Jewish Studies Professors Join Jewish Studies Zionist Network to Fight Anti-Zionist Activism on Campus

The Jewish Studies Zionist Network (JSZN) is a new initiative of scholars and educators in the field of Jewish studies who believe “that Zionism is a legitimate movement for the national self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.” 
July 13, 2022
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In May of 2021, over 200 scholars of Jewish and Israel studies, many teaching at prestigious universities, signed a letter responding to Israel’s recent operation in the Gaza Strip. The statement decried Israel’s foundations of “settler colonialism” and “Jewish supremacy,” placed the vast majority of blame on Israel for conflict in the region, and then cautioned against labeling economic and academic boycotts of Israel “antisemitic.” 

Jarrod Tanny, Associate Professor of Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, argues that the statement was the antithesis of all that the academy is meant to stand for. The letter replaced scholarship with activism, he says. It failed to empirically characterize the realities of the Middle East. It also placed the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement  under the umbrella of “academic freedom,” what he calls another egregious mistake. As Professor Menachem Kellner, Chair of the Philosophy and Jewish Thought Department at Salem College, writes, “The concept of academic freedom is meant to enable academics to research and teach evidence-based truths in the fields in which they are competent. It is not meant to protect academics who introduce their personal politics into their research and teaching in order to browbeat their students and foment an atmosphere of prejudice and hate designed to silence rational inquiry.” 

But the controversial letter, signed by some of his friends and colleagues, was not the only incident that has unnerved Professor Tanny. 

Professor Tanny was once a member of the “Jewish Studies Activist Network” (JSAN), a community of Jewish academics opposed to the Trump Administration’s agenda and the rise of extremism in America. He became disillusioned when he alerted the group to a recent incident where a left-wing, anti-Israel organization harassed a group of Jews marching in an LGBT Pride Parade, only to have his concerns fall on deaf ears. Tanny hypothesizes that JSAN was unwilling to speak out because the antagonizers were not the “right kind of antisemite.” Some members claimed the anti-Israel organization was only “attacking Zionists, not Jews.”  

I reached out to Professor Tanny to discuss this persistent problem of anti-Zionist activism on college campuses, which seems to only get worse. A resolution to boycott Israel, a Jewish student being bullied, another effort to pull funding from Jewish organizations, have become regular occurences. There are occasional moments of reassurance when sensible faculty members do indeed confront antisemitic language circulating in their departments, but they are usually upstaged by Jewish professionals chastising Israel and failing to condemn antisemitism when it does not come from a white supremacist. 

“Many have pointed out the fact that anti-Zionist activism on campus is by and large faculty-driven,” Professor Tanny says. “Such activism requires the presence of a number of vocal, anti-Zionist professors to truly radicalize the student body.”

The social pressure to conform to Israel-hatred is not just a problem for Jewish students, but Jewish faculty as well. The pressure is so strong that many will either join the crusade to label Zionism racism to strengthen their progressive bona fides, or will at least become ambivalent to the issue, thinking it best not to place oneself in controversy.  

The social pressure to conform to Israel-hatred is not just a problem for Jewish students, but Jewish faculty as well.

“There are many of us (Jewish studies academics) who believe that the anti-Zionism being propagated on college campuses is a serious problem and that it’s leading to the marginalization of Jewish students. But the Jewish studies professors who may be ‘closeted Zionists’ … don’t want to speak out, if they are still expecting their career to advance. They are genuinely worried that their politics will be held against them. What if they submit an article to a journal, and among the peer reviewers are this cohort of radical anti-Zionist professors?”

We discussed the symbiotic relationship between anti-Zionism on the quad and anti-Zionism in the teacher’s lounge. Activists denouncing what some outrageously call Israel’s “genocide” of the Palestinians feel emboldened by professors who are willing to, if not support their agitation outright, then at least justify it, especially if they are Jewish and can use their Jewishness as a shield against accusations of antisemitism.

These disturbing trends inspired Professor Tanny to launch the Jewish Studies Zionist Network (JSZN), a new initiative of scholars and educators in the field of Jewish studies who believe “that Zionism is a legitimate movement for the national self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland.” 

With over 150 signatories, including notable academics including Dr. Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Gil Troy at McGill, the network seeks “to defend the legitimacy of Israel in the academy, to fight attacks against Israel that are motivated by ideological rather than scholarly pursuits, to foster an environment where multiple perspectives and approaches are welcomed and encouraged, and to ensure that a ‘safe space’ exists on college campuses for Jewish, Zionist faculty and students.” 

The goal of JSZN is noble. The question is whether it will be effective. Millions of dollars and countless initiatives have been raised by the Jewish community to find solutions to this problem, yet so far, things are only getting worse. On this, Professor Tanny is a realist. He understands that the anti-Zionist movement is well organized, well-funded and well-strategized with decades of malicious propaganda under its belt. 

But there is strength in numbers. By growing the number of signatories to new statements affirming the Jewish people’s right to a state of their own even during conflict, amplifying the work of academics who recognize the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination, and creating an online presence where scholars can refute biased research, the JSZN hopes to become another crucial voice in the demand for an even playing field when discussing Israel on campus. Consequently, Jewish students experiencing antisemitism will have a professor’s desk to come to for support, and Jewish professors will have the confidence to stand up to their respective departments when other groups unify to attack Israel. 

“At the very least, I wanted to get together with many Jewish studies scholars who are not afraid to say, publicly, that they are Zionists, and that they are not afraid. Hopefully we can promote scholarship that will further the understanding of what Israel means to the Jewish people, how politics operate in Israel, the history of Israel, and the history of how we’ve gotten to where we are today.” 

One goal of JSZN seems to be community. Rather than embark on a campaign to challenge anti-Israel speakers or organize pro-Israel rallies on campus, the network strives to be an intellectual support system for Jews all over the country. “If we ever are in a position like we were in last May,” says Tanny, “where the entire academy essentially gangs up on Israel and its supporters in the Diaspora, I can assure you, anti-Zionist Jewish studies professors will not be speaking on behalf of all of us. I will assure you, the Jewish Studies Zionist Network will be ready for that. We are here, and you will notice us.” 

Despite passionately believing in this project, Professor Tanny acknowledges its contradictions. We discussed the delegitimization of academic institutions in this country, most commonly blamed on the introduction of activism into the classroom, and how if one seeks to defend the foundations of liberal education — impartiality, teaching students how to think rather than what to think — the pursuit of a “safe space” for Zionist students and staff as written among the goals of the JSZN may raise eyebrows. I asked him if the thinking behind the concept of a safe space — the heightened sensitivity, leftism, and political correctness on campus — contributes to the environment he seeks to combat, and therefore, if an initiative like JSZN can be counterproductive.  

“If the trends continue the way they are,” he answers, “where every identity group has a place to feel empowered and protected, and the Jewish people on campus, who use Zionism to express their peoplehood, are left out of this, it will lead to the marginalization of Jews. It will lead to non-Jews telling Jews who they are, and what they can be. If this is the playing field we have to engage in, then yes we need to do it.” 

I look forward to seeing the endeavors of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network, and I hope more academics will sign its mission statement. We must have confident Jews in the academy who are not afraid to challenge hegemony and scholarly malpractice. My strongest hope is that a renewed sense of pride, of dignity, and certainty in Israel’s right to exist among the professors will trickle down to the students as well.

If you are a Jewish Studies professor and would like to learn more about the Jewish Studies Zionist Network or sign the statement, please visit https://www.jsznetwork.org/about.html.

Blake Flayton is New Media Director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.

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