It’s August. As many Jewish college students finalize course schedules, naïve parents or grandparents might advise: “Why don’t you take one of those nice Jewish Studies courses?” Beware what you wish for. Many Jewish Studies professors have gone “Woke” – while some have gone mad regarding Israel. Their classes may require a surgeon-general-like label: Warning: This course could endanger your Jewish Identity.
Most courses transfer knowledge, hone skills, sharpen minds. But many professors have abandoned those goals to push political agendas. Meanwhile, dozens of academic departments have emerged with identity-oriented missions. It’s telling. Black Studies departments sometimes go overboard in pushing African-American pride. Women Studies departments sometimes go overboard in pushing feminism. Yet some Jewish Studies professors are going overboard in pushing a hypercritical, Jewish-identity-shattering, anti-Zionist agenda.
Many of these professors live off patriotic Jewish money, which makes many students assume the course must be as Jew-positive as the donors. So, yes. When you take a course called, say, “Queering the Talmud” – you know what you’re getting into. But most students bring different expectations to neutral-sounding courses like “Intro to Jewish history” or “Intro to Israeli society,” especially when taught by the “Zionist Donor-stein Professor” in the “Good-Jewish-Citizen-owitz Department of Jewish Studies.”
For too long, many Jewish leaders – including those gullible donors – didn’t notice that Jewish Studies a-Woke. As the leading Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna explains in that new must-read journal Sapir¸ Jewish Studies started as the Wissenschaft des Judentums , the nineteenth-century German movement exploring the “rigorous and value-free” science of Judaism. The Americans who imported Jewish Studies continued pursuing objectivity as the ideal – despite acknowledging that humans rarely attain it. Today, Sarna watches “with a mixture of incredulity and horror as colleagues and friends cast aside the scholarly values on which we were raised and replace them with ideologically tainted political ones.” His article labeled this distortion: “The Misuse of Expertise.”
Following the 1960s, Jewish Studies departments became more directive – triggering fights over remaining objective “like good scholars” — or boosting your students’ and the community’s Jewish identities. Another high education con emerged. Just as universities hire professors to be good scholars although parents and students assume they are paid to be good teachers, Jewish Studies professors were usually hired to be objective scholars, while donors trusted them to build the Jewish future.
As an outsider, an American historian who still believes in that objectivity ideal across departments, I never wanted Jewish Studies to become Hillel-with-grades; but I never expected it to be Bash-Israel-First Central either. This May was eye-opening. As Hamas bombarded Israel, over 200 Jewish Studies and Israel Studies professors defined Zionism as “a diverse set of linked ethno-nationalist ideologies … shaped by settler colonial paradigms … that assumed a hierarchy of civilizations” and “contributed to unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy.”
Huh? The cliché-cluster suggests these teachers don’t know how to write, while the sloganeering-storm suggests these scholars don’t how to think independently either. Such sloppy, misleading insults go far beyond criticizing what Israel does – they repudiate what Israel is. They go nowhere near the thoughtful, insightful, critical conversation academics should shape about any country. The language is wildly-inaccurate: to be guilty of “colonialism” – you need a mother country – which for Jews is Israel, while the phrase “Jewish supremacy” is better rendered in the original German. Spitting out these stale anti-Zionist banalities is virtue-signaling to other Woke colleagues, not scholarship.
Natan Sharansky and I labeled as “Un-Jews” this still-small group of dogmatic anti-Zionists, who, as Jewish insiders seek to undo American Jews’ post-Holocaust, post-1948 consensus linking peoplehood and statehood, essentially un-spooling Zionism from modern Jewish Identity. The furious reactions to our Tablet essay revealed that, despite decades of claiming that criticizing Israel reflects a healthy Israel-Diaspora relationship, these critics don’t take criticism well at all.
Critics charged us – falsely – with demonizing any Israel critics or Palestinian supporters – while gaslighting us too. They called delegitimizing lies like “settler colonialism” and “Jewish supremacy” harmless descriptors not harmful inciters. Such intentional ignorance of what Palestinian extremists peddle to justify targeting Israel — and Jews — undermines their competence not just their judgment.
More surprising were the many emails other Jewish Studies professors sent describing how some of these ideological bullies enforce their anti-Israel orthodoxy, canceling dissenters. Most gratifying were the many emails from the still-liberal left and center thanking us for distinguishing between the constructive left-to-right criticism Israel needs and these un-Jews who remain free to say whatever they say but deserve to be outed.
Beware. Don’t indict every Jewish Studies professor – or every critical academic. Still, donors are justified in asking how the money they contributed is used. I would never advise anyone to demand money back. I would, however, insist that my name be removed from a professorship or academic program spreading such crude lies.
Moreover, as consumers, students have the right to know what to expect in every course. So, no, I don’t endorse warning labels or watch-lists. Instead, students should scrutinize every syllabus before enrolling, seeking balance. This way, when a syllabus fails the test, you at least know what you’re getting.
Like Professor Sarna, I learned from professors who never mistook their classroom podiums for political soapboxes. I am less dismayed by what today’s professors think about Israel, Zionism, Jewish identity or anything else, and far more concerned that too many of them are failing to do for their students what those professors did for me – teach how to think.
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.