Tag Archives: jonathan-sarna

Years ago, when extremists claimed that Jews bore disproportionate responsibility for American slavery, I was one of the academics who sought to set the record straight. A Jewish communal leader, knowing of my work, contacted me for an essay. "Can you send me 5,000 words proving that Jews had nothing to do with the slave trade," he asked. When I refused, protesting that that would be a lie, since some Jews were indeed involved in the nefarious trade even though their impact upon the history of slavery was miniscule, the leader exploded. "What good are you professors for the Jewish community," he shouted at me. "On the rare occasions when I need you, you disappoint me."

The episode helped to clarify for me my responsibilities as a Jewish Studies professor who is simultaneously a proud member of the Jewish community. I cannot, under any circumstances, compromise my professional integrity for the community (if I did, what good would I be?). But I can, if I choose, serve as a communal resource and activist. As such, I may inform, instruct, inspire, influence, innovate, incite, irritate, infuriate, and otherwise impact upon the Jewish community (restricting myself here only to verbs beginning with the letter "i"). I might do the same, as a citizen, on behalf of my country.

But I am in no way required to do so.

With the globalization of the academy and the normalization of Jewish Studies, there are many professors in the United States today who are not citizens of the United States, and likewise many members of the Association for Jewish Studies who are not themselves Jewish. They may well make other decisions than I do concerning their roles as community resources and activists. But if a Jewish communal professional asked them to lie on behalf of the Jewish community, I hope that they would still say no.