This Article originally appeared in The Tower as “Columbia Unmoored: Academics Appropriate the Holocaust“
Where is the line between criticizing Israel’s policies and anti-Semitism? Look no further than two late-January events at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute (MEI) that demonstrated how far Middle East studies academics are willing to go to promote anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. Together, they provide a snapshot of the intellectual and moral decline of contemporary academia.
The first event was a panel discussion based on The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, a book published last year by Columbia University Press. Panelists drew a hollow connection between the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust to the displacement of roughly 600,000 Palestinians at Israel’s founding in 1948 — known in Arabic as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe. Yet they omitted the contemporaneous dislocation of over 900,000 Jews from the Arab countries where their families had lived for thousands of years.
Preaching to a like-minded audience of around eighty, the speakers took pains to shield themselves from charges of antisemitism or moral relativism: “We are not claiming that they are equally equivalent events,” declared Hebrew University Professor Amos Goldberg.
This strategic disclaimer was repeated several times throughout the discussion, even as panelists consistently portrayed the two disparate events as morally equivalent.
To this end, Columbia University Professor and panel chair Gil Hochberg went so far as to proclaim, “Unless the connection is made by which the Jewish tragedy is seen to have led directly to the Palestinian catastrophe, we cannot coexist.”
Engaging in historical revisionism, the speakers promoted the fallacy that Israel was created in compensation for the Holocaust. Hochberg wondered aloud whether Europe would have “supported the Zionist colonialist project if the Holocaust had not happened?”
In fact, the legal conditions for the creation of a Jewish state were already in place well before 1948: starting with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, followed by the San Remo Conference of 1920, and finally, the Peel commission in 1937. The Holocaust may have accelerated the urgency for the establishment of a Jewish state, but to ignore legal precedent and assert this as the only motivation is either poor scholarship or intellectually deceitful.
Throughout the discussion, Tel Aviv University Professor Raef Zreik made arguments so convoluted that they came off as either rambling or, perhaps, he hoped, unassailable. For example, he claimed, “If we hear, as we do by most Zionists, that we should learn the lessons of the Holocaust — namely to ‘never forget’ — means that if we are to learn lessons, there are lessons to be learned, which means the event can’t be so exceptional because it’s above history. And things that are above history we cannot learn from.”
Zreik later maintained that “The obsession with homeness can end up with the homelessness of other people,” a statement that may come off as an astute observation to some. To others, it is merely an attempt to marginalize the Jewish people.
The second MEI event was a lecture by Jasbir Puar, a Rutgers University professor notorious for perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes, such as the modern-day blood libel that Israel harvests organs from dead Palestinians and purposefully maims others. The New York Daily News has labeled Puar a “raving crackpot” and a “master of using impenetrable language as faux intellectualism.”
In her jargon-laden talk, “Existence is Resistance: Carceral Capitalism in/an Palestine,” Puar made the argument — before an audience of about fifty students — that Israel is a white supremacist nation. Demonstrating her own ideological prejudices, Puar used the terms “whiteness” and “white supremacy” interchangeably throughout the lecture.
In doing so, she ignored the fact that over half the Jewish population in Israel is not Ashkenazi (of European descent) but Sephardic (of Middle Eastern descent) and that many of those who occupy the most powerful positions in the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) hail from Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, or India. As recounted by a young woman who recently wrote about visiting Israel as a black Jew, “Almost every Israeli with whom I connected with was some shade of brown.”
Exploiting the ignorance of students who are unaware of the diverse composition of Israeli society and of world Jewry, Puar insisted the “production of whiteness” is a “commonly understood fact of racial formation” in Israel.
In Puar’s view, one needn’t be white to practice white supremacy, nor does the latter produce a noticeable effect. As she put it, “White supremacy . . . does not mean there is a disappearance of people who are not white.” Referring to a book by Duke University Professor Rey Chow, Puar extolled the virtues of a concept called “the ascendency of whiteness.” “It’s a really beautiful re-articulation of Foucauldian vile politics, and it talks about whiteness as an ideological functioning,” she maintained.
In Nazi Germany, Jews were discriminated against for the very reason that they were not white, meaning they were not Aryan; they were the victims of white supremacy. Puar has turned this fact on its head by falsely demonizing Jews for their “whiteness.”
This idea of white Israelis or “white Jews” is a thinly-veiled and emerging form of anti-Semitism. To apply “white supremacist” to the one and only Jewish state in a sea of Arab nations that practice racial, religious and gender apartheid, and human rights abuses is an Orwellian smear devised to single out and attack the Jewish state.
Fortunately, much of Puar’s discussion was unintelligible: “Unlike theorizations of space-time compression, an increased spatial disparity is not remedied with temporal simultaneity. Rather, this simultaneity is withheld. This is the slow aspect of slow death. Slow death can entail a really slow life—also a life that demands constant calibration.”
Both events at Columbia illustrate a rhetoric that disregards historical facts.
Ideologically driven academics, such as the speakers at these events, spread misinformation and dazzle the audience, not with the power of their arguments, but with a grandiosity that hides the lack of factual depth. That such ideologues dominate the field of Middle East studies is a sad testament to the state of academia. Those who value truth and rigorous scholarship must challenge their claims at every opportunity and demand greater accountability from higher education’s leaders at Columbia and beyond.