Jewish and Israel Studies scholars demand the right to spend donors’ money on legitimizing antizionism

During the Israel-Hamas conflict of May 2021, a number statements went round academia. They asserted that Israel is racist, settler colonial and apartheid, that it must be boycotted, and that justice for the Palestinians can only be achieved if Israel is dismantled. Further, they asserted that these principles were foundational to scholarship and to morality. They collected signatures. These statements constituted loyalty tests because the implication of a refusal to sign was clear: that the refuser is neither a genuine scholar, not a moral human being. They were antisemitic loyalty tests because they impacted specifically against Jews on campus and because they legitimized an antisemitic understanding of the world.

Follow this link to see a particular one of these loyalty tests that was signed by 220 Jewish and Israel Studies scholars. It is written with special attention to implying a lot but committing itself completely to very little. It is a twin document to the “Jerusalem Declaration”, which was put into the public domain in an attempt to weaken the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

This week a donor has pulled her money, which was being used to pay for the endowed Chair, in which Liora Halperin, who signed the May 21 letter, was comfortably sitting. Becky Benaroya had give $5M to establish Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.

“Based upon the direction the program had taken, my mom didn’t want her name connected with it,” Larry Benaroya, Becky Benaroya’s son and the current CEO of the family real-estate firm The Benaroya Company, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an email.

In the new letter, the scholars say that: “Prof. Halperin, along with the other signatories, was expressing herself in the letter as a private individual, not in any official university capacity. But the very first words of the original 21 May statement were: “As scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies based in various universities, departments, and disciplines, we condemn…” Which is close to a scholarly “asaJew”.

Unfortunately, although the new letter contains a number of hyperlinks, it does not contain a link to the 21 May letter.

The JTA article says that the donor was cross because the original statement was “Israel criticism”. The new letter says that ‘the signatories (of the 21 May letter) condemned the “state violence” committed by Israel and expressed solidarity with Gazans’. Well, who doesn’t?

But in fact the letter 21 may letter “acknowledged” the Zionist movement to be “a diverse set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies… shaped by settler colonial paradigms…”.

The drafters of the new letter also forgot to mention that the 21 May letter asserted that Zionism was shaped by “modern European Enlightenment discourses that assumed a hierarchy of civilizations and adopted the premise that technological progress and development of an ‘underdeveloped’ territory would be an unqualified good…”

And that the 21 May letter went on to connect Zionism, via some ambiguous wording that makes it slightly deniable, to “systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians…”

It then asserted that as Jewish and Israel Studies scholars they should “amplify and support” colleagues “whose scholarship details aspects of these histories”.

And it said that to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom, Jewish and Israel Studies scholars must uphold the rights of colleagues and students to advocate for a boycott of Israel.

The 21 May statement was really an affirmation that Jewish and Israel Studies was prepared to fall into line with the antisemitic zeitgeist, that Israel is racist, settler-colonialist, Jewish supremacist and apartheid; and that there is no problem with advocating a boycott of it.

Money that is donated to research and teach about Israel is more and more being funnelled into antizionist writing, teaching and propaganda. When the donors complain that the people sitting in the chairs that they pay for are working against the very core values that they thought they were helping, academics scream that this is a violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech. They should be able to do what they like, and the donors should keep paying them to do it.

Generations of successful Jewish families have generously donated to Jewish Studies, Israel Studies, Antisemitism Studies, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. They thought they were doing something that would be good for Jews, good for the community as a whole, and good for the general understanding of Israel, the Holocaust and antisemitism. But the money has been taken by scholars who push and who legitimize antizionism, a worldview that puts Israel and then the Jews who feel themselves to be associated with Israel, at the centre of all that is bad in the world.

The significance of left and liberal antisemitism and antizionism are radically downplayed across scholarly life. Antisemitic ideas, assumptions and premises are frequently embraced on campus today and they are widely tolerated and seen as legitimate by those who do not embrace them. This proposition, along with the antisemitism inherent in much academic thinking, is generally and angrily denied. In practice, antisemitism is often thought of, presented and taught as liberational and anti-racist, while Jews are often portrayed as being central to, and symbolic of, oppression and injustice.

Scholars of antisemitism are frequently de-valued as unsophisticated and conservative, or as  propagandists for Israel; Israel is often conceived of as a unique or symbolic evil in the world. The serious academic study of contemporary antisemitism is not well supported by universities, mainstream disciplinary journals, publishers or funding bodies and it is not valued within existing academic disciplines.

Jewish Studies and Israel Studies, even Holocaust Studies and Genocide Studies, as disciplines, are in crisis. Where antisemitic thinking is not embraced, it is frequently tolerated. The material and moral pressures to accommodate to the culture in academia relating to antisemitism and to Israel have been strong. As Hannah Arendt observed, assimilation in a time of antisemitism means assimilating to antisemitism.

Link to the call for papers for the September London conference, or download (pdf).

The website of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism.

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