Gramsci wrote that there's no human activity—even Jewish Studies program director—from which all forms of intellectual participation can be excluded. We all know that restrictions always threaten intellectual activity: there's the unfreedom we impose on ourselves and there's the unfreedom imposed on us from without. And then there's the unfreedom that attends professionalized discourse about Jews. Much can potentially be said about how Jewish community formations attempt to manage the activities of academic Jewish Studies; this is my story of one manifestation of this imposition.
In mid-May 2016 I learned that, after a conversation with the local Hillel director here, a donor complained that the Penn State Jewish Studies Program, of which I serve as director, was pro-BDS and anti-Israel in terms of its faculty, speakers, etc. An initial WTF notwithstanding, it didn't take me long to figure this one out.
But I should back up. Because I talk here about Israel on campus, academic Jewish Studies, Jewish identity politics, and Hillel, I begin with a disclaimer—actually a two-parter.
First: Jewish Studies ideally should steer clear of Jewish communal politics, except as it makes them an object of study; otherwise, it risks delegitimization.
I present the second part of my disclaimer as a series of declarations of belief, so my cards are on the table. I'm Jewish. Like many people, I believe a state shouldn't treat different nationally defined populations under its control as different classes of citizen. Israel has as much right to exist as any other state, in proportion to which it can deter challenges to its sovereignty. It's perverse—and sad—that in the name of "the two-state solution" ethnic cleansing has become the leading desideratum of mainstream liberal opinion. The contention that BDS is a priori "anti-Israel" is nonsense; what the hell does that phrase even mean?! (The phrase undoubtedly performs work: it repeats the fascist fallacy of representing a nation with state policies.) To call BDS a priori antisemitic is idiotic. Finally, I serve on Open Hillel's Academic Council—mostly because despite Hillel International's claim that it "strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community," its "Standards of Partnership" seem aggressively opposed to the principles not only of inclusion and pluralism, but freedom of thought, without which the academy degenerates into paid advocacy and public relations. For the record, I believe Hillel International's commitment to support "Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state" should avow its foundation in ethnic cleansing. (It's the "and" that does it, folks!) More generally, I'm disgusted by attempts to define "Jewish" in ideologically restricted and nationalistically aggressive ways.
I am currently in my third year as the director of Jewish Studies. Like many North American Jewish Studies programs, ours is well supported by donors but lacks many declared students—though our total numbers of majors and minors position us on the good side of average among our Big Ten peers. Unlike on some campuses, our majors and minors are often not the same people who participate in Hillel activities, so my efforts to increase the visibility of the Jewish Studies Program brought me to Hillel, whose director has been friendly, and at semiregular meetings we have discussed how Jewish Studies and Hillel could work together. We cosponsored a number of events over the last couple of years.
We also admitted where our aims diverged. Put simply, Jewish Studies' mission to nurture an ability to think critically about the ascriptive history of the term "Jewish" does not necessarily align with Hillel's mission to nurture a positive Jewish identification. We chose to focus on common ground.
But I have recently come to worry that Hillel International's current take on identity work renders it an unfit partner for people and institutions dedicated to the ideals of free critical thinking and ethical integrity.
First came a faculty panel discussion that the Jewish Studies Program organized in November 2015 focusing on the upsurge in violence in Israel. I enthusiastically let our local Hillel know about it, but then the director called to warn me that the three speakers we arranged, a historian, a political scientist, and a sociologist—as well as the Israeli assistant professor who was moderating—represented various combinations of positions he judged too far to the left on Israel, pro-BDS, anti-Israel, antisemitic, etc. (He also complained about the map of Israel we put on the flyer, which indicated the Green Line; he found it provocative.) He offered to find another speaker who might present the occupation and its consequences in a more Israel-friendly light. I admit that "Israel-friendly" is my term, and I mean it sarcastically, to counterbalance "anti-Israel," and to be as meaningless. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Because I value critical thinking, I tend to suspect claims that "fair" means "balanced," that a position can escape bias, that a person's ability to perform analysis is dependent on his or her opinions, or that there's some ideological line representing the neutrality point in a discursive system. Rather, fairness and objectivity are achieved through challenging positions and suppositions, trying to understand why one's antagonists think as they do, etc. Anyway.
Initially, he wanted to invite someone from the Israeli consulate, but when we called bullshit he backed off, promising to look for an academic. Then he sent word that he had "confirmed" Asaf Romirowski, a think-tanker associated with Daniel ("My peace plan is simple: Israel defeats its enemies" and "Barack Obama Practiced Islam") Pipes's intimidation outfit Campus Watch, famous for publicizing harassing "dossiers" on academics it judges to be "wrong" (its word) on the Middle East. (For the record, those are actual Pipes lines—the first from one of his "articles," the second the title of another.) Though he apologized and cancelled the invitation after I told him he had no right to invite or "confirm" anyone for our panel, especially a propagandist, the Hillel director suggested we put off the event in order to organize something more to his liking. The panel went off very well, with a packed room and no complaints except something vague and unexplained from the Hillel director about it getting "out of hand."
Then, this May, I heard about the donor's complaint. I wrote the Hillel director, asking for clarification; he explained that this donor is also one of his board members, who had asked for a more or less routine report on the state of Israel-related affairs on campus. He explained that he indeed told the donor that he had concerns that the Jewish Studies Program was too critical of Israel.
My concern here is about campus climate, not my job; my dean rightly sees this as an academic freedom issue. I worry (1) that Hillel's increasing hubris vis-à-vis Israel on campus and the nationalist litmus test that is its new "Standards of Partnership" are toxic to inclusivity and hostile to freedom of thought; and (2) that a donor could leave a conversation with the Hillel director feeling confident enough about the term "anti-Israel" to use it as an accusation.
Ideologically programmatic action is of course illuminating, however. The Hillel director's attempt to influence the panel last fall exposes Hillel's Israel strategy. The first step is to simplify discourse on Israel by dividing it into two relatively self-evident positions: one that's relatively opposed to the occupation and one that's relatively defensive of it. The second step is to overlay onto this ostensive difference of opinion another seemingly obvious opposition, but one of identity: between being "anti- Israel" and "Israel-friendly," an identitarian opposition that draws persuasive power from the ostensible self-evidence of the term "antisemitic." This superposition reinscribes the reductive divide between opposition to and support of Israeli policies, rearticulating it as one between illegitimate and legitimate speech. Adding a voice more explicitly friendly to Israeli state policies would mean the panel would present a more obvious disagreement: one that could easily be recoded as a Manichean alternative between pro- and anti-Israel people, which for Hillel is really one between pro- and anti-Jewish people.
In our current ideological climate the term "anti-Israel" is reckless more than simply meaningless. Part of what's going on is that we're living through a significant shift in the regime of knowing, specifically in regards to identity. Claims of position are increasingly legible as—and only as—claims of identity. It's getting too easy to see in a scene of discursive antagonism conflicting kinds of irreconcilable people rather than conflicting sets of arguable claims. Such a shift is not without consequence in the new university, with its existential reliance on donor support.
I find Hillel's intellectual thuggery odious, but Hillel's voice is one among the diversity of opinions that come into contact on university campuses every day, an encounter that stands near the heart of the Enlightenment project. What's really dangerous is Hillel's effort to redeploy an intellectually specious opposition as an institutional cudgel to suppress some arguments and the academics who voice them. In helping to produce and legitimize a climate on campuses in which donors can carry concerns that in fact function as potential threats to university administrators, Hillel is making common cause with the McCarthies of world history.
Benjamin Schreier is associate professor of English and Jewish Studies and Lea P. and Malvin E. Bank Early Career Professor of Jewish Studies at Penn State University, where he serves as director of the Jewish Studies Program. His most recent book is Ihe Impossible Jew: Identity and the Reconstruction of Jewish American Literary History (New York University Press, 2015). Since 2012 he has been the editor of the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature.