The Cowardice of American Jewish Academia

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By Daniel B. Markind

Three weeks ago, Alan Dershowitz gave a speech at the University of California, Berkeley in which he laid out the liberal case for Israel. Shortly thereafter, a cartoon appeared in the student newspaper that depicted Dershowitz with spider-like features, smiling as he sticks his head through a cardboard cutout. Behind the cardboard he stomps on a Palestinian child with his foot. In his hand is an Israeli soldier who is shooting an unarmed Palestinian.

Incredibly, the cartoon provoked almost no public reaction among the university community. Astounded, Dershowitz wrote his own letter to the editor outing the cartoonist and the editorial staff that published the cartoon. The editorial board then tried to censor Dershowitz’s letter. He refused. Finally, two weeks too late, the editorial staff apologized for the cartoon. Carol Christ, the chancellor of the University of California, also belatedly criticized the anti-Semitic imagery.

The entire incident begs the obvious question. Where was the Jewish faculty at Berkeley? Why were they so willing to put up with this appalling pictorial representation without public objection? What would their reaction have been had a similarly offensive cartoon been published depicting Hispanics, African Americans or Muslims?

We’ve had a front row seat to that sort of activity at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. In August, a professor authored an op-ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer that some considered offensive and racist. Within a day, many Penn professors and students, including many Jewish professors, organized against her. Clearly, Jewish professors know how to get agitated about perceived bias against other peoples and cultures.

But what of our own? It is now common on campus for university-affiliated organizations to advocate anti-Semitism publicly. Rarely is it as obvious as at Berkeley, and usually it is disguised as “anti-Zionism.” Curiously, however, those same people who wrap themselves in the flag of multi-culturalism and tolerance seem to focus their outrage only on Israel. Millions can get displaced and purposely starved in Syria, Christians can be persecuted throughout Arab lands, Kurds can be denied independence by at least four nations, but only Israel will be singled out for condemnation on campus.

Take for example an organization that has chapters at numerous law schools, the National Lawyers Guild. When I was at Penn Law School in the early 1980s, the NLG was a respected liberal organization. While too leftist for me, I respected the Guild’s work and the people who believed in it. What a difference 30 years makes. In 2014, the NLG sought to indict President Barack Obama before the International Criminal Court for “aiding and abetting Israeli genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes.”

What was Obama’s great sin? He provided assistance to Israel during the 2014 Gaza conflict, including money to fund Israeli development of the Iron Dome missile defense shield. To the NLG, protecting Jewish civilians against indiscriminate Palestinian rocket fire was an example of “genocide.”

One might think that when these incidents happen, when the Jewish state alone is accused of such crimes or is targeted separately by the NLG, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or other organizations, Jewish professors across the political spectrum and non-Jewish, Israel-friendly faculty members would object and make their voices heard. One would be wrong. Their silence has been deafening, to say nothing of cowardly.

Where are the Jewish professors — and most prominently the Jewish studies professors — at schools where anti-Semitism (both blatant and dressed up as anti-Zionism) practically is an accepted fact of life, such as at Berkeley, San Francisco State or Portland State? If they object at all, they do it awfully quietly. Either the professors are unaware of or unwilling to face the fact that their silence produces the oxygen that fuels the campus radicals who twist the liberal concepts the professors adore into an unrecognizable force they should fear, were they prescient enough to see it.

Given Jewish history and tradition, it’s not that surprising that Jewish intellectuals tend to be liberal. One of the most sacred principles of Judaism is tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” Liberalism generally has taken a more active approach toward this than conservatism.

What is surprising and profoundly disturbing is that as liberalism has morphed into progressivism, and much of progressivism has blurred into anti-Semitism, those Jews who are closest to the intellectual center, our Jewish academics, have closed their eyes to the danger. Any pushback is begrudging at best.

During those rare occasions when a Jewish academic defends Israel, it almost always begins, “While I don’t agree with Israel’s settlement policies.” That’s not support, it’s an apology.

When was the last time a Jewish academic said in a straightforward fashion, “I support Israel because it is a truly good and decent country”?

I’m well aware of Israel’s myriad faults and of the depth of feeling about the Palestinian situation, as well as the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no bright line answer, and no one can claim full virtue. Jewish academics don’t like Israel’s settlement policies, and neither do I.

But as people supposedly trained in critical analysis, how are they so prepared to place the entirety of the blame on Israel? Why are they willing to absolve the Arabs for their part in the Palestinian mess? Why are these professors so reticent to challenge claims of “victimization” by the Palestinians despite innumerable chances to become otherwise? Most importantly, why are our academics so willing to let Israel’s problems nullify its accomplishments?

This weekend, the Society for Biblical Literature will hold its annual meeting in Boston. This esteemed organization, which dates back to 1880, lists as its stated mission to “foster biblical scholarship.” It has many Jewish members and has held workshops and published papers on innumerable Jewish themes. This year though, one of the featured speakers at the SBL conference will be Linda Sarsour, who is famous for saying that one cannot be a feminist and support Israel.

How will our Jewish academics react when Sarsour takes the stage in Boston? Will they politely applaud her work on behalf of women and human rights, averting their eyes to those aspects of her bio from which any decent person should recoil? Perhaps more to the point, what professor will proudly state that he or she is an avowed supporter of both human rights and the State of Israel?

As the saga of the Dershowitz cartoon showed, our Jewish academics stay silent while the danger cascades around them. One of the lessons of Jewish history is that if we refuse to stand up for ourselves, no one else will. When the day comes that any pro-Israel (or even pro-Jewish) sentiment is considered “offensive” and forbidden in the public square, our Jewish academics will be left with nothing to do but weep for the freedoms they refused to defend.

Daniel B. Markind is a Philadelphia attorney and former chair of the National Legal Committee of the Jewish National Fund of America. A version of this article first appeared in The Times of Israel.