Sara Yael Hirschhorn

Ivory tower as battleground

Where sympathy for Israel has become a casus belli

Thank God that today I do not sit in a bomb shelter in Beersheva or huddled in my home in Gaza City experiencing the real war. Here in the United States, we have spent the past week shooting off our mouths rather than rockets, dropping words not bombs, and wielding the pen instead of the sword. Yet, we are locked in our virtual campaigns and campus crusades – a struggle that feels real and relevant, even if it is tears rather than blood that is shed over keyboards, phones, and televisions.

As a centrist and a professional in the field of Israel Studies, I feel it is my moral obligation to speak out against some of the behavior I have witnessed in the proxy battles of the blogosphere and on the Facebook front in recent days. It is clear that at least in some significant areas, the Ivory Tower has been breached, the moat of moderation and meaningful critical inquiry drained, and the gates slammed shut and drawbridge raised against those scholars who deviate from hard-line leftist views on the conflict. After years of symbolic skirmishes, it appears the day has finally come when the final frontier from (often legitimate and necessary) criticism of the State of Israel to the repudiation of its very right to exist has been crossed on the quadrangle of academic life.

Sitting comfortably in the United States, Europe, or other parts of the globe, it is not our terrain, homes, and lives at stake, yet my core values – of moderation, objectivity, tolerance, search for common ground, and recognition of the other – are under attack. How do I debate the virtues of freedom, liberty, and human rights with friends and colleagues who have asserted the right to exist is no longer a right for Israelis and Jews? Can I participate among peers who defend terrorists as democratically-elected ‘public servants’ and justify the deliberate targeting of civilian populations within Israel and a broader campaign of Jewish annihilation as an appropriate and legitimate action against Israeli colonialism and occupation? Should I sit among associates who spread the conspiracy theory that rocket fire and resulting incursions are nothing more than a cynical election ploy and that Israel’s truest intention is to perpetrate a state-sponsored genocide in Gaza? Must I burnish my professional credentials with those who believe the body count is the only moral calculus and that there are simply not enough Israeli and Jewish dead for them to see the other as a victim too? (And how many would it take?)

I have heard all these sentiments repeatedly expressed this week – and more. I am not an apologist for the State of Israel or the moral albatross which is the occupation, but when one hears statements such as these – and others that in good conscious I must honestly regard as anti-Semitism – how can those who have dedicated their careers and lives to the pursuit of knowledge and truth and the defense against bigotry and hatred remain silent?

As scholars, educators, and public intellectuals, I feel we have failed in our intellectual and ethical responsibility to both these ideals – and to those who we impart them to – this week. As members of a community of scholars, we are no longer private citizens with personal political viewpoints. While I will always defend our right to free speech, I also believe we have a professional obligation to fair speech.

As an individual who has been alternatively labeled a “self-hating leftist,” a right-winger, and a “centrist useful idiot of the Zionist agenda” at various points in my barely infant career, I want to stress that I proudly stand in the middle of the political spectrum. I do not understand what it means to “stand with Israel” or “stand with the Palestinians.” I stand with the innocents on both sides of this terrible conflict. I stand with the leaders, soldiers, and civilians who empathize with the other as a human being, who agonize over the complexities of proportionality, and who internalize their intertwined fates. I stand with those who believe in sovereignty for both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, a just and livable two-state solution where future generations not only survive in peace but thrive without hate.

But I also stand as a moderate who fears that the bloody territory of the middle ground has been ceded to those who would purge our voices from the politically-correct profession. Recalling Martin Niemoller, I am ashamed to admit that I and my colleagues did not speak out for the conservatives within and outside academia when they came for them, because we were not conservatives. But today, they come for the centrists…

I view my work not only as a career but as a calling – but who will answer?

About the Author
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschorn is a researcher at the Comper Center for Contemporary Antisemitism and instructor at the Ruderman Program for American-Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa. She is the author of the award-winning book, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Harvard, 2017) and completing a new book on Zionism, Jewish Power, and Identity Politics Since 1967. Follow her on SaraHirschhorn1@X.