Jewish Studies Scholars’ Recent Statement Targets the Wrong Elephant

Jewish Studies professors release statement on Israel that attempts to provoke anxiety and discomfort among diaspora Jews.
August 9, 2023
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In May 2021, at the height of the most recent Israeli-Gaza war, over 250 Jewish studies scholars signed a statement placing all blame on Israel for the ongoing ethno-national conflict, using language that presents Israel as little more than a racially supremacist project produced by European imperialism. The document not only ignored the threat that such inflammatory rhetoric could pose to diaspora Jewry, but also actually ignored the violence already occurring against diaspora Jewry—random Jews who were being attacked by Palestinian social justice activists in the United States and Europe because they might be Zionists and are thus responsible for Israel’s alleged war crimes.

At the time I spoke out against this statement because it was saturated with such dangerous rhetoric. I subsequently gave public lectures explaining why such language, coming from self-professed experts in Jewish studies, does little more than embolden genuine antisemites on the intersectionalist social justice left, people who pontificate in public that Zionism is a “global threat” needing to be quashed along with imperialism, capitalism and racism. Such a statement could not possibly end the conflict in the middle east. And two years later, its ultimate worthlessness is apparent to any observer of Israel.

Accordingly, Jewish studies scholars have struck again this week, issuing another such statement and attempting to call out the “elephant in the room,” which they see as the “direct link between Israel’s recent attack on the judiciary and its illegal occupation of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” They have learned from their previous statements and have dropped much of the superfluous academic jargon, which does not serve their interests. It is far better to present Israel’s criminality in plain English should they wish to provoke anger among larger segments of the American public against diaspora Jewry. Thus far the statement has accrued over 500 signatures. Like all such documents, it contains grains of truth couched in outright lies and bigoted dog whistles because they know this is the best way to get their voices heard. I would like to highlight some of these falsehoods and dangerous claims below.

Like all such documents, it contains grains of truth couched in outright lies and bigoted dog whistles because they know this is the best way to get their voices heard.

Before I proceed, I am going on record, publicly, yet again, that I support a two-state solution. I believe that the current Israeli government has zero interest in resolving the conflict because they have the upper hand and know they can continue to tighten their grip in the West Bank, irrespective of their desired outcome. Even Ariel Sharon sought a cold peace; the current government wants no such thing. I also believe that all settlement construction that proceeded after Oslo was not only counter-productive for peace, but also morally wrong, even if Israel’s future borders should include some territory beyond the Green Line. Accordingly, I am not going to challenge their condemnation of daily violence experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank even if it fails to take Palestinian terrorism into account; it is a problem that Israelis need to address. I will not even challenge their use of the term “Apartheid” to describe what transpires beyond the Green Line. That has been done to death and it is now a core component of the conflict’s vocabulary, rendering any debate over the term pointless. But it is a term baked in emotive moral condemnation rather than sound legal reasoning.

Finally, as a Jewish studies professor, I have as much authoritative expertise on this subject as the vast majority of the statement’s signatories. I may not have their Ivy League “Blue Chip” (as one professor put it to me) pedigree and their current prestigious positions in the academy, but this is immaterial; expertise is not the product of the institution that houses you.

Far more modestly, I am going to highlight four major issues with this document, which should give our “leading experts” pause to rethink some of the claims they make and to choose more judicious language in the future.

1) “Indeed, the ultimate purpose of the judicial overhaul is to tighten restrictions on Gaza, deprive Palestinians of equal rights both beyond the Green Line and within it, annex more land, and ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population.” It would be foolish of me to deny the current Israeli government’s desire to further entrench their rule in the West Bank. But their use of the term “ethnically cleanse” is sloppy as it implies protracted genocide. There is no evidence to back up a project of mass Palestinian expulsion. Far worse is the claim that the judicial reforms are intended to strip Palestinian citizens of their rights and subject them to “Apartheid rule.” I respectfully demand to see any evidence of Arab Israelis being stripped of their juridical rights.

2) “As Israel has grown more right-wing and come under the spell of the current government’s messianic, homophobic, and misogynistic agenda…” There are homophobic and misogynistic members of Israel’s government. There have always been; such is the nature of politics when religious parties have been a part of every Israeli coalition government. But there is zero evidence to suggest that Israel is in the process of stripping gay people and women of their rights. I would gently suggest that the Americans who signed this statement examine the recent rulings of their Supreme Court along with currently proposed legislation in states such as Florida. Measured against the United States (and so many other countries), this claim carries no weight and is an insult to Israel’s LGBT community and the women who helped craft and build up the Jewish state, making it the most socially progressive country in the region.

3) “Jewish supremacism has been growing for years.” I have explained at length why the phrase “Jewish supremacism” should never be used, even if, it is an apt descriptor for what many Palestinians in the West Bank experience. This locution is replete with historical baggage; Nazi baggage; baggage that led to the gas chambers and continues to empower American neo-Nazis. It also evokes images of “white supremacism,” thereby implying that the worst elements in American demagoguery are aligned with Jewish criminality.

4) “Meanwhile, American Jewish billionaire funders help support the Israeli far right.” I should not have to explain to Jewish studies scholars why blaming much of Israel’s oppressive policies on Jewish money and power from abroad is antisemitic. This is antisemitism 101. We cover it on the first day in my classes on the subject. Whether there are American Jewish billionaires giving money to the Israeli right is irrelevant. As a counter-example, consider George Soros. Whenever Fox News sounds the alarm over “George Soros Globalists” funding destructive projects, the Jewish left screams “antisemitism.” I agree with them. Why? Because even if Soros (and other wealthy Jews) are funding projects that can be described as globalist—policies that are abhorrent to conservatives—the name of a powerful wealthy Jew in conjunction with the term “globalism” is, much like “Jewish supremacism” and “Jewish money,” replete with historical baggage; Nazi baggage; baggage that led to the gas chambers and continues to empower American neo-Nazis. “American Jewish billionaire funders” does nothing but trigger antisemites, giving them the much-wanted confirmation from “blue-chip” Jewish Studies scholars that their project to liquidate Israel and the global Zionist threat is a righteous endeavor.

My critics will no doubt argue that much of what they have written is predictive: It will come to pass because of the unprecedented rightwing government in Israel, which is using the proposed judicial reforms to entrench their grip on power. But they were making the same arguments two years ago. Anti-Zionists have been making these arguments for two decades. These words can be found on every proposed boycott resolution going back to Durban if not earlier. This is the rhetoric of “Israel Denial,” a rejection of the idea of a Jewish state presented as if its relevance is to our current moment. The history of anti-Zionism suggests otherwise.

This document will not “fix” Israel. It can’t, much as BDS resolutions on college campuses can’t. But fixing Israel is not their immediate objective. Their objective is to promote anxiety and discomfort among diaspora Jews. They want Zionist Jews to know their message is being received by anti-Zionist activists, politicians and the larger academic community: Israel is not kosher, there are good Jews and bad Jews, and we, the bad Jews, are tainted by the stain of Jewish supremacy; we are no better than the ever-expanding circle of “fascists” and “racists” who are bringing America to its knees. The Jews, rather than any imagined connection between the Occupation and Israeli judicial overhauls, are “the elephant in the room.” We are the target.

I am a professor of Jewish studies who supports my people’s right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland, and if it is my fate to live with this target on my back I have little choice but to accept it. My silence would be inexcusable, unethical and shameful before future generations of Jews.

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.

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