The shift from Enlightenment Politics to Identity Politics created a polarized culture with protected classes and acceptable targets.
This week, the foreign ministry’s Global Forum against Anti-Semitism convenes in Jerusalem. In an age of massacres and rank hatred, it is easy to concentrate on traditional anti-Semitism, the crude Jew-hatred surging on the Web, from Islamists, in European streets.
But a subtler, equally repulsive anti-Semitism is spreading, masquerading as “only” anti-Zionism, garbed in human rights rhetoric, championed by the totalitarian Left, validated by intellectuals. Traditionally, aristocrats’ genteel anti-Semitism legitimized the peasants’ cruder, more violent hatred. Today, radical leftists’ genteel anti-Semitism validates and perpetuates Islamists’ cruder, more violent hatred. Don’t be lulled by the idealistic words, intimidated by the professional titles, and made defensive by the criticisms of Israel, some of which are valid. To combat the violent form of hatred you must fight its partner.
That this new fancy-pants anti-Semitism flourishes in some – not all – universities is particularly shameful. The campus should be a wild, rollicking, mind-expanding, soul-stretching, assumption-challenging free marketplace of ideas. The new anti-Semitism violates core academic values of encouraging openness toward others, in all their diversity; of seeking truth, in all its complexity; and of fighting for freedom, with all its messiness.
In the latest academic witch-hunt, anti-Zionists have hounded Andrew Pessin, of Connecticut College, into a medical leave of absence. His crime: an awkward Facebook posting comparing Hamas during the Gaza conflict to a “rabid pit bull.” A Palestinian activist trolling for trouble uncovered the posting months later. Pessin apologized, emphasizing he was attacking Hamas terrorists, not Palestinians.
Nevertheless the campus thought police branded him “racist.” Some dishonestly claimed: “Professor Pessin directly condoned the extermination of a people.” The university, cowering, addressed the supposedly broader issue of “dehumanizing language,” while sponsoring one-sided “dialogues.” One panel, demonstrating “diversity,” university-style, pitted a boycott supporter against a fellow anti-Zionist who compares Israelis to Nazis.
Pessin reported that “the faculty immediately became an intellectual mob, with nearly every department releasing statements condemning me signed by nearly every faculty member – when not a single person vilifying me ever asked me what the post meant.” Pessin exclaims: “It is an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic campaign masquerading as a campaign against racism.”
Pessin’s case parallels Fordham University history professor Doron Ben-Atar’s experience of being investigated for acting “in an inappropriate way” for angrily insisting that Fordham’s American Studies program condemn the American Studies Association’s Israel boycott. The program’s director accused him behind his back of religious discrimination. Ben-Atar is not smart enough to understand “how opposing anti-Semitism amounts to religious discrimination.” Neither am I.
Ben-Atar’s lawyer helped get him exonerated. Others should offer these victims of harassment financial help.
Few academics can afford lawyers fees; there’s no discount for telling the truth or doing the right thing.
There’s a chilling effect. What sane professor would ever want to defend Israel? Two disturbing trends are smothering freedom. Since the 1960s, the Campus Left has championed free speech “for me and not thee.” Genuine concerns about creating a safe and respectful learning environment, free of sexism and racism, fed a fascist mentality narrowly approving only certain ideas, words and causes. Now hypersensitive, politically correct students complain about “micro-aggressions” they perceive in body language or nuanced words, seeking protection from what one junior recently called “viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely-held beliefs.”
We used to call that education. If students never question cherished beliefs, they are wasting their time and their parents’ money. The Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson called ideas “explosive.” Neutralizing them for modern campus brats is educational malpractice.
Many of these seemingly precious students, vigilant about “micro-aggressions” challenging their assumptions, commit macro-aggressions willy-nilly against Israel and the Jewish People. You can have a whole week falsely comparing Israeli democracy to South Africa’s apartheid regime, yet when Jews take being called racist or being targeted by terrorists personally, we are guilty.
As the acceptable bandwidth of campus thought narrowed, the Palestinians became a protected class and Israel- bashing became a varsity sport. While many groups enjoy particularist prerogatives, Zionism is politically incorrect. At a time when individual sensibilities repeatedly trump sensible discussion, Jews’ sensitivities don’t count if they support Israel. And despite racism, sexism and homophobia being supposedly reviled on campus, Arab, Islamist and Palestinian racism, sexism and homophobia are excused while Israeli democracy, inclusiveness, gender equity and sexual freedom are overlooked – or mocked as veneers.
The shift from Enlightenment Politics to Identity Politics created a polarized culture with protected classes and acceptable targets impervious to the once-prized tools of fact and reason. That anti-Zionism, weaponized by an underlying anti-Semitism, feeds this is not coincidental.
The Palestinians pretend to be the archetypal Third World Victims, treating Israel as the prototypical racists, colonialists and imperialists, continuing the systematic propaganda campaign hatched in the 1970s. There’s no racism; the fight is national, not biological. There’s no colonialism; Israelis and Palestinians have disputed land claims. There’s no imperialism; Israel is small and independent. But why let facts stop a good post-modern academic rant? How dare Professors Pessin and Ben-Atar break the mold.
Their independence not only threatens the anti-Zionist groupthink, it imperils a whole system of academic thought suppression that too many have invested in for too long. Just as little Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky was too big a threat to the massive Soviet Union because his commitment to truth exposed all the Big Red Lies, these intellectual dissidents pose a disproportionately massive threat to all the Ivy-covered lies that so many academics have built their careers on.
True, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But when mobs repeatedly single out one group of people for one kind of idea, subjecting them to special standard, treating them in ways that violate one’s fundamental values and core mission, that kind of scapegoating is bigotry. And the bigoted scapegoating of Jews is indeed anti-Semitism.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and is teaching this semester at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. His next book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press this October.