The field of Middle East studies is notorious for producing apologias for radical Islam, particularly where anti-Israel and, at times, anti-Semitic sentiment is concerned.
These same tendencies are also increasingly common in an unexpected sector of university life: Jewish studies. An open letter dated March 3, 2011, and signed by 30 University of California Jewish studies faculty members, is a case in point.
The letter to the Orange County District Attorney concerns the orchestrated disruption of a lecture by Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, at the University of California, Irvine on February 8, 2010. The D.A. recently charged the 11 offending students—all members of the radical Muslim Student Union, a branch of the Muslim Student Association—with one count each of misdemeanor conspiracy to disturb a meeting and misdemeanor disturbance of a meeting.
As faculty affiliated with Jewish Studies at the University of California, we are deeply distressed by the decision of the District Attorney in Orange County, California, to file criminal charges against Muslim students who disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's speech on the UC Irvine campus last year. While we disagree with the students' decision to disrupt the speech, we do not believe such peaceful protest should give rise to criminal liability. The individual students and the Muslim Student Union were disciplined for this conduct by the University, including suspending the MSU from functioning as a student organization for a quarter. This is sufficient punishment. There is no need for further punitive measures, let alone criminal prosecution and criminal sanctions.
While it might seem counter-intuitive for Jewish studies academics to support such an endeavor, a closer look demonstrates that many of the signatories are harsh critics of Israel. For example:
Mark LeVine, a Middle East studies professor who is affiliated with Jewish studies at UC Irvine, is an apologist for Hamas and blames Israel solely for the ongoing violence. In a June 2005 Al-Jazeera op-ed, LeVine described the Turkish terrorist supporters who were killed on the Gaza Flotilla ships as "martyrs," "heroes," and "warriors every bit as deserving of our tears and support as the soldiers of American wars past and present." In a 2010 History News Network op-ed, LeVine described the MSU's disruption of Oren's speech as a "teachable moment."
Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the departments of Near Eastern studies and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, signed a statement from University of California faculty members urging the UC Berkeley student senate to vote "yes" on an Israel divestment bill. In a June 2006 article at the Arabic News website titled, "U.S. Professor on How Zionism and Apartheid Are Alike," Boyarin labeled Israel an apartheid state wherein the "destruction of human rights and democracy is at least as severe as that of the South Africans."
David Theo Goldberg, a professor of comparative literature who is affiliated with Jewish studies at UC Irvine, signed a 2009 open letter to President Obama describing Israel as "an apartheid regime" that is committing "one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times." In a 2009 article, Goldberg compared Gaza to a "concentration camp" and "the Warsaw Ghetto at the time of its encirclement" and argued that the Jewish state should be replaced with a bi-national state. In 2002, he signed a petition calling on the University of California to divest from Israel.
Emily Gottreich, vice chair for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at UC Berkeley and a specialist in Moroccan Jewish history and Muslim-Jewish relations, labeled a Berkeley Jewish Journal article questioning Saudi funding for CMES, "the most extreme form of right-wing Zionism."
David N. Myers, professor and chair of history and former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, employed all the usual clichés—"cycle of violence," "disproportionately harsh"—to single Israel out as "the most responsible party" for the "escalating violence" in a July 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed. In a piece titled, "Rethinking the Jewish Nation" in the Winter 2011 edition of the Havruta Journal, Myers argued that "Statist Zionism," or a Jewish state, should give way to a "global Jewish collective."
David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis—and co-author of the "Irvine 11" letter, according to an email sent to Jewish studies faculty by Diane Wolf, chair of Jewish studies at UC Davis—writing in the October 2008 edition of the online journal Perush, referred to "the very real power that Jews and their allies . . . exercise, especially in the Congress, around Israel" and claimed that the so-called Israel lobby "has the power to silence its critics." In the same piece, Biale criticized Ruth Wisse's 2007 book, Jews and Power, for being "an unabashed neo-conservative brief for Zionism and the State of Israel."
Although Jewish studies academics should not be expected to provide unquestioning support for Israel, the extremism exhibited by these signatories—culminating in the demonization and delegitimizing of the Jewish state—is startling.
What's worse, they turn a blind eye to campus anti-Semitism. None of the UC Irvine signatories who expressed support for the Muslim students disrupting Oren's talk thought to do the same for Jewish students suffering from harassment and violence on their own campus. Their names are conspicuously absent from a May 10, 2010, open letter expressing concern—on behalf of UC Irvine faculty—over "activities on campus that foment hatred against Jews and Israelis."
Moreover, none of the signatories signed a similar letter in June, 2010, to Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, highlighting the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the UC system. Penned by pro-Israel organizations and supported by an online petition signed by over 700 students, the letter states:
Bigotry against Jewish students has occurred over many years and on many University of California campuses. Over the last several years, Jewish students have been subjected to: swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti; acts of physical and verbal aggression; speakers, films and exhibits that use anti-Semitic imagery and discourse; speakers that praise and encourage support for terrorist organizations that openly advocate murder against Israel and the Jewish people; the organized disruption of events sponsored by Jewish student groups; and most recently, the promotion of student senate resolutions for divestment that seek to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish State.
Two ongoing investigations into anti-Semitism on UC campuses provide further evidence of this disturbing trend. Jewish student Jessica Felber is suing UC Berkeley for failing to provide a safe atmosphere after being assaulted by Husam Zakaria, a Berkeley student leader of Students for Justice in Palestine. The assault took place during a campus rally in which Felber, paradoxically, was carrying a sign that read, "Israel Wants Peace."
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating a June 2009 complaint filed by Hebrew lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin detailing the poisonous atmosphere at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The complaint alleges "a long-standing and pervasive pattern of discrimination against Jewish students . . . emanating from faculty and administrators at UCSC."
Summing up the problem, Kenneth Marcus—former OCR chief and now head of the Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research—in his March 28, 2011, article, "Fighting Back Against Campus Anti-Semitism," writes that such examples have
become sadly emblematic of a wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents that have rippled across the country, nowhere more so than in the 'Golden State,' which has become an epicenter for the New Anti-Semitism in America.
Yet the Jewish studies signatories to the "Irvine 11" letter are more concerned about Muslim students facing the consequences of their actions—something they decry as "detrimental to the values exemplified by the academic and intellectual environment on our university campuses"—than about the rising tide of anti-Semitic hatred and violence in their own backyard.
Unbelievably, one of the signatories actually opposes efforts to combat the crisis. When the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights reinstated protection for Jewish students from ethnic- or race-based harassment in October 2010, UC Davis professor David Biale criticized the decision, calling it "a very bizarre tactic" because, as he put it, "the Jews are a group with power."
This obstructionism may stem from the fact that the majority of the anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment on California campuses and beyond originate with Muslim student groups. Indeed, UC Irvine's MSU is widely recognized as one of the worst offenders in this regard, to the point where even the Anti-Defamation League, which has been reticent to recognize Islamic anti-Semitism, has seen fit to single them out.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Jewish studies academics remain oblivious or unconcerned and, as a consequence, complicit. Oren—himself an accomplished scholar of the Middle East—is deemed less important than what is, in effect, a gang of thugs.
Perhaps such behavior should be expected from those who sign petitions to divest from Israel, call Israel an apartheid state, compare Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, devote conferences and research to undermining Zionism, and falsely accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing.
Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.