Sacrificial Crisis at the American Academy of Religion

It is time to add the American Academy of Religion to the long list of civil society institutions in the United States that have been targeted by anti-Israel BDS activists. At its Annual Meeting in Boston, which took place the weekend before Thanksgiving, several dozen scholars of religion gathered to initiate a campaign targeting the Jewish state for condemnation and economic isolation. Officials from the AAR will try to distance themselves from this campaign, but it has started and it started on their watch.

At the meeting, which took place on Sunday, November 17, Israel and its supporters in the United States — Jews especially — were portrayed as enemies of free speech and democracy. Proponents of BDS were portrayed as innocent victims of Islamophobia and censorship, ignoring the history of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Muslim Students Association engaging in demonizing rhetoric against Israel and its Jewish supporters in the United States, particularly on college campuses.

Such “activism,” which is not unique to the U.S., has had real impacts on the safety of Jews on campuses throughout the world. Jews were harassed and attacked at Concordia University in Canada in 2002 and more recently, at University College in London where a violent mob prevented pro-Israel activist Hen Mazzig from speaking at an event organized by CAMERA on Campus. Such acts of intimidation happen all the time on college campuses, with little effective intervention from school administrators.

As documented by the AMCHA initiative, anti-Jewish hostility is more evident on college campuses where there is a faculty-supported anti-Zionist BDS activism. This should come as no surprise. BDS anti-Zionism promotes attitudes of grievance, victimization and ultimately an irresponsible licentiousness on the part of its adherents who start to believe they can do no wrong because well, they are on the right side of history — even if the institutions to which they belong are on the verge of demise.

The sense of grievance and victimization that permeated the atmosphere of the BDS session was incited in part by a decision of the AAR’s executive committee to “postpone” or effectively remove the BDS session from the official agenda of the organization’s 2017 annual meeting. The AAR’s executive committee made the decision after two scholars — Peter Pettit, from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and Laurie Zoloth from the University of Chicago — withdrew from the panel in the weeks before the annual meeting.

Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr., presides at Linda Sarsour’s plenary address at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Boston on Nov. 20, 2017. Both Glaude, who has just completed his term as AAR president, and Sarsour attended a pro-BDS session that took place during the organization’s Annual Meeting. The session had been officially “postponed” after two panelists withdrew, but was allowed to take place by AAR leadership nonetheless. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

While the session was no longer part of the AAR’s annual meeting, it still took place with the blessing of the AAR leadership, with the organization’s departing president Eddie Glaude from Princeton University, in attendance. Sadly, the session took place, with AAR officials washing their hands of any responsibility for the vilification that subsequently took place.

Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, who spoke at an AAR plenary the following day, showed up to praise attendees of the meeting for their courage for having the discussion despite efforts to “silence” them.

Linda Sarsour, a Muslim activist who recently downplayed the threat of antisemitism espoused by Louis  Farrakhan, speaks in favor of BDS at a session that took place during the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Sarsour spoke as a member of the audience at the session which took place on Nov. 19, 2017. She addressed a plenary of the AAR the following day. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

“I first want to say congratulations to my colleagues who I’m so proud of for holding this conversation in the face of being silenced,” said Sarsour to the several dozen people who attended the session as a member of the audience. “I walk around with a security detail because right-wing Zionists have made my life a living nightmare, including that of my children because I choose to stand up for my own people, for my grandmother, in the land of freedom and democracy.” (Ironically enough, Sarsour undermined her status as a defender of American civil society by coming to the defense of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who has who has declared that Jews were warned not to come to work on 9/11. And she did this at an event on antisemitism at the New School in New York.)

Hatem Bazian, a Muslim activist who spoke on the panel, portrayed Pettit and Zoloth’s withdrawal as evidence that opponents of BDS do not have a case. “If a side of a debate does not show up, it’s a clear indication that they cannot argue the point,” he said.

Bazian’s invective gives some clue as to why Pettit and Zoloth refused to participate in the program. Pettit and Zoloth were not invited to a debate, but a scholarly discussion that initially did not initially include Bazian, who has a long history of Jew-baiting. Bazian was not one of the first set of invitees to the panel, while Pettit and Zoloth were.

The AAR’s program book was quite explicit about how things were supposed to unfold at the panel and Jew-baiting was not supposed to be on the menu: “Rather than demonizing those for or against BDS, this exploratory session will allow a variety of voices to be heard.” The program book also stated, “The participants will consider the issue from an analytical safe space for deep questioning and honest scholarly dialogue.”

The notion that Bazian would abide by the ground rules required for a scholarly discussion is simply laughable. The man has specialized in demonizing his opponents for a long time. In 2002, Bazian blamed pressure from rich American Jews for the arrest of a few dozen protesters at an anti-Israel rally that got out of hand at UC Berkeley. “If you want to know where the pressure on the university is coming from, look at the Jewish names on the school buildings,” he said. Apparently, Bazian has not learned much over the years. Just recently, Bazian was forced to apologize for re-Tweeting two memes on Twitter that were described by the Jewish News of Northern California, as follows:

One cartoon shows a Jewish man raising his arms in celebration above the caption: “I can now kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians.”


The other shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, wearing a kippah, saying he has just converted his nation to Judaism: “Donald Tlump: Now my nukes are legal & I can annex South Korea & you need to start paying me 34 billion a year in welfare.”

In light of demonizing rhetoric like this, the refusal of Pettit and Zoloth to participate in a session where Bazian is put forth as a scholar seems pretty reasonable.

What was most horrifying about the session was that as it unfolded, none of the organizers — the people who wrote the invitation and published the summary that appeared in the program book — came to Pettit and Zoloth’s defense as they were vilified for their absence.

The audience, which was made up largely of young scholars, was not told an important fact that might have softened the impulse to vilify Pettit and Zoloth. When the two scholars agreed to participate in the panel in January 2017 — at the invitation of Jessica Alpert from Temple University — Bazian was not one of the invitees.

Bazian was a later arrival to the panel as was Brant Rosen, a pro-BDS activist who works for the American Friends Service Committee. It was these later additions that revealed that the panel was not going to be a scholarly discussion about BDS, but a debate. In the original invitation sent via email in January 2017, Alpert declared:

Rather than starting a political debate about the role of learned societies in this movement, we [the session organizers] thought it would be more productive to have a serious intellectual conversation that brought out a variety of perspectives on the issue and helped us to listen to and learn from one another across religious and political differences.

Once Bazian, Rosen and Zunes were invited to participate, the whole premise of the session had changed from what Alpert had stated in her email. This helps explain why the AAR’s executive committee “postponed” the BDS session, saying that the original objectives of the session were no longer “viable.” And while the session was no longer part of the AAR’s annual meeting, the organization rented the room where Pettit and Zoloth were vilified as part of an Islamophobic campaign to silence Israel’s critics.

The American Academy of Religion allowed anti-Israel activists to hold a BDS meeting during its recent Annual Meeting in Boston. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

AAR officials, including outgoing president Eddie Glaude, said nothing about why Pettit and Zoloth withdrew from the session. To be sure, Glaude did defend himself for voting in favor of “postponing” the session when challenged, but as to explaining why Pettit and Zoloth backed out, that did not happen. Alpert also said nothing as her fellow scholars were vilified. Professional courtesy only counts for so much these days.

The upshot is that scholars of religion — who should know better — participated in a ritual scapegoating of two of their “colleagues.” The accusation used to justify their scapegoating was that by not showing up, Pettit and Zoloth had become part of a campaign to “silence” Israel’s critics on college campuses. The two scholars silenced no one with their absence; neither did the AAR.

The notion that anyone was “silenced” is laughable, a point that was made by a Catholic scholar from Colorado who asked the crowd what they were complaining about when people said they were being silenced.

He had a point. Even after the AAR washed its hands of the spectacle, the pro-BDS folks got to read their papers — without any of the interruptions that have plagued pro-Israel speakers on college campuses for years. They spoke to a few dozen of their supporters who were nearly unanimous in their belief that Israel is guilty, Zionists are bad and that BDS is a good idea.

Pettit and Zoloth’s real sin was not in “silencing” anyone but their refusal to show up for a lynching and for not recognizing that the invitations they were sent were really subpoenas.

Remember, they were invited to an “analytical safe space for deep questioning and honest scholarly dialogue” and given the way things turned out, they had every reason to stay away.

It wasn’t a podium to which they were summoned, but an ideological scaffold. Who wants to be a sacrificial victim for an angry crowd of anti-Israel activists incited by the likes of Hatem Bazian and Linda Sarsour? Who wants to put up with the abuse that pro-BDS activists have been dishing out to people on college campuses for more than a decade?

The mechanism by which Pettit and Zoloth were set up as scapegoats had a few different parts. First, there was a group of young AAR members disoriented by Trump’s election and angry at their poor job prospects in academia (more about that below). Then there were the panel organizers who summoned the sacrificial victims (Pettit and Zoloth) under the pretense of a scholarly discussion and then there figures (Hatem and Sarsour) who directed the gathered crowd’s anger at Israel and its defenders. And let’s not forget the folks in charge of the AAR, some of whom tried to interrupt the process, and others who let it proceed while pretending they could disclaim responsibility for a spectacle taking place in a room they rented.

Why would the otherwise good and responsible folks who run the AAR allow such a ritual to take place on their watch? Why did they allow the crowd to gather and once it gathered, allow Pettit and Zoloth to be vilified? And why did attendees mimic the hostility modeled for them by Bazian? Why did they illogically complain about being “silenced,” when in fact they were allowed to speak in a room paid for by the AAR?

To understand what happened, it is useful to consider the work of French scholar Rene Girard, who has written extensively about the process of scapegoating.

The AAR represents a community of religious scholars who are facing a crisis that they lack the ability to effectively confront — what Girard would call a “sacrificial crisis.”

Communities facing such a crisis, whether it be a plague, drought or military defeat, cast about for someone to blame for their suffering, and once they find one, they engage in a ritual scapegoating or sacrifice that serves to assuage the feelings of humiliation and helplessness that attend such a crisis. Such scapegoating rituals also serve to unify a community in disarray because they allow everyone to agree on who is guilty for the community’s suffering.

And let’s face it, the folks served by the AAR are a community in crisis. First off, AAR’s scholars, like academics in general, are profoundly disturbed by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. For the academics who belong to the AAR, Trump is the one by whom scandal comes. He is their stumbling block. The AAR’s program book for the annual meeting is littered with angry and portentous references to Trump. There was a session titled “Recolonizing the Academy Under a Trump Administration” where panelists would “analyze the intensified colonization of academic spaces—both intellectual and physical—under the current presidency.”

Another panel was titled “Resisting Injustice in the Age of Trump,” and a third was titled “Pragmatism in the Age of Trump.” These and other references portrayed Trump’s victory in apocalyptic terms, as if his election destroyed the sacred canopy under which they had previously resided in peace and tranquility.

Coinciding with Trump’s victory is a greater awareness on the part of the monolithically left-wing academy that not everyone in the U.S. buys into their agenda of social justice, a fact underscored by drops in applications to schools like the University of Missouri and Evergreen State College where social justice activists violated the rights of their fellow students (and faculty) in a big way.

To add to their burden, scholars in the AAR, like academics in the humanities in general, are suffering from a humiliating loss of status brought on by declining college enrollments throughout the United States. There are not as many jobs as there used to be for scholars in the humanities, who are regarded with growing suspicion and outright contempt by parents who are expected to pay tuition.

Scholars of religion, like many academics, are having a difficult time finding full-time tenure track positions in today’s current job market, as evidenced by this poster displayed at the recent Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which took place in Boston. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

The AAR’s annual meeting was peppered with posters complaining about higher education’s growing reliance on adjunct, non-tenured faculty. There were sessions giving newly minted Ph.D.s advice on how to get jobs in fields outside academia. For example, there was one session titled “Another Plan A’: Religious Studies Education and Careers Beyond the Academy” and another titled “Preparing Scholars of Religion for Non-academic Careers: What’s a Faculty Member to Do?” (How about warning students away from getting a Ph.D. in the first place?)

All this points to a troubling reality for AAR members: Tenure-track positions are no longer the norm in academia and the adjunct positions that are available do not pay enough to justify the money young students have spent on advanced degrees.

The young scholars who expected to be rewarded for their virtue and their labor with tenure-track positions at prestigious colleges and universities found out that such jobs did not exist, raising the prospect that the schools — and faculty members — who trained them took their borrowed money in bad faith. These young indebted scholars are Generation Screwed. And as the old saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” These folks, whether they want to admit it or not, are looking for someone to hurt — a scapegoat.

Having to work in low-paid part-time adjunct positions after spending a significant amount of time and money getting an advanced degree may contribute to radicalization of the AAR’s rank-and-file membership. A poster calling for fair pay for college professors at the AAR’s recent Annual Meeting. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

Writing in the New York Times on Oct. 1, 2017, Neil Gross reports when highly trained academics are unable to find jobs because the societies in which they live have produced too many graduates for the jobs available to them, they turn to radicalism to vent their anger. “Frustrated that their long investments in education and cultural cultivation haven’t paid off, intellectuals in such societies train their anger – and their ideas – at the economic and political systems (and social groups) they hold responsible.” Ominously enough, Gross writes that this helps explain why Nazism was appealing to intellectuals in the Weimar Republic and warns that a similar process “can breed support for radical movements on the left.”

Who in these circumstances wouldn’t be looking for a scapegoat? Who would want to accept responsibility for misreading things so badly? Who would want to admit that the industry to which they invested themselves – higher education — simply does not need their labor? And who would want to consider that the habits of mind and patterns of speech that newly minted Ph.D.’s had acquired at such great cost might in fact be a hindrance (and not a help) to future success amongst people they have been taught to regard with fear and loathing — their fellow citizens?

If the session’s organizers had been able to attract panelists willing and able to discuss the relationship between BDS and religion, they might have learned that the two mainline churches that have embraced anti-Zionism and BDS most fully — the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA — have suffered a humiliating loss of status in American society very similar to what the academy has endured.

The leaders of these denominations exhibit a delusional and hostile estrangement from the Americans to whom they are called to evangelize and as a result their churches are shrinking and are on the verge of extinction. The UCC and the PCUSA (or more accurately, their antecedent denominations) used to be part of a vibrant and prestigious Protestant establishment, but these days these denominations are dying. The UCC for example, is losing local churches at the rate of one per week and nearly half of its remaining congregations have less than fifty members.

Other mainline churches are shrinking, albeit not as fast as the UCC and yet, mainline theological schools are still churning out graduates from masters of divinity programs. Young graduates are being prepared for ordination in denominations that lack the pulpits from which they can preach, just as young Ph.D.s are being trained for tenure-track jobs that do not exist. Graduating with a specialized degree for which there is no job available would make any reasonable person angry, but who is to blame for these declines but the people in these denominations themselves? Who is to blame for the crisis facing the AAR and the community it serves, other than the people in that community itself?

Who in any of these institutions wants to admit, “Well, we really screwed things up and it’s our fault.” As Girard states, “Everywhere and always, when human beings cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.” (This also helps explain why the human rights activists in mainline churches and in organizations like the World Council of Churches complain so much about Israel and not the radical jihadists who have killed so many people over the past few years.)

Girard is not the only person who might have something to say about what happened at the AAR’s annual meeting. In his book, The Genocide Contagion: How We Commit and Confront Holocaust and Genocide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), Israel W. Charney challenges his readers to confront a troubling reality: That the psychological processes that have led to genocides can be clearly seen in every day life if only we have the courage to look.

One of these processes — scapegoating — was clearly on display at the BDS session organized by the AAR. Scapegoating is the sacrifice of others to save our selves from death or otherwise improve our lot. Humans, Charney reports, are vulnerable to “magical thinking” that leads us to believe that “Sacrificing others seemingly establishes our ability to end the lives of others and to delay our own demise.” It also demonstrates our own power, prowess and “ability to determine the fates of others” thus demonstrating our own divine nature.

One would hope that institutions such as the AAR would be refuges from this type of behavior even if mainline churches are not.

Apparently, such hope is misplaced.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. His opinions are his own.

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is the Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), established by the Middle East Forum in 2022.