Jarrod Tanny

Jewish Studies and Our Abandonment to Antisemites

“Should I worry about my child taking a Jewish studies course in college with Professor *****? They have signed numerous statements calling Israel a Jewish supremacist genocidal state. Is this what they will learn in class?”

Ever since I launched the Jewish Studies Zionist Network an alarming number of people from Jewish communities around the US have been reaching out to me. Why? Because of their growing frustration with the antisemitic bias that is now patently obvious in academia and the refusal of Jewish studies scholars to stand up to this antisemitism (I am not going to rehash a psychological analysis of the Jewish studies scholars’ motives here, but whatever they may be, harmful to Jews they most certainly are).

It is getting to the point where Jewish parents are reluctant to see their kids enroll in many colleges in the US and Canada because of campus antisemitism, or at the very least to avoid taking certain courses, especially those in Jewish studies, fearing they will be demonized as Zionists.

How horrible is that? Can you imagine African American parents or Muslim parents telling their kids not to take courses in their respective ethnic studies disciplines?

Why would Jewish donors even consider creating more positions that will empower tenured Jewish studies professors to at best ignore and at worst endorse campus antisemitism?

I can anticipate the inevitable response to my claim from my anti-Zionist colleagues in Jewish studies: “We are fighting for Palestinian rights, not against the Jewish community.”

Now even though I am skeptical of the sincerity of such a response, let us assume for a minute you honestly believe this. Here is my rejoinder:

(1) The methods by which academia (with Jewish studies endorsement) is “fighting for Palestinian rights” is having an antisemitic backlash with real world consequences for American Jews on college campuses. This is undeniable. It has been empirically documented.

(2) Given that your actions have helped precipitate antisemitism, one must ask the following question: does this mean that the liberation of Palestinians is a greater priority to you than the safety and security of your own community? How can you justify directing your actions to “rescue” a community far off in the Middle East when it leads to harm against YOUR community here in the United States? If you feel that this is justifiable then you have betrayed your community, a community that has entrusted you (and piled a ton of money into your programs) as the guardians of Jewish knowledge, uniquely equipped to educate everyone and enrich their understanding of Jewish history and culture. Instead you are using your powers – whether intentionally or not – to destroy us.

Jewish Studies activists – you need to find a way to “fight for Palestinian rights” while at the same time protecting the rights of Zionist-identifying Jews on YOUR campuses. And if you can’t pull this off, then you will have to choose who is more important to you: Palestinians over there (who know nothing of you) or the Jews in your own backyard who have reasonable expectations of you.

If you choose the Palestinians and continue to neglect your Jewish students then do not be surprised when Jewish studies begins to disappear far more quickly than the rest of the humanities. You will have brought this on yourself. The endowments will dry up; the Jewish community will never look to Jewish studies professors as educators and allies again. And who could blame them? Jews with power and intellectual capital who endanger other Jews should not be funded; they should certainly not be welcomed into our communities, communities who clearly identify with Israel.

You anti-Zionist Jewish studies scholars are not responsible for the emergence of campus antisemitism. But you are deeply complicit in its propagation at a time when you have the power to stop it.

I sincerely hope that those of you who are on the fence, who think that silence rather than fighting back is the best course of action, will come to see the light. Come join our Network if you are in Jewish Studies. Our mission statement has over 160 signatures; our statement calling on the UN to endorse the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism has 148 signatures. That’s 20 more signatures than the opponents of IHRA were able to muster. So no, we are not losing. There is strength in numbers, and I know there are more of us out there.

Think about your legacy. Think about how you want to be remembered for what you did when antisemites masquerading as social justice progressives came for the Zionists on college campuses. Did you say anything? Or did you just hope it would go away? As a professional historian of the Jews and of the USSR, I can assure you that such things do not go away. The Inquisition only deepens its claws into its prey; the litmus tests always become more invasive; and the purge that necessarily follows becomes more punitive and irrevocably destructive.

Hinenu. We are here. And with enough communal and organizational support we will have your back.

Nobody is asking you to compromise your scholarship or your teaching. We are asking that you take a stand against those whose anti-Zionist activism has infiltrated campus because they have allowed it to compromise their scholarship and their teaching (see for instance. “Palestine and Praxis” – a clarion call to demonize Israel in the classroom at the expense of truth). I will continue to be an unabashed Zionist activist while simultaneously being an honest historian, teaching Israel with all its faults. I’m an educated adult; I’m able to do both simultaneously. So are you.

To return to where I began: I have no idea what to tell the concerned parent who thinks college Jewish studies courses are indoctrinating their students to hate Israel and feel shame for their Zionism. I would like to think my colleagues are effective in separating their activism from their teaching.

But keep this in mind: we know that Middle Eastern studies and other disciplines are bringing activism into the classroom to the detriment of scholarship and critical inquiry; courses whose objectives are to dismantle “Israeli settler colonialism” are by definition ideological indoctrination, Soviet style. If it is happening in Middle Eastern studies, why would concerned parents not think it is also happening in Jewish studies? Signing public statements demonizing Israel through antisemitic tropes only heightens this impression. The optics are bad, the antisemites are empowered, and the community has had enough.

Achieving social justice for all of humanity is a commendable objective, but it is not genuine social justice if it entails slapping your Jewish community in the face and marginalizing your students for having the temerity to identify with their historic homeland, the Jewish state that came into being after two thousand years of forced exile, pogroms, and gas chambers.

Don’t make the wrong decision.

About the Author
Jarrod Tanny is an Associate Professor and Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History in the Department of History, University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa. He is also the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network,
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