This was a tough week for “Liberal Zionists” in the diaspora, a category that is admittedly becoming devoid of meaning as Israel’s successive rightwing governments increasingly shift further rightward. We who have hoped against hope for a two-state solution ever since that historic handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 have little reason to be optimistic today.
But I have not written this piece to express my disgust with the Jewish state, nor to renounce my affiliation with it, much as Professor Hasia Diner did with zeal in 2016 calling herself “an American Jewish historian … [who has] left Zionism behind.” Nor will I decry Bibi’s “return to power with a coalition of racists” as “appalling,” claiming the moral high ground as UCLA Professor David Myers and Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund did this week. I am a Zionist, committed to supporting the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland, and determined to ensure that American Jews have the right to express affiliation with the Jewish state as a core component of their identity. Israel has every right to exist as a Jewish state for the simple fact that it has existed as one since 1948 and it is nobody’s business, other than Israelis themselves, to chart their future course. This is the definition of national self-determination. In 1948, Jews decided to realize their right to statehood, much as dozens and dozens of other ethno-national communities have done since the Napoleonic era.
Unfortunately, we have reached a low point in the lengths to which Jewish studies scholar-activists are willing to go to throw Israel and its supporters under the bus, signing on to the blatant antisemitism being propagated by faculty (who are far more activists than scholars) in middle eastern studies, ethnic studies, communications, women and gender studies, and other academic disciplines whose mission is to achieve “social justice” rather than promote critical inquiry and education. Such anti-Zionist faculty in these fields have centered the liberation of Palestine (and the erasure of Israel) in their politics, in their scholarship, and even in their classrooms. Jewish studies professors have not only opted to look the other way, but have even endorsed the project of dismantling Israel, irrespective of what it may mean for its Jewish citizens, approximately half of the world’s Jewish population. The left’s obsession with achieving the goals of Palestinian nationalism supersedes any commitment to the welfare of the Jewish people, or at least the Jewish people who are unwilling to renounce Zionism.
Their goal is to sabotage the right of Jews to express their identity as Zionists in the diaspora, lest it makes Palestinian activists feel uncomfortable.
“Jewish studies you have failed,” I wrote in May 2021, and I continue to stand by this statement today. Why? because Jewish studies faculty continue to live up to this failure, ignoring one antisemitic incident after another on college campuses, such as the exclusion of “Zionists” from some Berkeley law clubs in recent months, or the ongoing harassment of Jewish students at the University of Vermont. Most recently, 128 Jewish studies faculty have implored the United Nations to reject the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, which has already been endorsed by numerous organizations, institutions and governments, including the American State Department. Their goal is to sabotage the right of Jews to express their identity as Zionists in the diaspora, lest it makes Palestinian activists feel uncomfortable.
What is particularly disturbing is the fact that Jewish studies scholars have no compunction in deploying antisemitic tropes to further their agenda. Myers and Sokatch write: “The apparent return of Benjamin Netanyahu to power in Israel is a gut punch to people concerned about the state of democracy and the rule of law in the world. Netanyahu has been a key pillar in the global movement of illiberal leaders who have taken control and altered the rules of the democratic game—including in Turkey, Hungary and the United States in the Trump era.” While at first glance such a statement may seem little more than an anti-Netanyahu screed for his dictatorial propensities and underhanded machinations (which to be fair, is not unreasonable), a closer reading of this op-ed’s opening salvo reveals its perniciousness, the antisemitic trope embedded in their choice of words. Suggesting that Israel is a “key pillar” in a “global movement” to subvert democracy implies that the tiny Jewish state exerts disproportionate power in world affairs and it is exercising such power through collusion with actors who seek to enshrine white supremacy (or a local variation of fascism) in their own domains. Interestingly enough, they do not impugn Russia, China, Saudi Arabia or Iran, who are regional hegemons, in a manner that little Israel could never be, except in the minds of those who have read the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The wording is subtle yet clear, hiding in plain sight, echoing fantasies of Jewish power that have led to unimaginable violence against Jews in modern history.
Less subtle is the use by some Jewish studies scholars of the term “Jewish supremacy.” Professor Joshua Shanes of the College of Charleston has repeatedly used it in his op-eds and public Facebook posts. Although he is applying this phrase to the land “between the River and the Sea” and not to any global Jewish conspiracy, the very construction of this locution is antisemitic, insofar as it was a staple piece of Nazism and continues to be used by David Duke and others today (I invite readers to Google “Jewish Supremacy” and examine the results). “Jewish supremacy” is idiomatic and by definition it evokes images of the racial war between the Jews and Western civilization forewarned by Wilhelm Marr, Houston Steward Chamberlin and, of course, Adolf Hitler. However oppressive Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the stateless Palestinians may be, using this slogan to describe it is irresponsible and endangers the security of diaspora Jewry.
What’s even worse is that uttering “Jewish supremacy” today inexorably leads one to think of “white supremacy.” This is no accident, insofar as the Jewish people have been branded as white adjacent and even “hyper-white,” enjoying all the benefits of (and complicity in) whiteness while simultaneously claiming to be an oppressed minority. The centering of the Palestinians as the universal victim in the social justice movement has necessarily led to the branding of the Jews as a global oppressor. Paradoxically, “Jewish supremacy” marks the Jew as a racial scourge upon the world in addition to being an extension of the white European imperialists who not only enslaved Africans and decimated Native Americans but also committed history’s most systematic genocide against these very same Jewish people.
Myers and Shanes are professors of Jewish studies. They have written and taught extensively on the history of antisemitism. They cannot but know that their choice of words is pleasing to the ears of antisemites, all across the political spectrum. The people who hate the Jews, whether attendees at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville or eminent academics like Marc Lamont Hill who celebrate Palestinian terrorists, yearn for confirmation of their fantasies of Jewish power. For if the leading Jewish experts insist that the world’s only Jewish state is a key pillar in the global campaign to subvert democracy in order to institute Jewish supremacy at home, then their fantasies cease to be illusions, and their struggle against us becomes defensible. As such, liquidating “Jewish power” becomes a matter of ethical urgency.
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) and the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network.