Teaching Antisemitism at Vassar -- and Beyond
The anti-Semitic hysteria on many elite American campuses (the veil of anti-Zionism now thrown off) is belatedly becoming the subject of major concern in the Jewish community. As well it should. The young people of this community, in what should be idyllic years, are being exposed, often for the first time in their lives, to unreasoning hatred. Moreover, what starts on campus does not stay there. Those whose opinions are shaped in our colleges and universities move on to become the opinion shapers of the broader culture: the journalists, the academics, the professionals, the entertainers, the politicians.
While their children may not be subject to the intimidation and bullying Jews encounter, non-Jews should also be deeply worried. Most would be horrified to see our colleges descend into what Victor Davis Hanson calls places “as foreign to American traditions of tolerance and free expression as what followed the Weimar Republic.” Parents hope their children will be introduced to what Matthew Arnold called the best that has been thought and said, not mired in impenetrable thickets of verbiage, behind which lie ignorance, falsehoods, and malice.
Take the lecture on Feb. 3 by Rutgers Associate Professor Jasbir Puar at Vassar College. Under the title “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters,” the invitation declared: “This lecture theorizes oscillating relations between disciplinary, pre-emptive and increasingly prehensive forms of power that shape human and non-human materialities in Palestine… If Gaza, for example, is indeed the world’s largest ‘open air prison’ and experimental lab for Israeli military apparatuses, infrastructural chaos and metric manipulation, what kinds of fantasies (about power, about bodies, about resistance, about politics) are driving this project?”
Ignoring for the moment the verbal sludge, what are Puar’s credentials to hold forth on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs? She teaches Women’s and Gender Studies and “has written widely” (so says the invitation) on such subjects as gay and lesbian tourism, bio and necropolitics, queer theory disability and debilitation, theories of intersectionality, affect and assemblage; homonationalism etc. etc. Equally mysterious, why should American Studies, the Vassar department which invited Puar, find the Middle East a topic that fits into its bailiwick? The answer lies in a word the reader probably didn’t even notice in the mind-blowing flood of jargon: intersectionality. Richard L. Cravatts, author of Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel and Jews, explains that intersectionality conflates seemingly unrelated instances of oppression so that to know one victim group is to know any victim group. As a result, says Cravatts, “someone who is a gender studies professor, or queer theorist, or American studies expert can, with no actual knowledge or expertise about the Middle East, readily pontificate on the many social pathologies of Israel, based on its perceived role as a racist, colonial oppressor of an innocent indigenous population of Arab victims.”
As for what Puar actually said, we are indebted to members of Fairness to Israel, a group of alumnae and parents that monitor the routine bashing of Israel at Vassar, which recorded and transcribed the talk. While a lot of it was unintelligible, what could be understood was vile, defamatory and false. To Cravatts the most alarming part of Puar’s talk was her “explicit support for terrorism against Israeli citizens as a corollary aspect of the BDS movement.” Of Israel delaying the return of the bodies of 17 knife-wielding intifada attackers, Puar said “Some speculate that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research.” She described legitimate assertions of self-defense against those in the act of murdering Jews as “field assassinations.” Some of Israel’s invented sins only someone with a mind as ingenious as Puar could dream up (her next book is on “the relations between biopolitics, disability and forms of active debilitation pivotal to the operations of war machines and racial capitalism.”) One of Israel’s most nefarious deeds, in Puar’s account, is to let Palestinians live. According to Puar “They need the Palestinians alive in order to keep the kind of rationalization for their victimhood and their militarized economy.” Cravatts notes that “In her [Puar’s] speech the central, repellant theme was that Israel is also intent on ‘targeting youth, not for death but for stunting’ as a ‘tactic that seeks to render impotent any further resistance.’” Apparently when Israeli soldiers wound rather than kill attackers, they are engaged in “maiming masquerades” and this is “part of a sadistic, imperialistic militancy on the part of Israel.”
It bears emphasizing that Puar was not invited by Students for Justice in Palestine or any other of the assortment of student hate groups ostensibly fighting “oppression”. Her talk was sponsored by academic departments -- American Studies in the first instance, but also -- as co-sponsors -- by Africana Studies, English, International Studies, Political Science, Religion, Women’s Studies and yes, Jewish Studies. The last named, given the nature of that department at Vassar, is not as astonishing as it seems. Retired English professor Edward Alexander (whose most recent book is Jews Against Themselves) in an unpublished letter to the Wall Street Journal observes: “Jewish Studies faculty includes such luminaries as Joshua Schreier, who is a tribune of the BDS movement to expel Israel from the family of nations, and who boasts that his course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict presents only the Arab ‘narrative.’ There is also Andrew Bush, who in 2003 defined Intifada II, in which Palestinian pogromists and lynch mobs slaughtered a thousand people and maimed 10,000 more, as a ‘critique of Zionism.' There is, to be sure, a technical problem in having Prof. Puar lecture at Vassar: if her spoken English resembles her stupefyingly opaque writing, Vassar students must have thought she was speaking in tongues. Not to worry, however: another late arrival among the co-sponsors of her lecture was Vassar’s English Department.”
No one spoke up at the lecture to challenge the speaker. If no one objected to the vicious assault on Israel, a member of one of those eight sponsoring academic departments might at least have risen to protest Puar’s massacre of the English language, as for example in her description of her project “How Palestine Matters.” “How Palestine Matters situates the geopolitical that has been obliviated in the resurrection of the ecological and the geographical in emergent fields of new materialisms and anthropocene studies.”
In Anti-Education, his sharp criticism of the German educational system, Nietzsche wrote: “The one place where true education begins [is] the mother tongue.” What he would say of the ghastly hash Puar makes of it defies imagination. And even if their standards are not as high as his, what parents want to pay $63,280 a year, the current cost of a Vassar education, for their child to be exposed to this assault on language, truth, reason and intelligibility.
In the aftermath of Puar’s lecture, the silence on campus continued. Two faculty members voiced disquiet on a Facebook page called Vasser4Israel set up after an article on the debacle, “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar,” was published in the Wall Street Journal. But there were no open letters, no TV or radio appearances, no public protests. The reaction of Vassar’s President Catherine Hill was pallid to say the least. She posted a defensive letter in the alumni magazine saying some may have found the talk “objectionable.” She followed up with the promise of an hour online audio discussion about “issues and tensions on campus related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
If Puar’s lecture was an outlier, it could be dismissed as one more instance of campus follies and academic gobbledygook. But this is far from the case. From New York to California -- and in Canada as well -- the situation is growing worse, with Jewish students, especially those who stand up for Israel, bullied, threatened, intimidated, sometimes physically attacked. The absurd lengths to which the hate-Israel cult has gone was apparent on Feb. 18 at the University of Chicago where Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid spoke. As the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick notes, Eid was a darling of the far left when he was co-director of B’Tselem and focused his criticism on Israel. But he provoked outrage in Chicago by speaking of human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. From the audience came yells: “You must never again speak about the Palestinians” -- this at the man who had spent his life pursuing their rights. In her account for the Jewish Press, Lori Lowenthal Marchus reports that the shrieks grew so loud no one could hear anything and the event had to be shut down in the middle of the question and answer session. Eid himself had to be escorted from the room by campus police after one of the students threatened him with physical harm.
While students have thus far borne the brunt of outright intimidation, anti-Israel activists are beginning to target faculty. The Jewish Week reports that at Brooklyn College, which, despite its large Jewish student body has long been the scene of anti-Israel demonstrations, a group of students shouting slogans including “Zionists off campus” broke up the meeting of the Faculty Council, which is headed by an Orthodox Jew. One professor said she left the meeting “trembling.” At least in this case Brooklyn College President Karen Gould was quick to condemn the protest as “unacceptable” and the “hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments” as “especially abhorrent.” But that the students responsible will be punished -- the only way to deter repeat performances -- is doubtful.
What can be done? The Zionist Organization of America has sent a letter to CUNY’s chancellor and board of trustees demanding that the chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, the culprit in the campus attacks, be shut down on all 23 CUNY campuses. As Caroline Glick points out, this is no ordinary student group. One of its tactics, laid out in an internal document obtained from the SUNY Binghamton chapter by the Amcha Initiative, which documents anti-Jewish campaigns on U.S. campuses, is to disrupt and shut down pro-Israel (or insufficiently anti-Israel, as in the Bassem Eid case) events on campus through, in the words of the document, “political theater to protest the events” as well as acts of “disruption.” An outfit whose purpose is to shut down free expression does not belong on American campuses.
Rachel Lefkowitz in an article entitled “Jewish Donors: Stop Funding Anti-Semitism -- Divest from Universities” zeroes in on an obvious way to obtain the attention of administrators. She points out that “staggering amounts of Jewish money” continue to be pumped into academic institutions “as they simultaneously explode with anti-Jew and anti-Israel hatred.” She reports, for example that at the height of “Jew hate tensions” at Canada’s York University between 2005 and 2010 “which included the hosting of Hamas-loving speakers, mini-riots against Jews, swarming of pro-Israel tabled events, storming events of pro-Israel speakers, physical violence, barricading of Jews and shouting profanities and anti-Semitic slurs, ‘Die Jew,’ ‘get the hell off campus,’ and ‘Zionist pigs’)” a well-known Jewish donor who was also a member of the school’s board of directors made a substantial donation. Lefkowitz points out the huge amount of Jewish money being poured into Columbia -- $250 million from one donor, $200 million from another, $100 million from a third -- despite its employing some of the most virulently anti-Semitic professors (like Rashid Khalidi) and the disgraceful number of anti-Israel events on campus. As Lefkowitz says “Why should universities acknowledge how horrifically antisemitic their campuses have become when Jewish supporters have ignored all of it and continue to give?”
Lefkowitz singles out as a hero Paul Bronfman, chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, who recently gave York University 24 hours to take down an anti-Semitic mural or forfeit his support. York refused and Bronfman followed through, pulling money, production equipment, seminars, open houses with students, learning labs and training programs -- everything. A hundred faculty members signed an open letter criticizing Bronfman and defending the mural (contrast this with the silence at Vassar), but Bronfman stood firm.
If something is not done to stem the tide, many American campuses, including those most attractive to Jews, will become intolerable. A Jewish donor strike is a good place to start.
Rael Jean Isaac’s most recent book is Roosters of the Apocalypse: How the Junk Science of Global Warming is Bankrupting the Western World.