Between the 23rd and the 25th of August, Yale University held a conference on “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity.” It was sponsored by the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism. Therefore, this was a university event and not one brought in from the outside to use Yale facilities. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this. Antisemitism is an age old form of racism and it calls for ongoing academic study. The problem is that this particular conference approached the subject from the ideologically driven position of radical Zionism. In other words, many of the assumptions upon which the conference was built were unfortunately tainted with bias. Indeed, in at least one instance (a panel on the “self-hating” Jew), one might suggest that the event was itself promoting a particularly virulent form of antisemitism. Very odd indeed.
The way you initially judge an academic conference is from the reputation of its participants and the nature of its panels. Philip Weiss, the co-editor of the blog Mondoweiss, has looked at both these categories and he concludes that this conference was “dedicated to the idea that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.” It appears he is largely correct. Many (though not all) on the participant list are the sort of strident supporters of Israel who confuse Zionism with Judaism and criticism of Israel with “demonization.” Some of the panels were dedicated to problematic issues as “Jewish Self-Hatred” and “Confronting and Combating Contemporary Antisemitism in the Academy.” Itamar Marcus who was a conference keynote speaker and is also a leader of the West Bank settler movement, lectured the participants on “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity.” Putting many of the participants (regardless of their academic credentials and affiliations) into the context created by these panels, what you get is not an academic conference in toto. Parts of it were more like an attempt to assert ideology as truth.
Let’s take a look at some of the assumptions that appear to be behind at least a part of the conference.
1. Criticism of Israel/Zionism, somehow smacks of “demonization” and this constitutes a “contemporary form of antisemitism.” (This seems to be the opinion of Charles Small, the Yale Initiative director — See the Weiss link above). If you think this assertion through, you find that it is illogical. Leaving aside the fact that not all Zionists are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, it is nonsensical to claim that criticism of a political state and its idiosyncratic ideology is the same as criticism of a worldwide religion and people. The only way those at the Yale conference could fall into this confusion is by taking Israel’s description of itself as the “Jewish state” and then uncritically accepting that this warrants the conflation of an entire people and religion with that state. This is an enormous leap, and one that just does not reflect reality.
Indeed, it is even logically suspect to assume that criticism of Israel or Zionism is anti-Israeli, much less anti-Jewish! By way of analogy, one can point to the fact that there are millions of Americans who have consistently criticized U.S. domestic and foreign policy at least since the 1960s. The only folks who accuse them of being anti-American are the fanatics on the far right. Is that the sort of company the Yale Initiative academics want to keep? Maybe so. The Zionist version of such fanatics certainly showed up for their conference and seemed to fit right in.
2. Public Jewish criticism of Israel is a form of self-hatred. This is one of those defensive positions Zionists throw up to protect themselves from what they see as the most dangerous attack of all, that from fellow Jews. You will note that when they use this epithet, they will most often put in the proviso that to constitute “self-hatred” the criticism must be made “in public.” What does that mean? It means that if you make the criticism in private, no non-Jew will hear it and the Israeli/Zionist claim to represent all Jewry is not called into question. That being the case, there is no need to intimidate the critic with nasty name calling. However, if the criticism is make in public, non-Jews do hear it and the Israeli/Zionist claim of representation is called into question. And, since they insist that they stand in for all Jews, that makes you, the Jewish critic, a “self-hating” antisemite. In the end, this gambit is nothing but a form of intimidation used to stifle criticism.
Yet, by persistent repetition, year in and year out, the Zionists have convinced many of their supporters that there is something to this otherwise nonsensical assertion that those Jews who stand against them are “self-haters.” So, you can now find Israelis who complain about the “rot in the diaspora” and describe their Jewish critics both inside and outside of Israel as not only “self-haters,” but also as “traitors to their people” This is what ideology taken too far can do. The room for critical debate disappears and you start to see those who disagree as mortal enemies.
3. Antisemitism plays a central role in Palestinian identity. Here I shall tell a story. I once met Yasir Arafat. From the subsequent interaction I concluded that he was no antisemite. He saw the state of Israel as an enemy because of what it did to the Palestinian people, but he did not ascribe blame to the Jewish people as a whole. He even talked endearingly of Yitzak Rabin, his “partner for peace.” I thought that latter opinion naive of him, but it certainly was not the mark of an antisemite.
While Arafat was in forced exile in Tunisia the Israelis managed to tap his phone. There they allegedly recorded Arafat saying some bad things about “the Jews.” I say allegedly because the Israelis are not above having forged the whole incident. Real or false the statements appeared the next day in the New York Times and many people said, “Aha! You see. The leader the Palestinian people is antisemitic.” Assuming, for the moment, that Arafat did make the comments, I do not find that surprising (though I do not think such the single incident would make him an antisemite). Actually, what I would find surprising is if he did not occasionally make such comments. Do the Palestinians hate all Jews? The vast majority do not. But, given Israel’s barbarous treatment of them, and its simultaneous insistence that it is the institutional incarnation of the entire Jewish people, it is a small miracle that most Palestinians, including Yasir Arafat, have never fallen into the trap of blaming all of Jewry for the actions of only some of them.
It is not the Palestinian national character that has been shaped by antisemitism. Rather, it is the Israeli national character that has been shaped by a fear and loathing of all Arabs and Palestinians in particular. If you doubt this just go to Israel and keep your ears open. There you will find that too many of its Jewish citizens see Arabs as dirty, promiscuous, untrustworthy, and all the other things that we Americans once ascribed to Irishmen, Italians, Poles, African Americans, and the Jews as well. Quite frankly, I have never run into anything approaching this level of racial animosity in an Arab country.
If this past week’s conference is indicative of anything, it is that Yale’s Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism is in danger of falling from academic grace. That is, it is in danger of ceasing to be a center for the objective study of an age old form of racism, and instead tying itself to an ideological view of the world that is itself racist. Why are they apparently doing so? Is it because they are funded by wealthy Zionist ideologues who have influenced the choice of leadership and therefore the parameters of what here passes for “research”? Maybe. Whatever the reason, if this keeps up the Yale Initiative is doomed as a legitimate academic venture. I recommend that Yale University correct the situation or rapidly distance itself from the entire project.
Lawrence Davidson teaches history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is a Contributing Editor to Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture, and author of, among other works, America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood, and, most recently, Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest.