Humanities, Humanity, and the Gaza War

This week, the New York Times featured an article that asked “Can Humanities Survive?” The concern itself is hardly new—articles posing similar questions have been appearing fairly frequently for some years now. The focus of this particular piece was on the threat posed to Humanities programs on North American campuses by ongoing budget cuts. But although the article didn’t quite spell it out, it was clear there—and in general—that these cuts are just one manifestation of much deeper shifts in how we understand the purpose and raison d’être of a university education, the relationship between such an education and the job market, and—most fundamentally, I believe—profound shifts in cultural priorities and values.

There was a time, of course, when these kinds of budget cuts, and closures of Humanities programs, would hardly have occurred to universities and their administrators, since the Humanities were by and large seen as the very core and essence of what a university and a university education were about. Rather than producing profits (the “corporate model”) or troops for a (job) market, at least one of the principal goals of a university was to transform students in the spirit of the German notion of bildung, to help create fuller, richer (not in the material sense), more thinking people. In a word, the Humanities, and universities along with them, sought to enrich humanity, to form human beings. 

But the changes that have taken place in our cultural priorities and in the ways in which even many university administrators understand the institutions they administer owes a great deal, sadly, to processes that have taken place in the humanities themselves. And nothing has made this clearer than some of what has been taking place on university campuses since October 7. For years now, a great deal of the discourse in the Humanities has been an anti-humanist discourse; a discourse that, rather than celebrating and advancing fundamental humanistic notions, in fact undermines them, even while maintaining the exterior shells of the very same terminologies of human rights, social justice, and equality that are among the central tenets of the kind of vision of humanity that was also the basis of the Humanities, at least since the Enlightenment.

Over the course of many decades, humanistic thought was able to make great strides toward inclusivity and an ever more multi-vocal human symphony based on its own notions of the basic equality of human beings, of human dignity, of human rights. Various fields of study, most notably in the Humanities, sought to expand the range of voices heard, acknowledged, legitimated. Decades of work opened our ears to the voices of the “subaltern”—those whose voices had not been given a sufficient place, or any place at all, in the overall chorus of human culture.

Somewhere along the way, however, something in this project went wrong. Listening to the subaltern came to be confused with despising, negating, and delegitimizing the voices of those deemed (rightly or wrongly) to be “hegemons.” In place of expanding the range of our aural sensitivity, certain taboos—or really, silencings—have been imposed and acquiesced to. The result, in reality, is not only a shutting off of discourse, but a purposeful, austere, and authoritarian shutting off of actual perspectives—legitimate perspectives—on human realities, cultures, history; a project that is the diametrical opposite of what the Humanities sought to be and to do.

This has been evident in my own field for years, and has gained noisy and violent expression in the past month. We are so accommodating to every possible worldview, every articulation of any identity, yet in the name of precisely such accommodation there is one version of a worldview, one articulation of identity, whose legitimacy is denied—the notion that Jews are a people, all that this implies (such as the right to self-determination). An entire corpus of ostensibly scholarly work has been produced whose principal purpose is to show that this self-perception shared by many, if not the vast majority of, Jews throughout the world—their identity, the way they understand who they are—is illegitimate. We are endlessly clever and constructivist with regard to every other articulation of identity: gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, indigeneity, and more—are all today understood to be social constructs, “imagined communities,” requiring an act of imagining, of mental construction, to come into being. Denying the legitimacy of virtually any such construct is deemed an act of oppression, of cultural imperialism. Except with the Jews.

Squabbling, for example, over whether Jews were a nation in the modern sense prior to the advent of modern nationalism is really the equivalent of arguing over whether I was a parent before I had children. Of course I was not. But becoming a parent didn’t change everything about who I ever was before; it was, to be sure, a major transformation in my identity, but one that did not supersede or discard everything I had ever been before, or every way in which I had shaped my identity earlier. Naturally, my new identity as a parent built on all of that (for better or for worse) and adapted it—and the narrative I told myself about who I am—to the new realities and new perspectives that came about with the birth of my children.

This is a self-evident and, I think, broadly accepted understanding of how (individual and collective) identities are constructed, shaped, and evolve. But, again, this stops with the Jews, whose perception of themselves is the one identity that is considered—by the so-called progressives on college campuses—fair game for delegitimization. And this is done not only in the violent language of demonstrations, where calls for the destruction of Israel, and effectively for the annihilation of its Jews are now legitimate, as manifested in the thinly veiled slogan “from the river to the sea”, which is precisely such an annihilationist slogan, and has now even gained the legitimacy of a member of the American House of Representatives.

In the more sophisticated language of would-be scholarly discourse, such calls are made in respectable, ostensibly rigorous, academic writing, where Palestinian indigeneity, for example, is granted as some kind of Rankian “past as it actually was”, a rock-hard objective reality, whereas when it comes to Jewish claims we suddenly remember that we no longer accept that kind of Rankian positivism, and argue that the sense of identity shared by so many of the world’s Jews is a construct, and an illegitimate one at that, of course. When convenient, we are nineteenth century positivists (Palestinian nationhood and indigeneity); when less so, we are sophisticated postmodernists, insisting that all we have are narratives, that we can make no “truth claims”, certainly not with whatever identity one adopts, except of course the “truth claim” that anything most Jews say about how they understand who they are is illegitimate and a false, evil, fabrication. Talk about “regimes of truth” and the limiting constraints of hegemonic discourse. Here is the meeting point between this “postmodernist” discourse and way of thinking—or really, way of constraining and suffocating thought—on the one hand, and the MAGA, Bibi-like culture of post-truth and relativization of all value that helped lead Israel into this very crisis.

Of course the Humanities are in crisis. Of course students no longer enroll in Humanities courses and majors. Where this kind of discourse reins, the Humanities have betrayed themselves and their very core. The Humanities can only survive, and can only be seen to be of worth, if they remain true to the humanistic vision that is their foundation and very essence. Where they have become an anti-humanist endeavor, they have inherently failed and have lost their raison d’etre; they are no more—whether universities close programs named “Humanities” or not.

About the Author
Arieh Saposnik is a historian, an Associate Professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He is the author of Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2008) and of Zionism’s Redemptions: Images of the Past and Visions of the Future in Jewish Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2022). He is a former President of the Association for Israel Studies.
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