Response from Professor Jeffrey Herf: Israel Studies Has an Israel Problem

[Since the launch of SAPIR, we have received a number of letters to the editor, and have decided to begin publishing a select few on this page. Although we cannot publish every letter, please know we read and appreciate all that we receive. Letters may be submitted to letters@sapirjournal.org. —Editor.]

To the Editors:

There are exceptions to every generalization and counter-anecdotes to every story, but Ari Blaff’s description of the current situation in Jewish Studies and Israeli Studies is, on the whole, accurate. It is a great shame to have to say so, because such programs have done a great deal of good and can do even more in years to come. They include many very fine scholars who have taught many worthwhile courses and organized excellent lectures that educate students about Jewish history and culture, and about the state of Israel. In the absence of such programs, knowledge of these subjects on our campuses would be much less than it is now.

David Nirenberg, recently appointed to be Director of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, published an essential book on the subject of antisemitism: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. Nirenberg’s focus is on the European aspects of the tradition yet he also examines the classic texts of Islam as part of the Western tradition of anti-Judaism. Miriam Elman of Syracuse University, now Director of the Academic Exchange Network (AEN), has done excellent work in examining and opposing the antagonism to Israel and antisemitism on campuses, though it should be noted that senior faculty at the elite universities in Jewish Studies and Israel Studies are notable by their paucity among the  members of AEN. In 2019, Donna Robinson Divine edited a special issue of the journal Israel Studies entitled “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israel-Palestinian Conflict.” This excellent collection included essays on colonialism, apartheid, indigeneity, occupation, terrorism, Holocaust inversion, Israel lobby, Islamophobia, pinkwashing, uncivil society (on funding demonization of Israel), forms of anti-Zionism, BDS, and settlements. The issue infuriated some faculty in Jewish and Israel studies so greatly that they tried to get the editors fired. It remains a valuable scholarly contribution.

Yet, despite these notable accomplishments, it is sadly true that too many faculty in Jewish Studies and in Israel Studies fit the description offered by the author. In the past fifteen years, as Hamas launched three major wars of terror and aggression against Israel, and numerous cross border attacks and rocket assaults, far too many professors of Jewish and Israel studies  fit the description offered by Professor Jarrod Tanny.  Denunciations of Hamas’ reactionary, racist and antisemitic ideology and defenses of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to self-defense were all too rare.

In response to the drift of the past two decades, Tanny and others initiated the “The Jewish Studies Zionist Network.” I am glad they have done so. Judging from the list of early signers, I believe I am one of the few full professors at a Research 1 university who has joined the network and been willing to associate my name with the adjective “Zionist.” Though no BDS resolution was introduced in the Jewish Studies Association neither did its members choose to pass a resolution denouncing such efforts elsewhere. One leading officer of the group told me that an effort to do so would be controversial and divisive. Conversely, members of the American Historical Association voted down several BDS resolutions in 2015, 2016 and in 2020.

The propaganda assault of the last half-century on Israel and Zionism, which spread the falsehoods that Zionism was a form of racism, and that Israel was a settler-colonial state founded in a war of expulsion, has had an impact on the academy. The spectrum of opinion in relevant departments at the elite universities, including all those in the Ivy League, New York University, the University of Chicago and prominent public state universities in Michigan, Wisconsin, the California system, and my own University of Maryland in College Park, among others, ranges from explicit anti-Zionism to a more typical  Zionism  so tepid and lukewarm that when BDS resolutions arrive, many the faculty in these programs and departments fail to join in the public fight to defeat them, thus leaving undergraduates and other faculty to wage the fight.  There are, of course, directors of programs in Jewish and Israeli studies who have taken a firm public position against efforts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel exist, but they are not the loudest voices with the most prestigious platforms. It has been a bitter disappointment to see the reluctance of colleagues to fight antisemitism when it has taken the form of efforts to isolate and harm the state of Israel, or to assert that such efforts are not forms of antisemitism. When Israel has been faced with a tsunami of lies, there has been too little assertions of truths from faculty in these programs.

In the past 20 years, leading Israeli historians who, in some cases have made serious criticisms of Israeli policy, have been rejected for positions at universities in this country for which they were superbly qualified. The reasons for the rejections are shrouded behind norms of confidentiality, but it appears that those, however critical, who accept the legitimacy of the Zionist project labor under a pall of suspicion, while others who make a point of demonstrating their skepticism about Israel’s legitimacy have done quite well on the American academic job market in this field.

Young professors without tenure as well as undergraduates quickly see the political landscape. Graduate students in the relevant fields learn which way the wind is blowing and avoid certain topics and opinions. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has been completely captured by the fans of Edward Said’s analysis of “Orientalism.” This March, a majority of MESA voted in favor of the BDS campaign to boycott Israel. It is now impossible for any scholar, whether Jewish or not, to make a career in the history, politics, and culture of the Middle East if they reject the assumptions of the BDS campaign. The discipline of Middle East Studies is now hostile territory for any scholar who thinks the state of Israel was and is a good idea and a legitimate entity. If scholars in Israel Studies wish to have contact with scholars working on the Middle East, the MESA support for BDS sends a powerful signal of the preconditions under which such contact can take place in the future.

The impact of the anti-Zionist mood on scholarship has been real and profound. The scholarship on antisemitism in Arab societies and Islamist organizations, which I recently summarized in an essay in the Tablet magazine, was not produced by faculty in the leading departments dealing with Israel, Jewish Studies or the Middle East, and it likely will not be done there in years to come. It is hard to think of professors in these programs and departments who are either able or willing to advise doctoral dissertations on the subject. The fear of being unjustly called a racist or “Islamophobic” has had and will continue to discourage research and publication on the issue of antisemitism in an Arab, Iranian, and Islamic context. There have not been, and I doubt that there will be, dissertations at major American universities that use knowledge of Arabic or Farsi to explore the antisemitism issue in this geographical and cultural context.

To the extent to which there has been or will be such efforts, they may tend to view the clear evidence of antisemitism in the Arab Middle East, in Iran, and in other majority Islamic societies as the more or less understandable, and thus excusable, response to what is regarded as the immoral and unjust nature and policies of the state of Israel. Research and publication of evidence that anti-Jewish sentiments preceded the establishment of the Jewish state, and were a central cause of the enduring conflict has come from beyond the boundaries of Middle East Studies or Israel Studies.

I have been able to publish works on these issues such as Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, Undeclared Wars with Israel, and recently Israel’s Moment because I had first established an international reputation as a leading historian of modern German history especially focused on the period of Nazism and the Holocaust. I was also a tenured full professor and hold the title of Distinguished University Professor. In Germany where, for obvious reasons, the issue of antisemitism has been central in politics as well as in the academy, significant work, such as that of Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Nazism, Islamism and Roots of 9/11, came from a political scientist teaching at a vocational college in Hamburg, not from historians at the major universities or from well-funded research institutes dealing with antisemitism. There are times when academic disciplines preclude critical and vital points of view. The past two decades have been one of them.

Faced with these realities, young people looking at the statements denouncing Israel during the Hamas wars and the silences in Jewish and Israel Studies about leftist and Islamist antisemitism, have decided not to pursue academic careers in these fields. The letter came from an individual who decided not to become a scholar because he/she perceived the deck stacked against them; he won’t be the last. Given tenure, the spectrum of anti-Zionism to lukewarm support for Israel is baked into the academy for years to come. It is likely that many of those with fine young minds will decide not to become scholars or if so, will avoid topics that and opinions that could end a career in its infancy. I would like to be proven wrong, but the current trends are not promising.

Ironically, the current situation has been made possible by generous funding from Jewish donors. Jewish Studies, and Israel Studies as independent programs and institutes would not exist without that outside funding, sometimes amounting to millions of dollars. The generation of Jews who offered this funding did so in hopes it would contribute to deeper understanding of the history of Judaism, and of Israel and thus would also aid in the fight against antisemitism. As noted above, there have been important successes. But alas, the gullible, wealthy Jewish donor has become a feature of American life. Professors know how to sweet-talk them, how to invite a centrist politician, policy analyst, nationally prominent journalist, or Israeli political figure for an annual talk to impress the donors that the program is meeting their original desires.

Donors are often unfamiliar with the operations of universities and, understandably, do not want to interfere with the autonomy of the faculty. Yet too often, they have not kept a close watch on what is, after all, a form of investment in higher education. It is embarrassing to admit that they have supported faculty who have not fought back against attacks on the Jewish state or who refrain from examining antisemitism when it comes from leftists and Islamists. The wealthy are sometimes not as politically shrewd as they think they are. As far as I know, there has been no donors’ revolt or even serious probing about the direction of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies programs. Donors do not have the right to influence the teaching and research of faculty members but neither do they have an obligation to continue to fund programs if they undermine the purposes for which their founding generosity.

There are, of course, Full Professors at major universities who find Israel to be a valuable member of the world’s liberal democracies and who defend it in their scholarly and public writing. Yet those of us who also examine the issue of antisemitism in its leftist and Islamist forms, and needless to say as well as in its class right-wing extremist forms, and define ourselves as center left to center-right are in a minority.

I repeat that a very great deal of good has been done by programs in Jewish and Israel Studies in recent decades. Yet the years of academic broken solidarity with Israel, when it was being attacked by Hamas and threatened by Iran, have been underexamined by the press and by the organized Jewish community. The formation of The Jewish Studies Zionist Network by a group of mid-career academic liberals indicates that flying beneath the radar will be more difficult to do in the coming years. Unfortunately, change is likely to arrive slowly, as the word has gotten out well after the current mood became tenured. Professors now generally retire in their late sixties to early to mid-seventies. That means that much of the commanding heights have been captured for some time to come. The large number of universities offers hope that other institutions will provide a haven for scholars and scholarship that has been marginalized in recent years.

On an even more somber note, it is also possible that we may be at the beginning of a period of actual discrimination against Jews in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This is so because all Jews in those fields may be assumed guilty of the sin of Zionist sympathies unless they can boisterously demonstrate that they do not belong to the hated supporters of the state of Israel. There are good reasons to be very worried. The light of publicity is essential if change is going to happen.

Jeffrey Herf

Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park