Anti-Zionism in academia: An illuminating debate - comment

I wondered how to explain that on May 22, 2021, when many Israelis huddled in shelters against Hamas rockets, members of this scholarly association signed a harsh anti-Israel petition.

 THE WRITER addresses Monday’s conference. (photo credit: Bar-Ilan University/Facebook/screenshot)
THE WRITER addresses Monday’s conference.
(photo credit: Bar-Ilan University/Facebook/screenshot)

This Monday, I participated in the opening plenary of the 38th Annual Conference of the Association for Israel Studies, at Bar-Ilan University. The session was entitled “Declarations on Antisemitism and the Field of Israel Studies.” Five panelists were invited to compare three competing statements describing modern Jew-hatred: the broadly accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition detailing how anti-Zionism often reflects traditional Jew-hatred; a more narrowly drawn alternative definition called the JDA, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism; and “The Nexus Document.”

I turned the assignment on its head – to address the elephant in the room, namely the way some members of this association, “devoted to the academic and professional study of Israel,” were enabling modern Jew-hatred in a shoddy, clichéd, most unscholarly way.

As scholars, it’s easy to get bogged down in Talmudic debates about the linguistic and conceptual differences, I warned. “But as an historian, I believe that 20 years from now, when historians analyze the similarities between these documents, they will notice the real headline – that an aggressive, insidious, widespread attack on Israel and the Jewish people is haunting centers of scholarship that consider themselves pockets of enlightenment – and many Jewish students feel harassed.”

As an aside, I noted that all three statements are somewhat defensive, emphasizing how legitimate it is to criticize Israel and Zionism. Of course, no country or movement is above criticism. Still, wearing my American history hat, I have read many statements condemning racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. I can’t recall reading one that felt compelled to add, “but of course, it’s ok to criticize blacks, women, gays, transsexuals.”

Analysis of anti-Zionism

ARGUMENTS FLARE outside the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, infamous for equating Zionism with racism. (credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)ARGUMENTS FLARE outside the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, infamous for equating Zionism with racism. (credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)

I mischievously took some analytic lenses from the JDA declaration, which often underplays the nexus between modern Jew-hatred and the obsessive assault on Israel. While it often gives examples of traditional right-wing Jew-hatred, the JDA nevertheless advocates judging attacks in “context.” It condemns “coded speech” and “essentializing” – stereotyping and oversimplifying about who the Jews are – while deeming it classically antisemitic to link Jews “to the forces of evil.”

With those tools in mind, I wondered how to explain that on May 22, 2021, when many Israelis huddled in shelters against Hamas rockets, members of this scholarly association, including some who endorsed the JDA months later, signed a harsh anti-Israel petition asserting their supposed expertise as Jewish studies and Israel studies professors. The petition attacked “the Zionist movement” as “shaped by settler-colonial paradigms” and contributing to “unjust, enduring and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination and violence against Palestinians...” 

In fairness, the authors followed this cliché-ridden paragraph – which wouldn’t pass my freshman composition course – by acknowledging the “unique historical Jewish connection to... the Land of Israel.” But that’s like adding “and some of my best friends are Jewish,” after trashing Jews.

The critique against systemic racism has taught academics to look under the hood, assessing context, while watching for essentializing, coded words, imputations of evil. The anti-racist sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva charges that today, the structures maintaining racial oppression are “increasingly covert” and “avoid direct racial terminology.” This approach uncovering micro-aggressions against African-Americans should identify macro-aggressions against Jews.

Of the petition’s three harsh labels, “ethnonationalist” is relatively descriptive, although it’s often spat out as a curse when describing Zionism rather than, say, Palestinian nationalism. But like the popular “Zionism is racism” and “Israel apartheid” charges, “settler colonialism” is pejorative, wildly inaccurate and more descriptive of the actions of powerful Western countries. The phrase minimizes the Jewish ties to the land while exaggerating Jewish power.

As for “Jewish supremacy,” using this Nazi term is a cheap attempt to treat Israel like America’s Jim Crow South. I proposed using more subtle and accurate but less trendy terms like “clashing indigeneities” or “alt-neu (old-new) nationalism” or “Ju-dem-Zionism,” to capture the complexities.

Zionophobia

Foisting these incorrect concepts on Israel is cultural imperialism, I charged. In today’s academic context, such delegitimization is also an incendiary act of demonization. If not overtly antisemitic, it certainly lubricates and fuels contemporary Jew-hatred as expressed in one of its most popular forms – what Prof. Judea Pearl calls “Zionophobia.”

Zionophobia spotlights the obsessive attack on what Israel is, not what Israel does. As another panelist noted, even when Israel does something good, opponents label the act evil, covering up some crime. Zionophobia also raises the question beyond Jew-hatred, asking how Israelis are treated – isn’t a systematic obsession targeting them and their country bad enough?

I explained that last year, following May’s mass pile-on against Israel, Natan Sharansky and I labeled these insider-libelers of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people, “un-Jews.” We defined the term to mean influential Jews – rabbis, academics – trying to undo the defining consensus since 1948 linking the Jewish people, the Jewish national movement – Zionism – and the democratic Jewish state... Israel.

“Let me be clear,” I declared, framing the debate as being about wisdom and scholarly integrity, not rights, “I am not here to cancel anyone. I have no power. I am here, however, to challenge everyone by asking, if this association champions 'scholarly inquiry about... Israel,’ how does such rank propagandizing fit that mission statement?”

The applause suggested that last year’s dozens of petition-signers don’t represent Israel Studies.

A vigorous, respectful, illuminating debate followed. True, we left with more questions. But, from left to right, panelists and audience questioners, we all defied common stereotypes. We proved that in today’s academic world, it is still possible to have a debate that is vigorous and passionate, yet civil and constructive, even about Israel and Jew-hatred.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.