Anti-Zionism in academia: An illuminating debate – comment

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The Jerusalem Post    29.06.2022


Anti-Zionism in academia: An illuminating debate – comment

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 Anti-Semitism and the Field of Israel Studies.” Five panelists were invited to compare three competing statements describing modern Jew-hatred: the broadly-accepted IHRA International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition detailing how anti-Zionism often reflects traditional Jew-hatred; a more-narrowly-drawn alternative definition called the JDA, the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism; 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, cliched, 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 twenty 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.”

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 anti-Semitic 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.

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 anti-Semitic, it certainly lubricates and fuels contemporary Jew-hatred as expressed in one of its most popular forms – what Professor 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 debate that is vigorous and passionate, yet civil and constructive, even about Israel and Jew-hatred.


Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.



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Prof Gil Troy · 20 Derech Bet Lechem · Apt 2 · Jerusalem 9310925 · Israel