During Chanukah, two students defaced a Menorah at Northeastern University, and Northeastern's Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) led an ugly anti-Israel/pro-Hamas rally in Copley Square. One observer noted "the virulence of the chants and messages on the placards... suggest that more sinister hatreds and feelings... were simmering slightly below the surface." Such sentiments suggest that our campus has imported some of the ugliest and most belligerent aspects of the Middle East conflict, including the murderous desire of those who want to eliminate Israel and rule over "Palestine, Palestine, from the river to the sea!"
University officials, of course, called the defacing of the Menorah unacceptable, but Northeastern president Joseph Aoun did so in generic remarks that failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism, a signal that neither he, nor any other administrator, is likely to deplore the SJP's hate-fest in Copley Square, even though it is both more disturbing, and constitutes a more direct indictment of the university itself.
The Popular Nazi Meme
Northeastern has had a checkered career in dealing with anti-Semitism, Israel and the Middle East. In 1991, Bernard Stotsky, a World War II veteran, endowed a chair in Jewish historical and cultural studies, with particular emphasis on the Holocaust. But holders of the chair have tended to veer in other directions. By the middle of the last decade, the chair was occupied by a professor who supports the anti-Israel BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). A series of revelatory documentaries by a watchdog group called Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), drew attention to Northeastern's abuse of the Stotsky chair.
Northeastern's treatment of the Holocaust was also disgraceful. To commemorate Holocaust Awareness Day, the university hosted a screening of Defamation, a film that compares Israeli solidiers to Nazis. Worse, it insinuates that many Holocaust survivors have attempted to profit from their horrifying stories.
A Hostile Academic Takeover
The meme that Israelis are the new Nazis, though popular with anti-Semites everywhere, including some allegedly serious academics, defies reason. Morally, this rhetoric is verbal sadism (when Jews embrace it, masochism), that seeks to degrade and humiliate Jews. In academic terms it deserves attention, not as a serious representation of reality, but rather as a weapon, a "lethal narrative" in a cognitive war developed by racist Palestinians to mark Jews as a legitimate target of violent revenge. Hence the chant of the SJP in Copley square: "When people are occupied, resistance is justified." Of course, we all know, the primary Palestinian form of "resistance" (especially from Gaza) is targeting Israeli civilians.
APT's work documents not only the hijacking of Holocaust, but places it within a larger framework that should concern all who cares about the resilience of American civil society and the democracy it makes possible. They reveal the presence within the Spiritual Life Center at NEU of a Muslim Chaplain, Imam Abdullah Faruuq, a Jihadi agitator whose actions at NEU were financed in large part by the Roxbury Mosque. His campus activities made a mockery of the "Center," dismaying both Jewish and moderate Muslims with his hate speech.
More broadly and more seriously, however, they reveal a hostile takeover of the academic discussion of the Middle East on campus. Instead of presenting the "Palestinian narrative of suffering" (in which the Israelis are the new Nazis), as the story told by the (most radical and irredentist) Palestinians, professors like Shahid Alam and Dennis Sullivan, presented it as the correct way to interpret the Middle East conflict. Under their authority, this lethal narrative, became a new, hegemonic academic orthodoxy at Northeastern University. Without the slightest trace of awareness of how his attitude violates the very principles of good scholarship and pedagogy Alam bragged:
...Over the last few years, that situation [where harsh criticism of Israel was difficult] has been entirely reversed... so that most of my students... understand, know the truth...[P]eople listen with great appreciation and attention. And no one disagrees. If there are one or two people who want to say something, they don't because they can sense that they will get no support from the class.
And, if any students inclined to defend Israel from this onslaught of lethal rhetoric and class-room intimidation should take a course with Dennis Sullivan, they will run into the same kind of intellectual bullying: one-sided syllabi, penalty in grades for disagreeing with the professor.
Weaponizing the Campuses
Now Alam's "truth" is not in any way an academic work but rather a polemic, a work of unabashed fantasy (Palestinians are descended from the ancient Canaanites). It deploys a stream of accusations about murderous Zionists that, especially considering its extensive inaccuracies, could reasonably be described as weaponized "hate-literature," aimed at destroying Israel. That same strategy of destruction explains why the Holocaust Memorial Committee got hijacked: in the words of Nadim Rouhana, an academic activist from Tufts, featured at an NEU Holocaust event: Israel "has made every political [use] of the Jewish Holocaust to gain support for the Jewish State." So what better way to attack her than to destroy that shield against hatred. Is this anti-Semitic? Shahid Alam embraces the accusation: "If you are an academic or an activist, if they call you [Anti-Semite] wear that as a sign of distinction. This proves that I'm working for the right side, for the just cause."
If Alam is a poster boy for weaponizing academia with the "Palestinian narrative of suffering" to conduct a ruthless cognitive war, Dennis Sullivan is a poster boy for the stupefaction this process involves. His comments in a lecture on the place in the negotiating process of Hamas, the most explicitly genocidal of all the Palestinian organizations, reveals an almost willful disregard for both relevance and accuracy. "Hamas is a terrorist organization, sure. They also do great health care and kindergartens." Now aside from the deterioration of health care conditions in Hamas-run Gaza, the idea that somehow kindergartens where children are brainwashed in genocidal hatred and trained to desire martyrdom above all, serves as a counter-argument to their terrorism, defies both sound reasoning and judgment.
All told, APT's work reveals a stunning degradation of both the academic integrity and the collegial sociability of campus life at NEU where matters concerning the Middle East, Jews, and Muslims are concerned. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is the abysmal level of intellectual discourse, a willful ignorance that systematically avoids discussing anything that challenges this belligerent orthodoxy, and excludes any voices that might offer students an opposing view. Is this where Northeastern wants to be?
Richard Landes is a professor of history at Boston University.