Inclusion for All But the Jews: Mining Academia for Anti-Semitism

“Inclusion for All, Except the Jews” is the title of a talk I delivered at a conference, in which I spoke about the urgent matter of anti-Semitism on college campuses. My goal was not to devolve into a diatribe on all of academia nor focus on anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. However, it was precisely because of certain fields within academia that a particular form of anti-Semitism was able to thrive.

Instead, “Inclusion for All, Except the Jews” explores the history of anti-Semitism in the universities by examining the post-modern turn in the Humanities, which gave birth to a new language that framed social and moral dilemmas from the perspective of the powerful and the powerless. This binary model placed Israel and the Jews in the position of the powerful, overturning an age-old image of Jews as victims.

The cause for ignoring and at times allowing anti-Semitism to flourish is found in certain academic departments where the West has been collectively impugned for the injustices of Colonialism. And Israel, for all of its manifestations of the very best that a democratic Western country can offer—pluralism, women’s rights, freedom, diversity, eco-friendly initiatives—has been scorned to be the nadir of human injustice. As scholar and historian on anti-Semitism Robert Wistrich wrote in an article from 2013, “Anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century portrayed the Jews as too Eastern, fitting with the day’s fixation on race; today’s variant sees the Jews as too Western in order to exploit current narratives of post-colonial oppression.”

Much to my chagrin as a literary historian, the departments guilty of placing Israel at the center of the Imperial injustice are concentrated in Literature and History. Working backwards from a study I came across in 2015, where the highest percentage of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (“BDS”) supporters was found among faculty in the English, Literature, and History Departments, I knew it could not be a mere coincidence, but rather something central to the tenets within these fields that promoted this new form of anti-Semitism. Belonging to the Baby boomer generation, many of these pro-BDS professors came of age during the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and anti-Vietnam protests widespread on college campuses.

What all three movements shared was a disdain for power or what the Marxist semiotician Michel Foucault called “power, as the major force that operated human interactions.” And if you were a serious literary scholar in the 1960s, Foucault would have been nothing short of a demigod. By extension, his seminal work The Order of Things: The Archeology of Human Sciences (1966), a book that argued against Structuralism, became the bible for the Post-Structuralists, whose aim was to move past the traditional paradigm of an approach that understood human culture as having an innate or fixed structure built within the language.

Structuralism operated around a specific code of binary oppositions (Enlightenment/Romantic; Speech/Writing; Rational/Emotional), that the Post-Structuralists aimed to undo. An example of a Post-Structuralist and contemporary anti-Zionist activist, Judith Butler, whose book Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (1988), suggested that gender is not fixed but rather performative, is a helpful expression of how this theory shaped the loosening of the male/female binary opposition. Additionally, to demonstrate the far-reaching effects of Post-Structuralism on today’s political language, the phrase “anti-establishment,” although meaning an opposition to the branches of the government, is rooted in a hostility toward an established social structure.

Similar to Literature, History went through a significant transformation. At the forefront was Hayden White, whose book, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (1973) argued for a radical redefinition of the historical document and the role of the historian in shaping how we understand historical events. White maintained that because our knowledge of historical events is shaped by the historian, the documents that we use in order to reconstruct an historian moment depends on the historian’s writerly hand. Furthermore, because there is no such thing as an objective historical truth, White compels the historian to approach history through experience—the experience of a sub-group, at times even an individual. While White was not incorrect in suggesting that history is born of circumstance, we would be remiss not to identify the influence of Marxism on his outlook, which examined history through the lens of class.

Fast-forward to today, history is often studied and taught through the holy trinity of class, race, and sex, which operates around a new set of binary oppositions: rich/ poor; white/ colored; and male/ female. Indeed, the study cited above, which found a high percentage of BDS supporters in the English and History departments, likewise revealed that professors whose research interests revolved around four recurrent themes—class, gender, race, and empire—were also the same professors who called for BDS.

Within each of these categories:  class, gender, and race, there is an even larger binary opposition: that of the powerful and the powerless. This is where Israel, the study of Literature and History, and the year 1967 converge. Historically, the Jew has been identified as the eternal wanderer, bound by the fate of the host country he finds himself in. The exilic Jew is powerless and thus favored and protected by the collective Left. Even though his fate culminates in ditches and ravines of Eastern Europe and in the death chambers fashioned by the Nazis, his status as underdog is sanctified.

However, the post-1967 Jew is no longer a wanderer carrying a bedraggled violin in his hands, but rather a defender of his Promised Land. This Jewish figure is unacceptable to the post modernists, for in the binary opposition of the powerful and the powerless, the Israeli Jew is white, European, and Imperialist—his image too much ensconced in power. Contempt for this type of Jew is most visible in Trump’s victory, which made the Zionist-Imperialist connection in articles such as “The Zionist-white supremacist alliance in Trump’s White House,” or “Christian Zionist Wants to ‘Make Israel Great Again’,” a direct allusion to the racist language employed by the Nazis, even more apparent.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that Jews themselves have been unable to make the case that Israel is inextricably linked to one’s Jewish identity. This is bizarre since no scholar of Jewish history will deny the centrality of Israel in the diaspora and the ancestral claim of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Who can forget the melancholic words of Yehuda Ha-Levi, who in 1141, wrote, “My Heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.” The longing for Zion among the Jewish nation has persisted ever since the Babylonian captivity. Not only among the Jews do we find the centrality of Zion, but moreover, non-Jews recognized its import, albeit with overtones of anti-Semitism: Jews who sought to flee from the Soviet Union in the 1970s often encountered comments from locals such as, “go back to Palestine!”

The ironic twist in all of this is that with all the progressive fanfare that post-modernism seems to offer, the turn against the powerful Jew smacks of 19th century anti-Semitism, where the Jewish cabal manifest in the figure of the banker or an elder of Zion, led to the racist and murderous ideology of Nazi Germany and countless pogroms in Imperial Russia. Reluctant to use clichés, here, the idiom, “the more things change the more things stay the same” could not sound more true: what is new about anti-Semitism is that there is nothing new about anti-Semitism.

Repackaged in the post-modern model of the powerful and the powerless, Jew-hatred has extended beyond academic institutions to movements such as “Black Lives Matter,” which have become platforms for, among other things, virulent anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism has not only successfully crept into progressive causes, but has been codified in the language used by the Left: words such as “social justice” and “Intersectionality,” which operate around the fundamental understanding of the ontology of power and privilege, have become code words for anti-Semitism, for within the hierarchy of power proffered by Intersectionality, the post-1967 Jew does not only find himself at the very bottom, but is the culprit who abuses and exerts his power over the powerless. To boot, his very existence is loathsome.

The denial of the Jew from entry is eerily reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s protagonist K. in The Castle, whose countless attempts to gain access to a mysterious castle is not only rejected, but who also receives notice on his death bed that his legal claim to live in his village was never valid. Was Kafka commenting on the plight of the exilic Jew, or was K.’s fate a prediction of the Jew as the perennial outsider? For those interested in exploring varieties of anti-Semitism, K.’s world widens our understanding of the age-old disease as having the lethal potential to infect the most progressive and post-modern dominions of society: academia.

About the Author
Naya Lekht obtained her PhD in Russian literature from UCLA. Naya writes on Russian-Jewish literature and the Holocaust in the Soviet context Additionally, she studies and writes on varieties of anti-Semitism.
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