тем более, когда в нее плюют,” he says. “I don’t like when they crawl into my soul,/ And even more, when they spit at it.” I would spit back but where? These people have lost their souls.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.