This essay was written by Alex Joffe, and cross-posted at Jewish Ideas Daily
One of the many dismaying things about anti-Semitism is its lack of originality. The rhetoric and setting change, but the substance persists. Anti-Semitism on American campuses is no exception; but the mere fact that it exists, and that it is virulent, is sufficient to merit the alarm it has caused.
Enough material has accumulated on this particular instance of the general phenomenon to form a subgenre of its own. Notable book-length entries include Academics Against Israel and the Jews, a collection edited by Manfred Gerstenfeld; Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America by Kenneth Marcus, which addresses legal issues related to Jews as an ethnic group; and Jerome Karabel’s earlier study, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, on the history of admissions policies at elite institutions that discriminated against Jews on account of their “character.”
These are now joined by a new collection, Anti-Semitism on the Campus: Past and Present, edited by Eunice Pollack, which ably and usefully extends the analytic discussion. Judgments regarding Jews’ “character” are at the core of the new campus anti-Semitism as well, but today they relate exclusively to Israel.
To understand today’s phenomenon, it helps to know a little pre-history. A good example is offered by women-only Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where, as Jerrold Auerbach shows here, a strict quota on the number of Jews admitted was in place through the 1960s, and simple requests by Jewish students for postponing examinations on Yom Kippur were denied as blithely as were bids for tenure by religiously observant Jewish faculty. At the same time, in its department of African-American studies, Wellesley employed a professor, Tony Martin, who preached Afrocentric nonsense and whose class assignments featured The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, an infamous tract accusing Jews of being behind the slave trade. When criticized, Martin was defended by administrators, including the college president, on the grounds of “academic freedom,” today’s last refuge of scoundrels. Jewish students, increasingly marginalized, were forced to choose between speaking out and shutting up; legally non-recognized as a minority, they were not entitled to the federal protections against ethnic and other types of harassment routinely afforded to all other groups on campus.
The Martin case is symptomatic in more ways than one. It says something about the sources of the new campus anti-Semitism, which emanates exclusively from the precincts of the far Left, including the Jewish Left, and the Left’s political allies: black and Muslim students and their organizations. It also says something about the abettors. The bigoted but genteel Wasp administrators of the past are gone, replaced by bureaucrats who above all want to maintain quiet and who will indulge the most blatant and abusive anti-Semites in order to do so, especially if the attacks on Jews stem from a designated “victim” class.
As Eunice Pollack shows in her own contribution, today’s Muslims and Palestinians draw on the earlier experiences of radical black students. The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, and Stokely Carmichael were the real pioneers in demonizing Jews and Israel in the universities (and beyond); in the process, they routinely made use of classical anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist tropes. The twinned Pavlovian responses of university administrators—fear and condescension—have set the bar of incitement from today’s protected groups so high that only physical violence is off-limits.
As for the Jews who are being forced to choose between the perils of protest and the shame of acquiescence, the overarching choice before them is framed in terms of their support for Israel—a society charged with an original sin so evil that its bearers must be shunned or eliminated. For their part, professors, including Jewish professors, tie themselves in knots in order to be on the “right side.” In a chapter discussing the situation at Berkeley, Edward Alexander cites petitions demanding that the university divest from Israel. The exercise, as if by design, puts all other Jews on notice: stand with the guilty party—i.e., Israel—or with all right-thinking people. Speaking out in opposition, pointing to the explicit double standards and implicit anti-Semitism of the attackers, is routinely denounced as “censorship.”
Why do some Jews on campus hate Israel with such a passion, ignoring all the glaringly retrograde aspects of Palestinian society, including its own officially propagated anti-Semitism? Why do some Jews align themselves with entities like the Muslim Student Association, a recipient of funds from Saudi Arabia and other repressive kleptocracies, abusers of women and homosexuals, and enemies of religious freedom?
At least two levels of explanation have been suggested, including by Kenneth Lasson and Edward Alexander in this volume. One has to do with belief, and specifically with the credo of cosmopolitanism, post-modernism, and post-nationalism that pits today’s certified elites against such “bourgeois” allegiances as nation and religion. Of course, those adhering to the cosmopolitan credo, whose household gods go under the names of “social justice” and “human rights,” form a particular class unto themselves, and one with strongly enforced taboos and privileges. For Jews, membership in this class requires putting their own particularity firmly behind them, just as it once did for Jews desirous of joining a country club.
The other, related level is that of activism. In the past, for Jewish converts to Communism, socialism, and other forms of radical leftism, Jewish particularism, including in the form of Zionism, violated the ideal of Jews as the revolutionary vanguard who would lead the world toward the disappearance of national and ethnic difference. Today’s avatars seek acceptance not into a country club but into an elite fighting force. For some exponents of this type, brilliantly skewered by the novelist Howard Jacobson in The Finkler Question, the highest form of Jewishness resides, precisely, in the public repudiation of Jewishness.
This last syndrome feeds into and off of a relatively new and ominous phenomenon: the quasi-religious claim that, in essence, opposition to Israel is a Jewish moral imperative. Enlisting biblical prophets in the cause of what Reinhold Niebuhr derided as “perfectionist pacifism,” the claim also represents something of a return of the repressed: namely, the one-time opposition to Zionism by elements of classical Reform Judaism. As in the past, Jewish ethical pronouncements are selectively deployed against other Jews; young Jews, especially on campus, are told that solidarity with the Jewish state is an obstacle to their spiritual fulfillment, which is to be sought rather in such politically correct pursuits as tikkun olam.
American universities are not yet so poisoned as are their counterparts in Great Britain and elsewhere. The example of Canadian universities, however, situated right next door and unfortunately not discussed in this book, shows how all this can change in an explicitly “multicultural” regime. As for the American people, they are nowhere near as anti-Semitic or as anti-Israel as are Europeans and others; it also helps to keep in mind that universities are not so much bellwethers of the larger society as carefully manufactured and nurtured artifacts. Still, the inroads of anti-Semitism into these islands of activism are a warning of what could yet occur in the world of opinion affected by their preachments.