August 21, 2008
Quiet war on campus: Israel remains under attack despite fewer public protests
Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
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To shray gevalt is a Jewish syndrome forged in the fire of 2,000 years of Diaspora life. Centuries have come and gone with claims of the impending end of the Jewish people, and yet the Tribe marches on.
But by 2002, it became clear that just because you're paranoid didn't mean claims of an anti-Semitic awakening on college campuses weren't true.
San Francisco State was the first university to achieve ignominy that April, when students resurrected the blood libel myth that Jews slaughter non-Jewish children: "Canned Palestinian Children Meat -- Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License," a flier for a pro-Palestinian rally stated.
Weeks later, students reciting Kaddish during Holocaust Remembrance day were shouted down by protesters saying prayers for Palestinian suicide bombers, and a peace rally organized by Jewish students descended into a near pogrom when pro-Palestinian students surrounded about 30 students as they cleaned up and, according to news reports, yelled, "Hitler didn't finish the job" and "Die racist pigs."
By the time a barely known Boston organization, The David Project, produced a 40-minute documentary in 2004 purporting Columbia University's Middle Eastern studies department had been taken over by radical leftists preaching against Israel, fighting anti-Zionism had become a cause celebre for many committed Jews affiliated with academia.
"Columbia Unbecoming" was filled with current and former students' descriptions of intimidation and discrimination at the hands of professors in the university's department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures.
"You're Israeli, you served in the IDF?" one student says professor Joseph Massad asked him. "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
The film, which The David Project intended to spur a reaction from the Jewish community, hammered home its point that criticism of Israel was a not a soft, scholarly pursuit in these classes, with stark text from professors appearing over blank screens.
"The Jews are not a nation," Massad, a professor of Arab politics, reportedly said at Oxford in 2002. "The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist."
And then there was this opinion from the former department chair:
"Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left ... its deep marks on the faces of the Israeli Jews, the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other," Hamid Debashi, wrote in 2004 for the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram. "There is a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."
In other words, "Israeli Jews" are sick, demented, diseased vermin. It's not their fault: It's simply a consequence of bad genes and an unholy society.
"Israel now fits into this anti-colonialist cartoon image, where if you are dark-skinned, you're right; if you're poor, you're wrong; and if you are not dark-skinned, you are wrong, and not poor, you are wrong," Jacobs said. "I was talking to a student in an oceanography course who said her professor made an analogy about how the situation was like the Palestinians who were oppressed. You could be in a sewing class. You could be in a French class."
This shift came as a tragic shock to the Jewish community. America had been a surrogate for the Promised Land, a place where Jews, whether they wanted to assimilate or not, could ascend socially with limited restrictions. Except, of course, in academia, where quotas were popular at the best private colleges until they were offset by moral guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
"Nobody wanted to see themselves compared to the Nazis," said Jonathan Sarna, the imminent historian of American Jewry at Brandeis University. "Indeed, a man like Kingman Brewster, who was president of Yale, was very proud of the fact he ended the discriminations, not only at the university but at the Yale clubs. By the 1970s, Yale had Jewish studies and the world had been transformed."
These advancements only made the changing tenor on campuses, beginning in the late 1990s, that much more difficult to comprehend. The climate was nearing crisis, and in 2002, major Jewish organizations did what is often done when a solution isn't clear: They formed another organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition.
But then, even more quickly than the problem had been identified, it was declared defeated.
"A golden age of Jewishness on campuses -- and not the apocalypse of anti-Semitism -- is upon us," The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Jewish leaders saying at the 2006 Hillel summit in Washington.
"The guerrilla theater climate of the quad in 2002 during the intifada no longer defines the quad," Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, said this spring.
Better, certainly. But the end of anti-Semitism? Not by a longshot.
Only a few months after the golden age pronouncement, Carter published "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" and the next year two professors from the University of Chicago and Harvard University, Mearsheimer and Walt, penned "The Israel Lobby." Criticism of Israel as a rogue violator of human rights achieved a level of social acceptability never seen in the United States.
"Whether there are more or less anti-Israel demonstrations on campus really misses the point," said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. "The real insidious nature of this ideology is what takes place in the classrooms and in the writings of faculty in their research -- all of those are far more significant, dangerous and insidious."
"The legitimacy that Walt and Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter have given to anti-Israelists," he added, "has been huge."
Just take a look inside the office of the academic affairs director at the Israel Consulate in Los Angeles.
"Let's crack open the UC Irvine folder," Tabby Davoodi offered earlier this month, as she finished the last week of a job that had been as exhausting as it had been rewarding.
She walked over to a metal cabinet and slid out a drawer, exposing a trove of overflowing hanging folders. Davoodi reached for the thickest.
"Ugh," she exhaled deeply as she lugged the eight-inch-thick file a few feet to her desk. "This is just the past three years."
Since starting work at 6380 Wilshire Blvd. after graduating from UC San Diego three years ago, Davoodi, who spent most her time bringing pro-Israel speakers and programs to campuses, had built quite a collection of fliers claiming Zionists are the new Nazis, that the Israel lobby has hijacked American foreign policy and the Jewish state is built on a mound of lies and Palestinian bones.
Many students, even Jewish students, have never had to confront such challenges. Few come prepared.
"All you are trying to do is survive college," Davoodi said. "Suddenly, you have to be a political analyst."