Jewish Academics Turn Against Hillel
The enemies of Israel neither slumber nor sleep. They include not only the technically competent barbarians of Iran, exuberantly aggressive with the prospect of nuclear weapons and the $150 billion “signing bonus” paid them for signing a sham agreement with America; not only Iran’s proxies to the north (Hezbollah) and the south (Hamas); not only most of the surrounding Arab nations, including at least two Palestinian states; not only its own Arab citizens waging a third intifada; and not only those Europeans whose main regret over the Holocaust is that, for a time, it gave anti-Semitism a bad name.
Isn’t this enough? Not in the opinion of numerous Jewish academics of the ostensibly “progressive” persuasion, imbued with the conviction that the litmus test of contemporary liberalism is dedication to “the Palestinian cause.” In actuality, this has come to mean turning the pariah people into a pariah state, and replacing the old question “Can Jews take the right to live as a natural right?” with the newer one: “Does Israel have the right to exist?”
The latest “target of opportunity” for these Jewish academics, a great many of them employed in Jewish Studies programs, is the Hillel Foundation, which in this country and others serves the same function for Jewish university students that the Newman Center does for Catholic ones. They are parochial institutions, not academic ones; they exist to complement universities, not imitate them. Rabbi Hillel’s best-known utterance is: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University” is the vade mecum on its subject; but he insisted that a liberal education can give “no guarantee of sanctity or even conscientiousness.”
One of Hillel’s primary tasks has long been to nourish in Jewish students a sense of shared destiny with the constantly beleaguered state of Israel. To ask Hillel to open welcoming arms to ideologues of politicide for Israel would be akin to asking all chapters of the Newman Center to start inviting lecturers who endorse the old Protestant view that “the Mass is of the Devil,” or “the Pope is the Antichrist.”
And yet, on January 11, it was reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the “Open Hillel” organization (formed in 2013 to support a dissident Swarthmore chapter) was forming an “Academic Council” to oppose the policy of Hillel International that bars its chapters from sponsoring lecturers about a country these Jewish professors call “Israel-Palestine” by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS] movement, whose aim is (to put it very delicately) to expel Israel from the family of nations, by any means available.
Although Open Hillel has several chapters of its own on campuses as adversarial counterparts to Hillel, it has now decided that the cause of “inclusivity” and “diversity” requires Hillel itself to extend a hand of welcome (and cash) to BDSers and other Jewish Israel-haters to subvert a central pillar of Hillel’s own raison d’etre. In pursuit of this end, Open Hillel has now created its own Academic Council, whose first salvo boasted the support of 55 American academics (more have since signed on). About a third of the academicians are well-known BDS supporters; obviously, none of these deep thinkers senses a contradiction between banning or physically assaulting (as their comrades have done in California and Minnesota) Israeli scholars and their insistence upon “inclusivity” and boundless tolerance by Hillel. The opening manifesto demands that Hillel aspire to the standards of free expression, of “diversity of experience and opinion,” that prevail in universities generally, and especially in “our classrooms.”
The signatories of the newly formed Academic Council include many Jewish academics, an embarrassing number of them “chaired” professors who are famous for their apoplectic outbursts, their language of fire and vitriol spewed at Israel, a general coarseness of mind, and unadulterated ignorance about their subject. We have, for example, historian Joel Beinin of Stanford, who has declared that “the state of Israel has already lost any moral justification for its existence.” He has also announced that Palestinians are descended from the ancient Canaanites (which they are not) and that what he calls the “Wailing” Wall is the only remnant of the historic Jewish Temple (which it is not).
Another signatory of the Academic Council’s manifesto on behalf of “inclusivity” is Talmud professor Daniel Boyarin of UC-Berkeley, who would be rendered virtually speechless if he stopped equating Israelis with Nazis, Nablus with Auschwitz, Beth-El with Treblinka, and Hebron with Sobibor. He is perhaps unique among the signatories in threatening to turn Christian if the Israeli government fails to dance to his tune. Of Judith Butler, another Academic Councilor and Berkeley professor, I shall not speak—not yet; except to observe that somebody who thinks that Hamas represents “progressive” values should have brought a blush even to the collective face of many who signed this manifesto.
Since the Academic Council holds up the unqualified openness to all opinions that, in their view, obtains in “our classrooms,” it might be instructive to look at what actually goes on in the classrooms of some of the Councillors themselves. Here, for example, is signatory Joshua Schreier, formerly chairman of Jewish Studies at Vassar, and also a stalwart of its BDS chapter, describing his course:
History 214: The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict:
This course is NOT designed to present “an objective” account of a “two-sided” conflict. The fact that there are supposedly two sides does not obligate us to portray each as equally right and/or equally wrong. The goal, rather, is to understand why the conflict arose, and what sorts of power inequalities have made it continue. Why and how did economic globalization, technological development, and European imperialism foster the creation of two different national identities in Palestine? Why and how and when did these two identities develop in such a way as to preclude members of certain religious or ethnic groups from belonging?
Harvard’s Ruth Wisse has pointed out the impossibility of finding a course description at any elite American college or university that operated from the opposed ideological premise to Schreier’s: namely, that “the Jewish people had a connection to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean that was greater and of longer duration than the nomadic peoples who came to be called Palestinians, and that the central place of Palestinians in world politics is due to an imbalance of power between the small Jewish state and the petroleum-drenched Arab states with which it must contend.” When Schreier wrote his description, which apparently raised no eyebrows in whatever Vassar administrators pass judgment on curriculum, he was an untenured toiler in the college’s Jewish Studies program; he later served as its chairman and also the chief campus spokesman for the academic boycott of Israel. Here is how Lucette Lagnado (a Vassar graduate) reported the revelation in the Wall Street Journal in February 2014: “The head of the Jewish Studies Program had also expressed support for the boycott movement. Prof. Schreier was quoted in the campus paper ruminating that while once ‘instinctively against the boycott,’ he had heard more ‘substantiated, detailed’ arguments in its behalf, and as a result ‘I am currently leaning in favor of it,’ he concluded delicately, as if choosing a favorite tea.”
Finally, let us leave Schreier ruminating his cud in Poughkeepsie, and contemplate the “inclusivity” and “openness” embodied in a course description by Shaul Magid of Indiana University. Magid is not only a chaired professor in Bloomington, but an Academic Council luminary whose name was considered by headline writers of the January 11 Hillel story to be one of the three most important in the long list (along with Judith Butler and Peter Beinart):
Jewish Critics of Zionism (3 cr.)
REL-A 430 Topics in the History of Judaism / REL-R 541 Studies in Jewish Tradition MW 5:30-7:30 2nd 8 weeks
In the past fifty years, Zionism has risen to become a central component of Judaism and anti-Zionism has been relegated to those considered the enemy of the State of Israel. Many do not know that some of the most vehement critiques of Zionism came not from the enemies of the state but from Zionists themselves. In this course we will read and examine the Jewish critics of Zionism from the early twentieth century to the present. We will read from the works of Kaufmann Kohler, rector of Hebrew Union College, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Bernard Lazare, Hans Kohn, Simon Rawidowicz, The American Council of [sic] Judaism, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Jacqueline Rose, Peter Beinart, and Judith Butler. We will also read some of the recent Israeli post-Zionist debates. This course is intended to give the student a much more complex and multifaceted view of Zionism as an idea and as an ostensible solution to the Jewish question.
This course description is so gross, flagrant, and blatant in its willful deception as to be shocking even in these dark times. First of all, Magid forgets that “criticism” means (in Matthew Arnold’s classic definition) “the attempt to see the object as in itself it really is” and not to destroy the object. But for many of the Open Hillel professors it appears that, where Israel is concerned, advocates of politicide (and even genocide) may qualify for “inclusion” in course syllabi as not merely “Jewish critics of Zionism” but as “Zionists themselves.”
Indiscriminately lumped together in Magid’s course description are people who were cultural more than political Zionists (Scholem, Buber, Kohn) favored bi-nationalism (until they discovered the Arabs had no interest in co-existence); Arendt, who acknowledged, in a stunning conclusion to Antisemitism (1951), that Zionism was “the only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events,” but later harbored what Marie Syrkin called “blinding animus” toward those vulgar Israelis and vast ignorance of their country; Lazare, briefly associated with formal Zionism in reaction to the Dreyfus affair; Leibowitz, who thrilled rebellious Israeli teenagers by telling them that Yehuda Halevi, the country’s national poet, was a “racist,” and who contributed the Israeli-Nazi analogy (which made redundant the declaration that Israel has “no right to exist”) to both Noam Chomsky (who publicly thanked Leibowitz for it) and to Europe’s semi-educated intellectuals, the stridently anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism; that worldwide industry called “Peter Beinart,” the highly publicized prophet of Zionists against Israel; and (the culminating outrage) Rose and Butler, whose hatred of Zionism and Israel borders on the pathological.
Butler, a literary theorist famous for prose of stupefying opacity, was, prior to the autumn of 2003, somebody who defined her “Jewishness” entirely in opposition to the state of Israel. A very busy signer of petitions harshly attacking Israel, she was one of 3,700 American Jews opposed to “occupation” who signed an Open Letter urging the American government to cut off financial aid to Israel. Later, she expressed misgivings about having signed that particular petition because it “was not nearly strong enough…it did not call for the end of Zionism.” What a strange remark to come from one of Magid’s contemporary “Zionists themselves!” It should not require abstruse research to figure out what goes on in the Berkeley classroom of this Open Hillel academician when Israel is the subject.
Of course, Magid’s course description implies that there is no difference between articulating, 80 or 100 years ago, a Zionism that was cultural rather than political, or advocating a bi-national state, or even espousing “Jewish” anti-Zionism, and today’s agitprop of those calling for the erasure of a living society. Israel’s current population of eight million, including over six million Jews, live under constant threat of nuclear destruction by the genocidal fanatics of Iran, unrelenting siege by Iran’s proxies, and — a relatively new plague — ISIS in the Sinai and Golan as well.
I would not wish to suggest that people like Butler and Rose and hundreds like them have no strong connection to Zionism. On the contrary, without Israel most of them would no longer be Jews. In “The Sermon,” a famous Hebrew short story of 1942 by Haim Hazaz, a character named Yudka declares that, “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist”; nowadays, it would be truer to say that “when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes an anti-Zionist.” Even those (Magid, for example) who deride Zionism as a deviation from Jewish religion must sense that it is Israelis, carrying on their lives while bearing a constant burden of peril, and not these professorial petition-signers, including the ones wearing yarmulkes, who inhabit a community of faith.
Finally, a word or two about this ideal of “inclusivity,” or, as it is more commonly called, “inclusiveness.” Is it possible that nobody, in the course of their academic careers, ever told these heavily petted occupants of endowed chairs that exclusion is as much a function of intellect as inclusion? The brilliant French writer, Pascal Bruckner, has shown just where the “inclusiveness” dogma ends, for Jews, in his essay on “semantic racketeering.” Here is one of his examples, from a statement by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain until 2006:
The message of the Holocaust was ‘never again’ and for that message to have practical effect on the world community, it has to be inclusive. We can never have double standards in terms of human life. Muslims feel hurt and excluded that their lives are not equally valuable to those lives lost in the Holocaust time.
How dare the Jews monopolize all that beautiful Holocaust suffering, in which we Muslims would very much like, ex post facto, to be included, indeed, to claim for ourselves? How dare Hillel flout the rule of “inclusiveness” by excluding from its platforms and podiums those Jews who desire nothing more than destruction of Judaism’s Third Temple?
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Transaction Publishers). This article was reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard.