Wake Forest Professor Barry Trachtenberg’s Defense of Antisemitic Comparisons Between Israel And Nazi Germany Reflects His Anti-Israel Activism
Barry Trachtenberg is a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was appointed to the Michael H. and Deborah K. Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History in July 2016. His areas of expertise include “the Nazi Holocaust,” as he emphasized in his recent testimony at the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee during a hearing on antisemitism at US college campuses.
Unfortunately, however, Trachtenberg’s testimony reflected his longstanding associations with anti-Israel activists whose ardent “anti-Zionism” regularly echoes age-old antisemitic tropes.
The views Trachtenberg expressed in the recent hearing prompted some shocked reactions, with commentators highlighting the fact that he downplayed antisemitism on campuses, while defending the antisemitic comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany.
It is noteworthy that Trachtenberg advanced the utterly disingenuous argument that this was a rather common comparison since e.g. “President George H. W. Bush famously compared Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler.” But as a scholar of Jewish history and the Holocaust, Trachtenberg surely knows the difference: Israel is a country where the Jews who managed to escape or survive the Nazis’ genocidal campaign found refuge, and where their children and grandchildren live. Telling them that their survival resulted in Nazi-like evil is a monstrous echo of the Nazi slogan, “The Jews are our misfortune.”
By contrast, Saddam Hussein was a Baathist dictator — i.e. an Arab national socialist who espoused an ideology that is actually indebted to the Nazis. And presumably, Professor Trachtenberg has heard of the Farhud, which the US Holocaust Memorial Museum describes as “a turning point in the history of the Jews in Iraq.” That’s why Israel is not only home to Jews who escaped the Nazis, but also to Jews who escaped the predecessors of Saddam Hussein, as well as to those driven out of other Arab and Muslim countries.
Reading about Trachtenberg’s Congressional testimony reminded me that some two or three years ago, I had encountered several offensive tweets by him. When I checked my files, I quickly found the relevant notes and screenshots. But it turned out that sometime this year (after February), Trachtenberg apparently thought it prudent to delete his Twitter account — which is understandable given that some of his output on Twitter might not have been all that compatible with his appointment at Wake Forest University.
However, even after Trachtenberg deleted his Twitter account, plenty of other evidence remains showing his enthusiastic support for anti-Israel campaigns and his longstanding associations with notorious activists.
The groundwork for Trachtenberg’s hostile attitude towards the world’s only Jewish state was apparently laid some 20 years ago. Video of a 2012 event that libeled Israel as an apartheid state shows Trachtenberg telling the audience right at the beginning about his lasting memories of a 1998 visit to Gaza — a visit that was guided by a South-African official from the West Bank town of Ramallah.
As Trachtenberg recounted, the South-African official “said this one really interesting thing that has stuck with me really ever since; and he says: ‘As bad as we had it in South Africa, we never had it this bad.’” Deeply impressed by this claim, Trachtenberg emphasized that even though South African apartheid was regarded as “the symbol of oppression,” it “wasn’t even strong enough to represent what he was showing us.”
It seems that Jewish history professor Trachtenberg never found out that the apartheid smear against Israel “originated in the well-funded, and often antisemitic ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigns waged by the Communist states” during the Cold War.
It is also rather telling that Trachtenberg apparently never questioned the ridiculous claim of his South African guide. A quick look at UN data would have enabled Trachtenberg to realize that what the UN calls the “State of Palestine” has been doing better for the past two decades than South Africa.
To cite just a few data points from 2015: Palestine is ranked 114 (out of 188 countries); while South Africa is ranked 119; Palestinian life expectancy at birth increased from 68.1 years in 1990 to 73.1 in 2015; whereas in South Africa, life expectancy at birth was just 62.1 in 1990 and it further decreased to 57.7 by 2015. Moreover, while the Palestinian “GNI [gross national income] per capita increased by about 81.7 percent between 1990 and 2015,” South Africa’s GNI per capita only increased “by about 21.0 percent” in the same period.
Given Trachtenberg’s apparent receptiveness for anti-Israel propaganda, it is hardly surprising that in 2009, he was among the signatories of a declaration entitled “American Jews Oppose Israeli Policy in Gaza.” The text seems to have been drawn up by blogger Richard Silverstein — a notorious Israel-hater who is widely ridiculed for believing “practically anything that casts Israel in a negative light,” Silverstein’s declaration denounced Israel for using “the same justifications” in its fight against the terror group Hamas as the US was using in what was dismissively termed “the so-called ‘war on terror.’”
In the following years, Trachtenberg signed on to numerous anti-Israel campaigns. He is listed among those endorsing the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (#1283). As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has rightly emphasized: “Many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, including denying the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination — along with many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic.”
In December 2013, Trachtenberg endorsed (#357) a call to “Boycott the Oral History Conference at Hebrew University of Jerusalem;” in November 2014, he signed (75) another call for boycotts against Israel in “Solidarity with Palestinian Students and Workers;” in November 2015, he was among the signatories of an “Open Letter to the Center for American Progress” issued by the Arab American Institute and the misleadingly named group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) that protested an upcoming speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; in 2016, he supported (#427) the efforts of the Modern Language Association Members for Justice in Palestine “to pass a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”
In April 2016, Trachtenberg demonstrated that his hatred for Israel trumped his commitment to historical scholarship when he endorsed a JVP campaign lambasting publisher McGraw-Hill Education for recalling copies of a US college level textbook that included misleading maps about a supposed loss of “Palestinian land” between 1946 and 2000.
The Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick explained years ago in considerable detail what is wrong with these maps, but JVP condemned the publisher’s decision not to promote these fabricated maps in US colleges as a “shocking and outrageous act of censorship of the Palestinian narrative.” Indeed, JVP falsely claimed that the maps “are historically accurate and vividly illustrate Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people and appropriation of their land” — and Trachtenberg, who supported this fabrication, was shortly afterwards appointed to the Michael H. and Deborah K. Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University.
But the perhaps most disgraceful example of Trachtenberg’s support for anti-Israel activism is his endorsement of a statement issued in January 2013 by the group “Jews for Palestinian Right of Return.” The group proudly cited effusive praise from inveterate Israel-haters like Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal; not coincidentally, both Abunimah and Blumenthal are ardent admirers of Hamas.
The vile text that Trachtenberg endorsed accuses Israel of “relentless ethnic cleansing” ever since its establishment in 1948; it also claims that “the Zionist regime officially denies the Nakba,” asserting that this is “the ethical equivalent of Holocaust denial.” An even more preposterous passage of this text prominently links to Ali Abunimah’s truly Orwellian re-definition of antisemitism, which is based on his contemptible view that Zionism is “one of the worst forms of anti-Semitism in existence today,” and that support for “Zionism is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in spirit.”
Given Trachtenberg’s endorsement of this utterly repugnant text, the views he expressed at the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee hearing on antisemitism are hardly surprising.
My old screenshots of Trachtenberg’s tweets support the depressing conclusion that he knew full well what he was signing on to.
Particularly noteworthy is Trachtenberg’s eager response to one of Abunimah’s many vicious attacks against the Jewish Agency’s Avi Mayer on February 5, 2014. Abunimah wrote: “Fanatical land thieving Zionist @avimayer can’t comprehend that Judaism is also part of Palestine’s heritage. What a narrow-minded bigot!” Trachtenberg joined in, declaring “I’d trust @AliAbunimah’s understanding of Jewish history far more than @AviMayer’s & I’m a historian of the Jewish past.”
A few weeks later, Trachtenberg announced on Twitter: “Received @AliAbunimah’s new book, Battle for Justice in Palestine. Looking forward to reading and learning from it.” Abunimah responded: “I’m eager to hear what you think!”
What can you say about a scholar of Jewish history and the Holocaust who trusts, and wants to learn from, a person like Abunimah, who believes that Zionism is “one of the worst forms of anti-Semitism in existence today,” and that support for “Zionism is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in spirit”?
In another tweet that I found noteworthy, Trachtenberg links to a New York Times article about a book consisting of the word “Jew” printed six million times, and in an apparent attempt to voice his criticism, he wrote awkwardly: “Just b/c people 6,000,000 were killed as Jews, it doesn’t mean they all lived as Jews or died as Jews.”
Whatever Trachtenberg was trying to convey here, it is clear that his numerous endorsements of anti-Israel campaigns and his compliments to notorious Israel-haters like Ali Abunimah reflect his deeply felt loathing for the world’s only Jewish state. In January 2013, Trachtenberg shared a link to a You Tube clip that shows the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz campaigning for the small and staunchly left party Meretz, arguing passionately that the creation of a Palestinian state was in Israel’s vital interest.
However, the clip was posted by a user named “boycott apartheid” with a text that denounced Meretz as “a symbol of the ethnic-supremacist ideology of Zionism”: “Meretz, a ‘liberal Zionist’ party who is running for elections (while most people of the land are denied their voting rights) is a symbol of the ethnic-supremacist ideology of Zionism. Celebrated author Amos Oz discusses the ‘danger’ of transforming the ethnic-supremacist state with its policy of apartheid into a democracy that respects the rights of all people and ethnicities.”
In his tweet, Trachtenberg echoed the preposterous claim that Meretz stands for “supremacy” due to the commitment to a two-state-solution.
In other words, just like Ali Abunimah and most other leading anti-Israel activists, Trachtenberg couldn’t care less for the establishment of a Palestinian state that would peacefully co-exist with Israel — only a Palestinian state that would eliminate the world’s one Jewish state would be acceptable. Obviously enough, Jews would quickly become a minority in such a Palestinian state, and how minorities fare in Arab-Muslim states has been demonstrated for many years in gruesome detail all over the bloody Middle East.
It seems fair to conclude that Trachtenberg is a scholar of Jewish history who would like to see Israeli Jews condemned to continuing the long Jewish history of suffering and persecution. Short of inviting someone like Ali Abunimah, it would be hard to think of a more unsuitable speaker than Barry Trachtenberg for the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee hearing on antisemitism.