Sometimes, you hit a nerve. Judging by the posted comments, it’s clear that I hit one with my article on November 4 concerning the cowardice of American Jewish academia.
One of the comments came from Paul Franks, a professor of Philosophy and Judaic Studies at Yale. He wrote that “much happens behind the scenes” and decried that my article “could have been a rousing call to renewed activity. As it stands, it is a poorly informed slur on an entire group about whom it is difficult or impossible to generalize.”
I welcome the criticism, but if the professor feels that “a rousing call to renewed activity” would be a good idea, why doesn’t he write one? I’d be happy to help if he wants. My argument is exactly the opposite of his. I believe now it is time to come out from “behind the scenes” and get in front on the issue of campus anti-Semitism.
Indeed, what exactly has this “behind the scenes” approach accomplished? Are college campuses more hospitable now to Jewish and pro-Israel students than they were 10 or 20 years ago?
Alan Dershowitz has asked repeatedly for tenured Jewish faculty members to get more involved publicly. Why just tenured? Have we reached the point in American academia where simply expressing pro-Israel views is detrimental to a person’s academic career? If so, doesn’t it become the obligation of Jewish faculty members to speak out publicly? The extremely narrow bridge between Anti-Zionism and overt anti-Semitism already is being crossed. I submit that to stay publicly silent at this time is both inexcusable and immoral.
The other side appears to have no such circumspection. Another of the comments to my article came from Professor Jesus Nieto of the Education Department at San Diego State. He started with “One of the favorite tactics of Zionists, who would be clearly pleased if every Arab and Muslim died instantaneously, is to conflate criticism of Zionism’s blatant rejection of justice for all within their nation, with anti-Semitism.”
If the person who made the comment really is Professor Nieto, the first question is where does he get this stuff? Second, what would happen if a Jewish professor wrote something similar yet opposite? Would other Jewish professors feel constrained against speaking out in public in opposition? There are many more questions, but what does it tell us if the Israel supporters in American universities are scared to speak out yet the Professor Nietos are not?
As clarity of thought often seems to be in short supply in academia, permit me to assist. There is nothing about Israel or any other country that is beyond criticism. It is the nature of free speech, political democracy and Western values. Once that moves into “anti-Zionism” however you’re on the very tenuous slope — if one exists at all — toward outright racism.
At its essence, Zionism is the desire of a people to live freely in their historic homeland. If that is wrong for Jews, why is it acceptable for French, Japanese, Chinese or anyone else?
For those who say Judaism is a religion and not an ethnicity, I respond with the last 2,000 years of Jewish history. For those who say that the land the Zionists coveted was already populated by Arabs, I say look at the source material. I could quote chapter and verse, but based on the 1893 Ottoman census, there are few scholars who argue that the Arab population from the River to the Sea exceeded 600,000. Today, it is home to approximately 15 million. The land may not have been “empty”, but it certainly wasn’t crowded. Can the anti-Zionists point to another national migration that involved completely empty land? How do they think the Arabs ended up in so many places in the Middle East?
In addition, the “Palestinians” never ruled the land they now claim as their right. They always were subjects of someone else. None of this denies Palestinian nationalism, but it does pose the question to the “anti-Zionists” of why only Jewish nationalism constitutes racism?
In academia, however, that belief seems to have taken hold. It is time therefore that we put the basic question directly to our Jewish academics. What does it take for the Jewish professors, and especially the Jewish Studies professors, at Berkeley, San Diego State or other universities to speak out publically against BDS, the difficulty faced by pro-Israel students on campus, the problems of pro-Israel professors in their own faculty, or similar issues? What exactly is their red line?
Contrast Berkeley with last week’s events at the University of Maryland. As reported in The Times of Israel by UM Professor Jeffrey Herf, the Student Government Association at Maryland (SGA) voted not to support a resolution that accused Israel of various human rights violations and called on the University to divest from companies investing in Israel. Unlike Berkeley, where the faculty cowered in silence, nine members of the Maryland faculty signed a statement in opposition. While the number is depressingly small, it represents a welcome start. I congratulate Professor Herf and the other brave faculty members who stood up.
More impressive was the reaction of the students. Over 1,000 signed a petition against the BDS Resolution. Maryland students refused to act like the Berkeley faculty. They opposed, organized, and went public. They did it in a very respectful yet clear way, and their actions should encourage all of us. Moreover, once the vote was taken and the BDS resolution rejected by the full student legislature, Maryland Hillel did not mince words or resort to euphemisms. It sent out an official statement that included:
“Maryland Hillel and its pro-Israel students continue to engage the student body in thoughtful, open and honest dialogue. However, we will not stand idly by as assertions that amount to defamation against the state of Israel, devoid of the context in which Israel must operate, are promoted.”
It will be a long and difficult struggle, but there is reason for optimism. The Maryland students showed that despite having painfully few role models among the faculty nationwide, our Jewish students possess a backbone. Our Jewish professors should take note.