American Academics Take a Page Out of the Soviet Anti-Zionist Playbook

“Critical Zionist Studies” revives and rehabilitates Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda.
August 27, 2023
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It seems like each day brings a new wrinkle in the oldest hatred. The antisemites are innovating, finding novel ways to fuel enmity against Israel and the Jewish people. The latest is a rehabilitation of the Soviet anti-Zionist playbook in the form of “Critical Zionist Studies.”

The newly created Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ) “aims to support the delinking of the study of Zionism from Jewish Studies, and to reclaim academia and public discourse for the study of Zionism as a political, ideological, and racial and gendered knowledge project, intersecting with Palestine and decolonial studies, critical terrorism studies, settler colonial studies, and related scholarship and activism.”

The Institute is promoting two events this coming October, one at the Resource Center for Nonviolence/UC Santa Cruz Center for Racial Justice and the other, allegedly, at New York University Law School. (NYU, however, has said to the Journal that it is not hosting the event.) This is a brazen effort to create and legitimize a new field called “Critical Zionist Studies” in universities across the country. Left unchecked, Critical Zionist Studies could be coming to a campus near you.

It would be difficult to imagine another area of study dedicated specifically to deconstructing a national liberation movement. Critical Kurdish Nationalism Studies? Critical Palestinian Nationalism Study? You get the point. Only Zionism is on the scholarly chopping block.

At root is an American academy in the throes of an illiberal ideology, with the backing of Middle Eastern money, that treats America, Israel and the West as colonialists and oppressors. And if we can’t stop the problem at its root we can expect more and more of these assaults on the Jewish people in the years ahead.

This is not the first time that Critical Zionist Studies has reared its ugly head. Wilson Center scholar and emigre from the FSU, Izabella Tabarovsky, describes the emergence of a field called “Zionology” in the late 1960s in the USSR. In the wake of the 1967 Six Day war, the Soviets were distressed that Israel handily defeated their Arab allies, and that Soviet Jews, inspired by Israel’s victory, were increasingly identifying with the Jewish state.

With full support of the regime, a Soviet Arabist, Yevgeny Yevseyev, wrote a series of articles that equated the Jewish national liberation movement with Nazism, fascism and racism. Yevseyev’s personal notes reveal deep-seated animus toward Jews, who he thought should be deported and silenced. In 1969, another party official, Yuri Ivanov, wrote “Beware: Zionism!,” which sold upwards of 800,000 copies in the USSR alone and was translated into at least sixteen languages. Like Critical Zionist Studies today, Soviet Zionologists attempted to de-link Judaism and Zionism.

Tabarovsky explains that the Zionologists’ “most important contribution to global anti-Jewish discourse was to make antisemitic conspiracy theories, typically associated with the far right, not only palatable to the Western hard left but politically useful to it.” In other words, the Soviets successfully created the template for the anti-Zionist campaign we are seeing on American campuses today.

Why, one might ask, is the contemporary American academy susceptible to a Soviet-style propaganda campaign aimed at delegitimizing Jewish nationalism? After all, the democratic U.S. is not the totalitarian USSR. One would think that with the dissolution of the Soviet regime in the early 1990s, Zionology would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Unfortunately, anti-Zionism is not the only ideological template that has enjoyed a revival in today’s academy. And it is this larger academic discourse, also influenced by Marxist thought, that keeps anti-Zionism at the forefront.

And it is this larger academic discourse, also influenced by Marxist thought, that keeps anti-Zionism at the forefront.

In “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody,” Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay trace the growth of a once peripheral academic study, postmodernism, into an activist program both in and out of the academy. Not content to simply call into question the basis of human knowledge, “scholars in these fields increasingly argued that, while postmodernism could help reveal the socially constructed nature of knowledge,” they “needed to accept that certain groups of people faced disadvantages and injustices based on who they were.” This new brand of postmodern scholarship became the basis of today’s radical leftist discourse. The discourse gained further momentum through the writings of the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, “the founding father of postcolonial Theory.” Pluckrose and Lindsay write that, “For Said, it was not enough to simply deconstruct power structures and show how perceptions of the East (The Middle East) had been constructed by the West. It was necessary to revise and rewrite history.” Said discredited the Western critique of the Middle East in the academy and influenced numerous scholars to see Zionism as a colonialist project.

These popular academic theories today, heavily influenced by neo-Marxist thought of the late 1960s that sees the world through a stark oppressed/oppressor binary, are predisposed to keeping alive anti-Zionism and other such canards about white, Jewish, colonial power.

American Jews who care about Israel and their own standing in the U.S. thus have a major interest not only in how Israel is portrayed on campus, but also in the larger illiberal condition of the academy and how programs such as “Critical Zionist Studies” gain traction and get funded.

How long before Qatar, a bad actor that pours millions of dollars annually into the American university system, fronts the money for the first Critical Zionist Studies center, and how long before the first feckless University president agrees to give it a home? I give it a year.

When it comes to such trends, Jewish organizations need to be on high alert, know who the bad actors are and where their money comes from, understand the ideological root causes, and fight hard to prevent Zionology’s legitimization in the university. None of this will be simple: It’s a lot easier to spread hate than it is to contain it. Those who fight antisemitism are going to have to be a lot more innovative, strategic and aggressive than they are today to stem the tide.

This article has been updated to clarify that NYU Law School will not be hosting an ICSZ event in October. 

David Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and author of “Woke Antisemitism.”

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