College Ad Misses the Point

As a historian of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany, and as a professor who has taught at several German universities, hostility toward Jews and Judaism in university settings is certainly nothing new to me.
October 24, 2002

As a historian of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany, and as a professor who has taught at several German universities, hostility toward Jews and Judaism in university settings is certainly nothing new to me.

Yet the recent New York Times ad condemning anti-Semitism at American colleges neither reflects the reality of most campuses nor provides assistance to those of us in the field of Jewish studies who are, in fact, confronting serious problems.

The full-page ad, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and signed by 300 university presidents, does mischief and might actually harm the position of Jewish studies at universities.

The ad calls for campus debates without "threats, taunts or intimidation," which all of us support, but fails to define what constitutes intimidation.

For Daniel Pipes, who has started the Campus Watch Web site, scholars siding with Arabs or criticizing Israel merit his condemnation.

The vagueness of the Times ad may be a major reason so many university presidents, including Harvard’s Lawrence Summers, refused to sign the ad.

Nothing stated in the ad is itself a problem; the problem is what is not stated. For example, the ad declares: "In the past few months, students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel’s right to exist — Zionists — have received death threats and threats of violence." The ad then speaks of Jewish property that is being "defaced or destroyed."

No responsible citizen supports threats and violence against persons and property. All of us condemn anti-Semitism, whether physical, directed against property or verbal. That such acts have occurred on campuses, places of free speech, is worse than their occurrence on city streets.

The problem is defining intimidation when it stops well short of rejecting Israel’s very existence or threatening Jews with violence. When does criticism of Israeli government actions cease to be a legitimate expression of political opinion and become anti-Semitism? How can we Jews speak out on behalf of human rights for Palestinians as well as Israelis and not be labeled traitors? Do not Campus Watch ads and Web sites themselves intimidate free speech?

What’s missing is help with a pervasive problem many Jewish professors and students face: intimidation and threats from other Jews. Many of us on campus are deeply critical of what we consider to be gross violations of human rights committed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and yet we are strong Zionists. Unlike the Likud Party, we believe two states need to be established, Israel and Palestine, for reasons of politics, security and morality.

Thus we face two battles: defending Israel to those who oppose Israel’s very right to exist, and arguing our political views to right-wing Israelis, Jews and, increasingly, Christians. We often hear that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism — which, if true, would turn most Jews and most Israelis into anti-Semites.

Ironically, the many nasty comments and one violent threat I have received on campus came from right-wing Jewish students and faculty who were angry at me for publicly siding with Israel’s Labor Party platform and opposing Sharon. Jewish colleagues and students at other institutions have reported the same thing: being threatened by fellow Jews after criticizing certain Israeli policies.

I’ve also heard about informal, sometimes secretive boycotts of Jewish professors critical of Israel that have been organized by Jewish students and faculty, sometimes assisted by Jewish professional organizations.

Most troubling about Pipes’ Campus Watch’ Web site is its one-sidedness. Pipes, who has strong political views, stands in judgment of those who differ and claims they dislike America, exaggerate the faults of Israel and side with Arab countries. Scholars who stand accused by Pipes have no opportunity to defend themselves, and the evidence against them is not contextualized for readers to judge for themselves. The effect is threatening and dangerous.

The most common difficulties faced by Jewish professors are not violence or physical intimidation — which are quickly addressed by campus security forces, but the isolation we often experience in our support for Israel. In my experience, it is often Arab and Muslim students who most appreciate our concern to create peace for both Israelis and Palestinians, and who know enough of the region to appreciate its complexities.

Most of us are well-aware, too, that Arab and Muslim students are often treated on campus with condescension, as exotic, primitive creatures. We want to bring our communities together, speak on behalf of one another and unite in facing our common political concerns about the long-term and sustainable future of two states. How do we open the conversation and speak to those we fear may be our political enemies?

As much as peace needs to be negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, we need to negotiate peace on our campuses. Indeed, the Tikkun Community’s Campus Network that was established this weekend in New York seeks to do just that — inaugurate communities of dialogue and peacemaking at our universities.

Neither the AJCommittee newspaper ad nor Pipes’ Web site assist us. Instead, they inhibit conversation through their intimidation tactics. No one wants to be misunderstood as an anti-Semite; better not to talk. A common fear expressed by my colleagues in Jewish studies is that if they express any criticism of Israel, funding will be withdrawn from their programs — not by their universities, but by the local Jewish community. That kind of anxiety is utterly intolerable in a university setting, which can only thrive on a free exchange of ideas.

The wonderful Jewish studies programs at American universities are participating in the intellectual debates of the academy, and are not simply outposts of Jews on campus.

At Dartmouth College, the Jewish studies program, which I chair, has worked hard to encourage discussion of Middle East issues at the highest academic level. We have tried to avoid speakers who are extremists, politicians or propagandists, preferring scholars, and our lectures and seminars take place in an atmosphere of openness that attracts students and faculty from all groups on campus — Jewish, Arab, Asian, Muslim, Christian.

Our courses present all aspects of Jewish studies — history, philosophy, literature, religion — as topics of interest and intellectual challenge to everyone, not only to Jews, and our success is reflected in our course enrollments, which are remarkably pluralistic.

Colleges that are not experiencing similar success might want to have a look at the Dartmouth model. We have had disagreements on campus about the Middle East, to be sure, but they have been conducted in an atmosphere inclusive of all sides, with respect and calm.

It’s all very well for the AJCommittee and other organizations to spend thousands of dollars for a full-page newspaper ad or Web site, but it would have been far more useful to articulate how a Zionist can be legitimately critical of some Israeli government policies, support a Palestinian state and worry about the human rights and political futures of all people.

There is no peace for one side in a conflict; there is either peace for all, or peace for none.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black associate professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, and is serving this fall as visiting professor in the Jewish studies program at Princeton University.

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