Lehavdil or How I Was Censored for Being a “Zionist” Professor

For the past month and a half, a small, elite liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, known for its brainiac, quirky students, many of whom go on to graduate study, has become a ground zero for hatred of Israel and the celebration of Hamas “liberators.”
December 6, 2023
Reed College, Portland, Oregon (Photo by Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

In response to my question about how he’s been holding up, my friend in Israel of many years—like me, a former Soviet Jew—replied that he’s been driving around the country, bringing food and clothes to army bases. “This is my miluim [reserve duty],” he said. “I wish I was there with you,” I wrote back, to which he answered, “This war has many fronts and one of them is on the U.S. campuses. That’s your miluim.” Indeed, I thought and then added, “lehavdil.”

I’ve returned often to this term since October 7th. Lehavdil—in Hebrew, “to separate, to distinguish, to differentiate”—is a central concept in Judaism. God creates the world through various separations; the separation between the sacred and the profane is at the core of Judaism. In the Talmudic lingo, lehavdil is used specifically to compare two things that are essentially analogous and still acknowledge that one of them is greater than the other, and hence the comparison is imperfect. In this case, there’s a brutal defensive war waged against an existential enemy by Israel and then there are the disturbing happenings on the green lawns and in the dorms and classrooms of U.S. campuses. Lehavdil indeed, and yet there’s much that unites them. This essay is a glimpse into one such campus and the meanings and forms of this wave of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate.

For the past month and a half, a small, elite liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, known for its brainiac, quirky students, many of whom go on to graduate study, has become a ground zero for hatred of Israel and the celebration of Hamas “liberators.” Unlike so many other campuses that have witnessed something similar, but also featured pro-Israel Jewish events, Reed College, which does not have a Jewish studies program or a student Jewish center, had not a single pro-Israel demonstration and not a single poster or a banner publicly advocating for Israel, the horrific loss of Jewish lives, or the return of hostages. The many Jewish students have been continuously silenced and harassed for not supporting or refusing to participate in the “walk out,” “shut down,” and “vigil” for the “victims of Israel’s genocide.” “Your silence has been noted,” they’ve been warned by their peers. Like the Soviet Jews who wanted to escape participating in professional and Party meetings about the brotherhood with the Palestinian nation and the blood spilled by the evil Israeli occupiers, these students have been looking for safety and a way out.

And again, I want to say lehavdil, since perhaps one should not compare living and surviving in a brutal authoritarian antisemitic regime and a U.S. campus where the students decided to take on one more unfortunate cause. Yet the parallels between the two situations are deep and go beyond peer pressure and the fear of being ostracized for diverting from the general line.

At Reed, as at so many other colleges and universities, the pro-Hamas rallies are neither spontaneous nor confined only to students, sympathetic or openly supportive members of the faculty, or the indifference or indecisiveness of the administration. They are well-organized, reinforced and funded from the outside. The primary culprit is the national organization “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP), whose insignia bears a masked warrior, waving a Palestinian flag. Similarly to Hamas, the organization’s program does not call for a two-state solution or pacificism, but the elimination of Israel in clear and blatant terms. As pointed out recently by Noa Tishby in the Jewish Journal, “SJP is a hate group and it is grooming American college students—grooming your children—to hate Israel, hate Jews and hate America. For years, universities have stood by and watched this brainwashing and incitement take place while doing absolutely nothing.” And, I would add, their rhetoric and ideology are a carbon copy of anti-Zionism, invented in the halls of the KGB after the Six-Day War to in fact institutionalize antisemitism in the Soviet Union. Cleverly, the Soviet anti-Zionist “science” rested on the principle that anti-Zionism was not antisemitism. According to it, there were tolerable Jews (Jewish workers participating in the building of Socialism in the Soviet Union; and, today, Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP)] activists in the U.S. are the equivalent) and the evil Israelis, who are the new Nazis.

In Portland, Oregon this situation is exacerbated by the fact that various violent groups, from anarchists to radical Socialists, have embraced the Reed student SJP warriors. This is exactly what happened on November 9th when the SJP and JVP students joined in with these outside groups and orchestrated a campus shut down for Gaza. While the actual number of student protesters did not exceed 150 or so, their rhetoric engulfed the entire college, charging the air with the banners and cries for “Global Intifada,” “Intifada everywhere,” and the banner “Hitler would be proud” next to the Palestinian flag, which most likely meant that Hitler would be proud of Israel for committing genocide, a staple of Soviet anti-Zionism. The event was covered by the only student newspaper on campus, The Reed College Quest, available online to everyone outside the college.

Its editors approached me with the request to explain the meaning of “Intifada everywhere,” since I happened to be one of a handful of Jewish studies scholars on campus. I agreed and provided the following comments:

“Intifada stands for violence against Israel and Jews; there were two intifadas – waves of violent uprisings and terror against Israelis in the 1980s and early 2000s which are responsible for the deaths of 1000 innocent civilians. Suicide bombings which devastated the Israeli society were part of this. The whole point of the peace process between Israel and Palestinians, which started in the 1990s and led to the establishment of Palestinian authority in the West Bank, is that Palestinians would renounce violence and stop terror. So by saying ‘there is only one solution, intifada revolution’ and ‘mobilize the intifada,’ these protesters condone and legitimize the unspeakable terror Hamas inflicted on the Israeli civilians and call for perpetual violence against them. And it is antisemitic—it threatens and is directed against Jewish lives. These slogans have been seen at other campuses … the slogan says ‘Intifada everywhere’ which means violence against Jews (and deadly violence at that) everywhere, beyond Israel. This is unadulterated antisemitism. Bias reports must be filed.”

When the article came out electronically on November 11th, I was glad to see that all of my points were included in it unchanged. I was proud of the coverage the student journalists delivered. In providing these comments my goal was both educational and moral: to impart the historical knowledge that most of the students lacked, explain how this rhetoric goes against the very idea of the peace process and thus cannot be seen as advocating for Palestinians or reconciliation between the two peoples, and clarify how it is unequivocally antisemitic. Earlier, I also pointed out to the authors that the shutdown took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which they highlighted in the piece as well. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the article was up, there followed a barrage of hateful comments in the newspaper and the various chat groups, whose main thrust was that the authors had no right to ask about the meaning of Intifada “the most Zionist” professor on campus who does not speak Arabic (!). As one student put it, “I think the choice to ask the most Zionist professor on campus his opinions on the term intifada is irresponsible at best and targeted and dangerous at worst” while another one sardonically wondered, “Why ask a Soviet Jewish Zionist professor?” Lehavdil, I say again, but reading through these comments, I did feel like a Soviet Jew targeted by the antisemitic machinery, wrapped up in the ideological gibberish.

One comment, a “masterpiece” of intellectual antisemitism that erased the millennia of Jewish history, described my worldview as prioritizing “the comfort of a genocidal bureaucratic enthnostate that is younger than some of the people it aims to destroy and whose land it occupies.” The others were incensed by my description of Intifada as violence against Jews. “Common, it just means an uprising, there were intifadas long before Israel,” they fumed, sounding like the antisemites who claim that since Arabs are also Semites, they have nothing against the Jews, or that swastika is just a religious Sanskrit symbol.

Again, unsurprisingly to me, some of the attacks came from the students who proclaimed that as Jews they were disgusted by me and the article’s authors for quoting me. One student wrote, “I will never be able to have sympathy for the people who do that [aka Israel] even if they wave a symbol that has come to represent my people, and invoke their name and their trauma. My family did not die so that someone can use their names to justify genocide. From the river to the sea Palestine deserves to be free.” The KGB ideologues would have been proud, for here was an American Jew who willingly, not under the fear of arrest, employed the ideological language, morally corrupt to the core and fundamentally distortive of Jewish history. And herein lies the main danger. These students were taught this language by the larger ideological machineries and organizations that they reproduce ad perfectum. And while such voices remain the fringe of the fringe in the wider community, they occupy the center stage on the campuses and would continue to spread if not combatted. The lessons of how Soviet Jews, so many of whom are now in the U.S. and Israel, confronted this hate and saw through it in the old country should come in very handy.  

And while such voices remain the fringe of the fringe in the wider community, they occupy the center stage on the campuses and would continue to spread if not combatted.

When I opened the newspaper webpage a few hours later that Saturday, I was startled to discover that all of my comments had been removed and the following explanation provided: “At the time of the article’s publication, the Quest was unaware that Professor Grinberg had previously expressed support for certain views on Twitter which the editors found deeply troubling. Had the Quest been aware of these views, the papers would not have quoted Professor Grinberg. When the paper became aware of these views, the editors made the decision to immediately remove the quotes, after being informed by the Student Press Freedom Initiative that it was legal to do so. We have replaced Professor Grinberg’s comments with a direct quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica. We thank those who brought this to our attention.”

The words of this “Jewish Zionist professor” had to be expunged to the fullest. An hour later, the editors added, “The Quest was alerted the last sentence of paragraph 21 still made a reference to Professor Grinberg’s quote, which was no longer in the article. That sentence has now also been removed.” The student journalists, who only hours ago tried to put out honest reporting, swiftly turned into (or were cowered into becoming) industrious censors. The meticulousness and legality with which they cleansed the article of my words bring to mind the totalitarian practices of the 20th century, so alive in today’s Russia, China and Iran. Should I say lehavdil again?

And what of the “deeply troubling” views I support on Twitter? When the paper version of the newspaper came out on November 15th, the article featured all sorts of voices: from SJP to JVP to the administration to the protesters to Merriam Webster Dictionary (apparently a great depository of Islamic knowledge)—all, except mine, which pointed plainly to the antisemitism at the core of these events, the voice that had to be muzzled because it belonged to a Jew and a Zionist. Adjacent to the article, plastered with the photos of the banners and “From river to the sea” ditties, there were two letters to the editor: one by an alum who proclaimed that I represent “violent eliminationism on campus,” citing the “vile” Tweet I retweeted by a well-known Iraqi intellectual, Hussain-Abdul-Hussain, who called on the Palestinians to abandon their terrorist ways, and the other Tweet I liked, which, in the best tradition of subversion, reversed “From River to the Sea Palestine Will be Free” to “From River to the Sea Israel is What You’ll See.” In addition to its rhetorical message, it also happened to be a statement of fact: Israel is what you will see when looking at today’s map. The other letter to the editor by a current student asked, “Why in the world would you interview known Zionist and professor of Jewish and Soviet studies for opinion … Regardless, this conflict is not a Jewish issue … it is an Israel and Palestinian issue.”

I think back to the Soviet Jewish past lived by my parents and grandparents, which I investigated and memorialized in my books, and I no longer need to add lehavdil.

Marat Grinberg is Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College and the author of The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf: Jewish Culture and Identity between the Lines.

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