On academia and antisemitism, yet again

The Times of Israel reported today the statement by a Israeli student at Columbia University in New York that the college has ignored her repeated complaints of violent harassment by the “Students for Justice in Palestine”. She says Israel does not get a fair hearing in the Ivy League. Gentle reader, I wish the news were a surprise.

I was born in NYC. My Dad studied at Columbia after the War on the GI bill and got his law degree there. As a kid, I loved going with him to the lectures on the Columbia campus on Dean’s Day. Columbia was the only college I applied to, I got in on early decision, and majored in Russian and Armenian, with great teachers. At the 1974 commencement your obedient servant was Salutatorian of Columbia College and went on to Oxford on the College’s Kellett Fellowship. My classmate and friend Leon Wieseltier and I flew to England together. I stayed in Britain five years, did my PhD there, and returned to the States. Began teaching at Columbia in 1980— Armenian and Ancient Iranian— and in the 1991 student course guide my Literature Humanities section and course on Shamanism were among the top ten for the whole university. Had many publications, too, and the visiting committee to my department, Middle East Languages and Cultures, recommended I receive tenure immediately. But clouds moved over the sunny picture.

The head of the Armenian community advisory committee to Columbia’s program in Armenian studies took me aside for a walk on Amsterdam Ave. and confided he had heard strong objections among his rank and file to the appointment of a Jew to teach the subject; and apparently many in my department felt the same way. You could sense it: I recall a poster of some Arab or pro-Palestinian student association in the department office depicting an Israeli soldier bayoneting a crucified Christ. Nobody minded it and it stayed there a while till I declared to anyone in earshot that it was an old anti-Semitic trope, and an incitement to violence, and removed it. That act raised eyebrows. MELAC had become increasingly vocal and overtly anti-Israel during the first Gulf War (in which, you will recall, Israel was a victim but not a combatant), and the bigotry of some of its members has become by now public and infamous.

So, no tenure. Neither Columbia’s Jewish president nor a Jewish dean of the college raised a peep through all this. And my life and world collapsed— I was losing the job I loved at the place where I’d grown up and studied, whose ideals I believed in. I was losing New York too, my home town where I felt in my bones I’d probably never live again. All thanks to Arab and Armenian Jew-haters and the spineless cowards who pass as teachers and scholars in this country. I thought very seriously of ending my life and one day came very close to doing so.

A colleague in Jerusalem, Professor Michael Stone, rang me around that day and said they were offering a one-year fellowship at the Hebrew University. Packed my things, my partner took over my little co-op apartment in Washington Heights, and I left the United States with a suitcase, a laptop, and  Cat.

Cat and I settled into a tiny basement apartment in Bayit ve-Gan. There was one small window near the ceiling, and when the rains came the place flooded. Pussars did not like Israeli cat food, and committed a few acts of civil disobedience till I relented and furnished her majesty with fancy imported English cat food. I was not a chozer bi-tshuva (penitent) then, and found the ultra-religious character of my neighborhood alien. But basically the black-hatted Brooklynites were kind. And with the bright Jerusalem light streaming in the window, Turkish coffee bubbling in its finjan on the stove, one’s human dignity had been restored.

Guardian angel Prof. Stone and I used to meet at his home in Kiryat ha-Yovel most every Motsa’ei Shabbat of that year to drink arak, nibble nuts and beigelach, and talk scholarship. On Thanksgiving of that blessed year Michael’s wife Nira, z”l, assembled a whole Thanksgiving feast, soup to nuts, to make one feel less homesick. At the university one taught friendly, intelligent students, many of whom have gone on to become great scholars— Dan Shapira and Geoffrey Herman were two of these, and we’re still in touch. Avira de-Yerushalayim machkim, “The air of Jerusalem confers wisdom.” Kept on writing and publishing, and still do.

I took the bus to work most days, way across town and up to Mt. Scopus, a long trip (good for reading but there’s always so much to look at!) winding through the crowded streets of west, then east Jerusalem. One morning an irate Moroccan Israeli yelled, Tisgor tachalon, Rusi mezuyan! (“Close the window, you f*****g Russian!”). I’m not Russian, in fact I’m a quarter Moroccan. But Russian is my second language and most lighter-skilled ‘olim (repatriants) in the year of grace 1992 who did not sport Borsalino hats were Russians. So I replied colorfully, and in the thickest Russian-accented Hebrew I could muster. “Jews!” said the driver, stopping the bus. “Stop fighting with each other!” Wisdom from Heaven.

Another time our bus was attacked in east Jerusalem by terrorists. Earshattering booms, fragments of glass flying, people dropping to the floor. Fortunately it was just big rocks thrown from a building, not a bomb. It was my first terrorist attack (have been through two or three), and I looked down at my body as though it were somebody else’s. It was quaking uncontrollably. A young woman swept broken glass off a seat, hugged me, and tried to calm me. “Kill them all,” I kept saying mechanically, stupidly, over and over. “But I’m Arab myself,” she said gently. “Sorry,” I replied— “How do you live with this?” “I take this bus to work, every day, same as you,” said my comforter and sister, an Arab of the Land of Israel. Bless her wherever she is now.

One misses the Land of Israel, both Jewish and Arab Muslim, and has made several bona fide attempts over the years to find an paying academic job there, to no avail. During my year in Jerusalem, got a good job offer and went back to the States. My partner is not a member of the tribe and has no interest in moving to the Middle East and learning a language written backwards with no vowels. For the two decades and change one worked at a place up north of the City, we never did get to live together, though. Those were not happy years. Was at that other place when 9/11 happened. A dean of one of the divisions of that other place told me shortly afterwards that “real Americans” understand Israel is responsible for all America’s problems. Another colleague one had thought a close friend of many years, an exceedingly brilliant scholar of several Near Eastern languages, informed me on the evening of his retirement, after dinner in my apartment, looking right into my face, that there is one word that explains everything that is wrong with the world. The word is German: verjudet. It means something like all Jewed up, swarming with Jews. I believe it was a favorite word of Adolf Eichmann’s.

So one sympathizes with the daughter of the Israel Consul in New York for her experiences at Columbia. They are anything but unusual. One knows the picture all too well. Maybe she should learn krav maga to defend herself in case she is physically assaulted. But then she’s an IDF vet, so perhaps she already has learned a thing or two about self-defense in extremis. If she does encounter a physical threat, maybe it would then be a good idea for her to be provided by the Israel Consulate with a discreet but armed bodyguard, of its choice but at Columbia’s expense.

She and her friends ought to be prepared to take cell-phone videos of harassers at any and every incident as evidence and press charges, not through the university but directly through the NYPD whenever possible. They should not rely on university disciplinary procedures, which are obviously fatally flawed by bias, but must bring to court both the attackers and also such university officials as are legally responsible for her security who have refused her protection despite due notice. Their intentional negligence should make them as guilty as the troublemakers molesting her and her fellow students, and they should face strenuous civil and criminal prosecution, with both heavy punitive fines and imprisonment if convicted.

But may one also suggest to her that she try not to allow herself to assimilate the hatred around her, to be poisoned by it. My life was poisoned when such things happened to me, and it did me no good. The people who are abusing her, who hate Israel and the Jewish people or who are apologists for those who do, and the bystanders with their banal indifference, are not worth her time, or consideration, or even contempt. They are the ones who, as Dante put it, have lost the good of the intellect— dead souls. She is at Columbia to study, to learn what she wants to, taking the fullest advantages of its resources. And then to leave and go home, build a life and a family, and put Morningside Heights in the rear view mirror. And Borukh Hashem she’s got that option!

For various reasons, some of them compelling (my partner in No. 1), I’m not in Israel. I still live in this land where I was born and it is mostly a good place— though with its political correctness, trial by media, and Left-fascist frenzy, America some days looks like Salem all over again and you can smell the witches burning, even here in the placid, warm Central Valley, far from the satanic mills of the Ivy League. You can’t help but wonder, is America different or is it going to be like everywhere else. If Columbia is all one sees, then yes, America looks like it could betray its special promise, lose its bond with God (its name in Hebrew is unique, Artsot ha-Brit, “Lands of the Covenant”) and in time become just another temporary stopping place in the diaspora. Like Poland— or France, or England. Is it?

Thank God, Columbia and its ilk aren’t the whole story, not of New York City and not of the USA, not by a long shot. Real Americans (pace Dean X) are more numerous than the commissars of the Upper West Side, Ann Arbor, Cambridge, and Berkeley, and boy are we ready to defend our freedom. One has hope for this republic yet. The banner with the Stars and Stripes waves over an Embassy in Jerusalem, right where it should be— God’s country represented in God’s country. Amen and Halleluyah.

And the very fact that there is an ally of the USA, the reborn State of Israel, with its young men and women who are both scholars and warriors, unafraid and proud, is worth a Shehecheyanu and a L’Chaim right there. Hang in there, sister, study hard, and don’t let the bastards wear you down. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”, may the Temple be rebuild speedily and in our day, and a very happy Simchas Torah!

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. 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; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.