Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Accusing Israel of genocide cost me a job — just another example of a university failing Jews

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Genocide is the culmination of a process that turns the world upside down — that frames defenseless people as dangerous enemies; violent states as innocent societies threatened by blind hatred and fanaticism; and lies as truth. Genocide — the destruction of a people, and destruction of their world — finally, is falsified and rationalized as heroic, as righteous.

We are now witnessing a terrible spectacle: senior administrators in universities across the U.S. who are, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, engaged in such falsification and rationalization. 

In the past few months, students at hundreds of universities across the U.S have set up encampments to speak the truth about Israel’s actions in Gaza, calling them a genocide. They have demanded that their universities disclose their financial ties to Israel and divest from companies that facilitate and profit from Israel’s assault on Gaza. In return, many university leaders suggested the protesters were actively threatening the safety of Jews on campus — despite the participation of many Jews in the protests —  called in the police to violently disband the encampments, and initiated various disciplinary processes against students involved in the encampments. 

In my own case — as an Israeli-American, Jewish scholar of Jewish history and Holocaust and genocide studies — senior administrators at the University of Minnesota were so alarmed by my evidence-based argument that Israel is committing a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza that they rescinded my offer to direct UMN’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. My treatment is emblematic of a much broader problem within American universities: As a whole, their administrators have utterly failed to understand the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism — and therefore ended up reproducing an antisemitic stance, themselves.

My hiring first came into question after Professor Bruno Chaouat, a former director of CHGS, resigned from the Center’s advisory board upon my hiring, and accused me of “justifying Hamas atrocities.” 

I have never justified Hamas atrocities. In fact, I have clearly stated multiple times — in October and in November, to take just two examples — that the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 was a case of mass murder and war crimes. 

What I have done is describe Israel’s attack on Gaza as a genocide, as have many other scholars in my field. 

We have pointed to dozens of statements of genocidal intent by Israeli leaders; their use of dehumanizing language such as “human animals” to refer to Palestinians; Israel’s “total siege” policy, which has deprived people in Gaza of food, clean water, fuel and medical supplies and has created conditions of mass starvation and famine; the use of the most destructive U.S-made bombs in Israel’s arsenal against Palestinians in areas in Gaza that Israel designated as “safe”; the large numbers of Palestinian civilians that the Israeli army has killed, wounded and forcibly displaced; and the systematic targeting of everything and everyone in Gaza, including healthcare workers, poets, teachers, aid workers, journalists, children, hospitals, schools, universities, mosques, churches, libraries, archives, bakeries and agricultural fields. 

Nevertheless, Chaouat’s words sparked a campaign against me by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, through which critics argued that my description of Israel’s attack on Gaza as genocide disqualified me from serving as director of the CHGS. The university initially pushed back, explaining that I was “enthusiastically” recommended for the position following a regular search process. But as the JCRC’s campaign intensified, the university quickly changed course. Within days, on June 10, the interim president of the university, Jeff Ettinger, sent me an email withdrawing the job offer.

This unprecedented decision didn’t just harm me. It legitimized crude political interference in a public university’s hiring process. 

The grave attack on academic freedom that my own situation represented was noted in a letter by the UMN chapter of the American Association of University Professors; and in statements signed by more than 1,200 people in the greater UMN and Twin Cities community and by over 1,000 scholars across the globe, including many Jews and many Israelis teaching in Israeli universities.

To anyone paying attention, the fact that Israelis were part of the coalition speaking out against the university’s decision would not have been surprising. They have experienced similar crackdowns in Israel, most notably that which targeted the renowned Palestinian professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a scholar who has written several books on Israeli state violence. Shalhoub-Kevorkian has spoken publicly about her anti-Zionist approach and her view that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Following months of intimidation, harassment, and threats, including by the leaders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she was eventually arrested and abused by the Israeli police in mid-April — an event that shocked many in the Israeli and international academic communities, and laid bare the oppression and violence inherent in efforts in Israel to silence scholars who speak out against Israel’s genocide in Gaza. 

At least some Israeli Jewish academics understood that Palestinian scholars are the first to be targeted in this way — but certainly not the last. 

A similar pattern has characterized the attack by university leaders on the encampments. Palestinians and other Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, often bore the brunt of the attacks. But university authorities also tacitly condoned the arrest and academic disciplining of large numbers of Jews involved in the encampments — even as those Jews organized Shabbat prayer services and Passover Seders; engaged in interfaith discussions; and joined in solidarity, as anti-Zionist Jews, with people protesting nationalist and racist violence. 

When I visited the encampment at the University of Pennsylvania on April 26, the students I spoke with voiced a clear and strong objection to antisemitism. I discussed with them the ways white supremacists target Jews in addition to Muslims, Arabs, LGBTQ+ people, Black people, and others. It was clear they understood all too well the connections between different forms of racism, including antisemitism. 

That very understanding is one that too many university leaders appear to lack. 

In reaction to the protests, a number of universities appointed task forces on antisemitism that have in large part based their work on the distortion of equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. They relied on the language of the “working definition of antisemitism” of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) — even though hundreds of scholars of Jewish history and antisemitism have strongly rejected it over its conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Zionist Jews joined in the effort, with some on campuses even describing anti-Zionist Jews as “un-Jews.” There is an irony here, as some Zionist Jews faced a very similar attack before the Holocaust. As I have discussed in my work on Jewish life in the Carpathian region, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis at times saw Zionist Jews as terrible in a way that rendered them not Jews. That was their political response to the threat of Zionists luring Jews away from their communities. 

This kind of political rigidity within the Jewish world, in the past and today, reflects an ideological fixation that, as with all ideological fixations, disregards the truth and resorts to unashamed lies.

The Jewish students attacked in the course of protesting the war understand, as I do, that senior administrators at U.S. universities have steered our institutions onto an ominous path. They have for years used the IHRA definition of antisemitism to silence, intimidate and persecute Palestinians and their supporters on campuses across the U.S. This weaponization relies on erasing the distinction between a people and a state, reducing Jewish identity to Zionism. Both former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden have leaned into this conflation.

This is, of course, ahistorical: many Jews have identified as anti-Zionists since the emergence of Zionism. And there are many ways of identifying as a Jew beyond a Zionist or anti-Zionist framework. What those who insist on an absolute unity between Jewish identity and Zionism fail to understand is that doing so constitutes an attack against anti-Zionist Jews because of the way they express their Jewish identity. It is, in other words, in its own way a form of antisemitism, of attacking Jews because they are Jews. 

This, too, is a feature of our world turned upside down, a weaponization of the struggle against antisemitism that includes an antisemitic attack — in support, furthermore, of Israel’s destructive assault on Gaza. The struggle to stop this genocide is thus also a struggle against antisemitism. A struggle to protect a people facing an extremely violent state. A struggle for the significance of truth, both in Israel and Palestine, and in our universities in the U.S.. A struggle for our world.

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