The Academy, Palestine, and the Quest for a Utopia Without Jewish Peoplehood

Antisemitic tropes are often anchored in scholarship that claims to reveal how “Zionism” afflicts the world and is even connected to inequity and suffering in America.
July 6, 2021
Demonstrators gather outside Downing Street demanding justice for Palestine on June 12, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Palestine is a queer issue.
Palestine is a disability issue.
Palestine is a climate justice issue.
From Standing Rock to Palestine our lands are not for sale.

These are just some of the slogans popular among activists for Palestine. Each one links people, territories, and phenomena that have nothing to do with each other. For this reason, they should be rejected entirely. Yet they are not.

Why have such blatantly erroneous slogans secured such a tenacious foothold and garnered such appeal?

It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon as a consequence of “the longest hatred”: the Jew is the eternal demon of western Christendom and the most logical target. But it is far more complicated.

While the medieval charge of ritual murder seems absurd to us today, it carried weight in earlier times because it was rooted in a Christian theology that many believed. The same is true today with the antisemitism of the left, which has been built upon an academic edifice that uses the latest trends in the humanities to center Palestinians in the social justice movement and, in turn, demonize Zionism and Israel as universal oppressors.

Academics carry tremendous weight in America and in Europe. What is taught in the classroom and articulated in academic scholarship trickles down to opinion editorials in mainstream publications and at protests around the nation.

What is taught in the classroom and articulated in academic scholarship trickles down to opinion editorials in mainstream publications and at protests around the nation.

Intersectionality—as interpreted on campus today irrespective of its original meaning—claims that all oppressions are linked; unless everyone is free, nobody is free. For this to have relevance to Israel-Palestine, Israel and its supporters must be centered as the universal oppressors. Scholar-activists—in gender studies, queer studies, disability studies, ethnic studies—have achieved this through ideologically driven frameworks that do not hold up under scrutiny. But among the left, facts do not matter; feelings are what count.

Here, I have identified some of the deceptive theories that make up today’s so-called scholarship—ideas that demonize Jews and sanctify Palestinians. Zionists are under assault, and we cannot win in the academy unless we understand the deception our opponents are practicing.

Anti-Zionists have developed a framework similar to that of the Nazis, for whom the Jews had to be global, conspiratorial, and the beneficiaries of an apocalyptic transnational war, not just “a degenerate race” in our neighborhood (as they viewed the Polish people, for instance). This justified the elimination of every Jew from the face of the earth, not just from Germany and adjacent territories.

For anti-Zionists, Zionists and Israel must be global, conspiratorial, and beneficiaries of the “global system of oppression” against which social justice activists fight if liquidating Israel is going to resonate beyond Arabs with direct ties to the region. To that end, antisemitic tropes are often anchored in scholarship that claims to reveal how “Zionism” afflicts the world and is even connected to inequity and suffering in America.

Points made consistently in academic scholarship include the following:

1) Zionism is an assault against indigenous peoples, a form of white racism against people of color, and an instance of European imperialism.

According to this logic, Israel was constructed through the same historical processes that led to the colonization of the Americas, the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans. Palestinians are “indigenous people of color,” and their liberation is connected directly to justice for Native Americans, Black Americans, and anyone else who is not white.

2) Jews are the beneficiaries of structural racism in America and mask this by claiming victimhood.

According to this logic, Jews enjoyed tremendous social mobility in the U.S. for an immigrant community because they were granted legal status as “white people” and not subjected to the same victimhood they experienced elsewhere. Jews succeeded only because of their complicity in white supremacy, despite their perpetual claim to victimhood because of the Holocaust and a history of discrimination that has no relevance in America.

3) Palestine is a queer issue and Israel is guilty of perpetuating homophobia.

According to this logic, Israel is “pink washing,” using its “gay liberation practices” as cover to oppress Palestinians. At the extreme it has been argued that gay Palestinians suffer for being gay because of Israeli occupation, not because Hamas and the Palestinian authority persecute gay people with alacrity.

4) Palestine is a disability issue.

The field of disability studies and Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar in particular have done a great deal of work here, and I would argue this is as creative as it gets: Israel deliberately maims Palestinians; shoots them so they are physically disabled; tampers with their food supply so their growth is stunted; withholds medication; and experiments on Palestinian bodies and harvests their organs.

5) Palestine is a climate justice issue because Israelis deliberately poison the Palestinian landscape to render it uninhabitable.

According to this narrative, Israel has deliberately made Gaza uninhabitable in multiple ways; it has damaged its arable land through dangerous herbicides, indiscriminately dropped bombs that have ruined the soil, and polluted the water through the injection of sewage. But it is a universal issue because “the catastrophic climate crisis is fueled by global inequality and engineered by complicit governments and corporations.” And “warfare, a pillar of Israel’s economy, is one of the world’s most polluting industries.” In other words, we are living in a climate emergency from America to China, and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is decimating our planet.

These five claims come together to signify that “Zionism” is anti-native, imperialist, white supremacist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and ableist. Intersectionalist social justice cannot be achieved at the global level until those guilty of preventing it—Israel and the Jews who support it—are quashed.

Some ask: is this antisemitism?

The bigger question is: does it matter if we call it antisemitism? It does. Jews are being held to a double standard through carefully worded academic discourse. Jews are the only ethno-national community—aside from white Christian Europeans who conquered most of the globe from 1500 C.E. onward—accused of these practices.

Some also ask: is this double standard sufficient to brand anti-Zionism as antisemitism? It is, if only because the anti-Zionist left has underpinned its “intersectionalist” model with unambiguous anti-Jewish stereotypes. Such tropes include, but are not limited to the following:

1) Disloyalty/dual loyalty/Jewish money

Representative Ilhan Omar is, perhaps more than anyone else, a key player in this regard. Her “all about the Benjamins” tweet (retweeted by David Duke) and those that followed it brought the specter of Jewish disloyalty and influence through Zionist finances into public discourse. This is the most pervasive antisemitic trope of modernity that has resonated across the political spectrum from the French Revolution onward.

2) Global conspiracy to profile and murder Black Americans

In 2017, Jewish Voice for Peace refashioned the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” through their “Deadly Exchange” campaign. It argued that Israel and “Zionist organizations abroad” are engaged in a covert program to have American police forces trained by the IDF. Why are they being trained? In order to better racially profile and murder people of color, thereby ensuring that white supremacists remain in power.

The “Deadly Exchange” has been thoroughly debunked by Professor Miriam Elman and others. But it is important to note that this accusation is identical to the so-called “white genocide” charge, mirroring the neo-Nazi slogan “Jews will not replace us,” made infamous at Charlottesville in 2017. The only difference is that the beneficiaries and victims are inverted. For neo-Nazis, people of color benefit and white people suffer. For the anti-Zionist left, it is white supremacists who benefit and people of color who suffer.

What is consistent is the identity of the intermediary: it is the Jew, who is engaged in an international plot to socially engineer the American population in order to assert power covertly from the shadows.

What is consistent is the identity of the intermediary: it is the Jew, who is engaged in an international plot to socially engineer the American population in order to assert power covertly from the shadows. The Deadly Exchange is a reconfiguring of the “Protocols” for a twenty-first-century “woke” audience.

3) Body snatching/baby killing/organ harvesting

The ideas of body snatching, baby killing, and organ harvesting were made popular by Professor Jasbir Puar, who notoriously accused Israel of harvesting organs in 2016. Such charges are now rampant in leftist circles. Denunciations of Zionist baby killers were ubiquitous during the May 2021 Israeli-Gaza fighting. Blood libel, the charge of Jewish ritual murder, first surfaced in the twelfth century. It was endorsed throughout the centuries by clergy, and even university professors such as Johann Andreas Eisenmenger at the University of Heidelberg in his book “Judaism Unmasked,” published in 1700. And it is a charge that is alive and well on the left today, refashioned using social justice-friendly discourse.

Academics—people with doctorates from prestigious institutions—propagate these tropes in the classroom and in their scholarship, and they usually do so without ever using the word “Jew,” without ever explicitly advocating for violence against Jews, and without using the language of biological race utilized by the Nazis. Instead they deploy seemingly innocuous phrases like “dismantling Zionist oppression,” “liberating Palestine from the River to the Sea,” and “decolonizing the Apartheid state.”

But the meaning is the same; there is no place for a Jewish nation in the comity of nations; it needs to be replaced by Palestine, and only when Palestine is free “from the river to the sea” will everyone else in the world be free.

The claim that academics function in a bubble with little impact on society at large is a myth. If “there was a uniquely German phenomenon that prepared the ground for Nazism, it was not the spread of antisemitism among the population in general; but its spread among the intellectual elites,” writes Yehuda Bauer in “Rethinking the Holocaust,” insisting that “without the enthusiastic support of the intelligentsia, neither war nor Holocaust would have ensued.”

Academics play a key role in the mainstream spread of antisemitic tropes.

The academy in twenty-first-century America is an incubator of Jew hatred, masked as “Palestinian advocacy.” What can be done to stop this? We need trained scholars in Jewish studies who will stand up and defend their community. But few have done so. Most have remained silent, while a very vocal minority has sided with the anti-Zionists. Why?

Perhaps because they believe that to be admitted into leftwing academic circles they need to demonstrate their commitment to ending Zionist oppression, which, in practice, means they need to sign off on leftwing antisemitism. If the Jewish experts insist that anti-Zionism is kosher, then it must be kosher.

This was made abundantly clear during the May 2021 Gaza-Israel war, when over 400 hundred self-professed Jewish experts publicly sided with the Palestinians. Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy have branded these Jewish studies professors as Un-Jews because they are undoing Jewish peoplehood. But what they are doing is far worse than that: they are signaling that Jews who participate in Zionism pose a threat to all humanity. In essence the “Un-Jews” are telling the academy that Zionists are Un-Persons.

Jarrod Tanny is an associate professor and Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press).


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