Scholar activism contributes to antisemitism (opinion)

December 14, 2023
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Since Hamas’s brutal attacks in Israel on Oct. 7 and the start of the ensuing war, college campuses have been convulsing with controversy—and with naked displays of antisemitism that have gone far beyond anti-Israel rhetoric.

  • At Cornell University, an undergraduate allegedly threatened to “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews.”
  • At a protest in Washington Square Park attended by students from New York University, a protestor waved a blatantly antisemitic sign calling for the world to be cleansed of Jews.
  • At Stanford University, an instructor allegedly singled out Jewish students as “colonizers” and made them stand in a corner.
  • At Rutgers University, where I am a professor, a student has been criminally charged in connection with a posting on a campus social media app that urged “Palestinian protesters” to “go kill” an Israeli at AEPi, a Jewish fraternity. Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway’s condemnation of Hamas has led campus protesters to hold up signs characterizing him as a perpetrator of genocide.

Belatedly, universities like Cornell, Stanford, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania have begun to address the problem of antisemitism on their campuses by issuing statements and convening committees. Yet the recent congressional testimony by the presidents of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the now former president of Penn, suggests that these first steps have yet to prompt the kind of serious reform that is needed. Our academic institutions must directly address the underlying problems that have led us to this point.

As they do that work, they should carefully examine one contributing factor that may seem benign on the surface but is in fact quite insidious: the replacement of the model of the impartial scholar who searches for truth with that of the scholar activist, who elevates political or ideological goals above the search for complexity and understanding.

On its surface, scholar activism sounds appealing. Its defenders will tell you that ordinary scholars are locked in an ivory tower, removed from real-world problems, while scholar activists emerge from that tower to change the world for the better. Scholar activism is often rooted in Marxist ideologies that inherently view knowledge as a form of power. Scholar activists generally tie their work to questions of race, class and identity, positioning themselves as bridges between academia and the underprivileged communities they seek to serve. Scholar activism does not refer to scholars who also march in protests or engage in community service. Rather, it refers to the use of scholarship for the purpose of activism.

Scholar activists claim that, because no one is truly neutral—because all academic research is inevitably influenced by the experiences, concerns, interests and biases of the people who perform it—it is pointless and even undesirable to adopt the pretense of neutrality. As explained in a description for a Harvard event on what it means to be a scholar activist, the “unspoken expectation for research to be ‘neutral’ often creates tensions for students and scholars who are uncomfortable simply studying discrimination and inequality, and want their work to have an impact in advancing social justice.”

In recent years, the model of the scholar activist has not only grown in popularity; it has also taken on more extreme forms, with scholar activists calling for all academic labor to be exercised as a means to a political end. Some scholar activists now describe the pursuit of knowledge as valuable only insofar as it has immediate benefit to their cause. They contend that we should “reframe politics as our job description” so our work will have “meaning and consequences beyond our hallowed halls.” Such positions have contributed to the erosion of trust in academia, and, as I’ll show, they can lead scholars to downplay or ignore evidence or ideas that do not fit their preconceived conclusions.

In contrast to scholar activists, “ordinary” scholars view the pursuit of knowledge as intrinsically valuable. We try to convey our sense of that intrinsic value to our students, and we introduce them to research as a way of illuminating the full complexity of the human experience. We do not dispute the fact that academic researchers are never entirely impartial. Yet we insist on maintaining the goal of impartiality as a guiding principle. Ordinary scholars try to recognize and correct for our biases. Scholar activists often lean in to those biases.

Nowhere are the dangers of scholar activism more clearly on display than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where a notoriously complex political struggle—one that has frustrated diplomats, divided people of good will and caused suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians for decades—gets reduced to a simple morality play, with Israel cast in the role of villain. Scholar activists have taken a leading role in creating this caricature, often refusing to acknowledge or account for any evidence that does not support their desired outcome.

The resistance of scholar activists to taking in the complete picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was evident long before Oct. 7, 2023. I think, for example, of a blatantly one-sided petition condemning Israel that circulated within Rutgers in May 2021. That petition interpreted the entire conflict through the lens of “settler-colonialism”—a common but highly problematic move that makes it impossible to view Israelis and Jews as anything other than white supremacist colonizers. Within the paradigm of settler-colonialism, one is either the oppressor or the oppressed, the colonizer or the colonized. People are sorted into good and bad with remarkable ease, as explained in this testimony by a current Stanford student.

Yet, to cast Israelis universally as white oppressors is to willfully ignore Jews’ indigeneity to Israel, their ethnic heterogeneity, their history of victimhood and migration in the 20th and 21st centuries, the rejection of peace by generations of Palestinian leaders, and the fact that Israel is a racially, ethnically and religiously diverse society that includes as full citizens many Arabs and people of wide-ranging origins and heritages.

I met with one of the authors of the 2021 petition and raised my objections to the settler-colonialist framing, among other problems. He readily admitted that the petition engaged in exaggeration and oversimplification “for rhetorical effect.” When I asked him how this was different from the “alternative facts” put forth by some right-wing politicians, he had no ready answer.

A similar approach has characterized the many anti-Israel petitions circulating today. For example, an open letter from a group of ethnomusicologists claims to “hold multiple truths and contradictions” regarding the current war but in fact promotes only one view, as evident in its failure to mention Hamas at all. This refusal to acknowledge Hamas’s role in the current conflict leads its signatories to be so disconnected from reality that they call for “an immediate peaceful resolution.” Such a resolution would be possible only if Hamas were interested in peace—something its founding charter rejects entirely. And the letter throws around phrases like “catastrophe of genocidal proportions” with no regard for the actual meaning of the word “genocide.”

If such statements seem largely symbolic and therefore trivial, they point to troubling trends in academic studies. The ongoing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is a case in point: this movement opposes the free exchange of ideas, and it seeks to remove Israeli scholars and institutions from the international community of learning, thus suppressing the perspective of an entire population.

In 2015, the National Women’s Studies Association became one of several scholarly societies in the U.S. to sign on to the BDS movement through the overwhelming assent of its members. If NWSA had not been so quick to excise Israeli perspectives, perhaps one of the two statements that the group has issued since Oct. 7 might have acknowledged Hamas’s brutal rape and mutilation of Israeli women that day. Instead, like most human rights groups, women’s advocacy groups and scholarly societies worldwide, NWSA has remained silent on this issue. The inconvenient testimony and forensic evidence concerning Hamas’s heinous acts do not align with the narrative of NWSA’s self-styled activists. Those perspectives, along with the documented, routine mistreatment of women in areas controlled by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, are thus easily swept aside.

On college campuses across the United States, it has now become quite normal not only to excuse but to celebrate Hamas’s actions. Faculty and students alike repeat and retweet such ideas—never mind that Hamas has no room in its autocratic society for the kind of diversity and inclusion that U.S. universities claim to espouse. Meanwhile, Jewish students, faculty and staff members are ostracized, confirming what many have known all along: the principles of diversity and inclusion do not extend to Jews.

In sum, universities are now staring into a moral abyss of their own making. The recent outbreak of antisemitism on our campuses can be traced, in part, to scholar activists’ insistence on treating complex problems as simple ones—as straightforward matters of victim versus villain. Such characterizations not only contribute to the polarization that will make peace ever more elusive, but they foment antisemitism on our campuses. Pulling back from this abyss will require a renewed commitment to the university’s central mission of discovering and sharing knowledge—in short, the mission of the scholar. The abuse of the scholar activist model must be carefully examined for its role in leading us here.

Rebecca Cypess is a professor of music and a faculty affiliate in Jewish studies at Rutgers University at New Brunswick.



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