Today, as the BDS campaign successfully plants itself in academic associations such as the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), students of Israel and Middle East studies must root out the biases in our own institutions which enable bigotry's spread and diminish academic integrity.
As a beckoning for the Israel Studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles, I worry that the natural home of sensible Israel discourse—Israel studies itself—is being ruthlessly spoiled by its leadership. Analyzing the doctrine of its current chair, Dr. Dov Waxman, I'd like to call attention to the crisis of UCLA Israel Studies in this last resort, to reverse the momentum at my alma mater.
When the Center for Israel Studies at UCLA hired Waxman in 2020 to be its new chair from Northeastern University, I was excited and curious to see where he stood and his accomplishments throughout his scholarship. As then co-chair of the Israel Studies student board at UCLA, I found Waxman to be charismatic, approachable, well-versed and knowledgeable in his field. I still do. However, I gradually became more informed on how Waxman carelessly uses scholarship to enable the anti-Semitism that often proliferates in discourse on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
A synopsis of Waxman's various positions can be found in a February 2021 Zoom lecture, hosted by the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, roughly titled, "Is Anti-Zionism Antisemitism?" A recording of the lecture, provided to me by an anonymous source, is accessible on Vimeo. In good measure, I won't just ridicule Waxman's ideas but retort his points with sound and candid evidence.
Anti-Zionism in theory
During the lecture, Waxman starts by listing three main anti-Zionist premises that he says are falsely accused of being inherently anti-Semitic and examines their merits aloud. First, that anti-Zionists often may claim that "Jews are not a nation, just a religion." Second, that "not all nations are by-default entitled to having their own states and that believing all peoples should have their own independent state is a destabilizing proposition." Third, that "national self-determination is not absolute and must be balanced with other rights, such as Palestinian rights."
Waxman concedes that while he personally thinks there is a strong case to say Jews are indeed a nation and that Jews do have the right to self-determination, he also holds that this opinion is by no means "uncontested or self-evident" and thus cannot inherently be a falsehood derived from anti-Semitic bigotry.
I refute these points with the following:
(a) Minimizing the breadth of Jewish identity to "solely a religion" downplays the forms of prejudice that Jews encounter, such as anti-Jewish racism (which Waxman acknowledged exists). It also negates our self-determination and self-expression, which is inherently anti-Semitic. With more access than ever to resources on Jewish history, archeology and genealogy, Waxman has surely determined that Jews are an ethno-religious group and nation. Furthermore, the fraction of Jews who may still subscribe to the Emancipation-era idea that Jewishness is solely a religious feature, in futile aims to assimilate, do not diminish what enduring science and the Jewish majority have to say about the many facets of Jewish identity and the Jewish experience.
(b) Israel has been intact as a state with international recognition and increasing diplomatic relations for seven decades. This defeats the idea that Israel is "the destabilizing element in the Middle East." On the contrary, Israel is very much a part of the anchored fabric of the region today. The success of the Abraham Accords especially affirms this. Likewise, uprooting the region's only enduring democracy would threaten to disrupt any amount of stability in this part of the region.
(c) It would only be true that Zionism is at odds with Palestinian rights if you determined retroactively that Jewish self-determination comes inherently at the expense of Palestinians, which it does not. Zionism, in all of its ideological branches, never had to be at the expense of Palestinians residing in the land and practicing self-determination in a state of their own, so long as they did not violate those same rights of their Jewish cousins. Rejecting coexistence by denying Jewish statehood in any borders is in the hands of no one but the Palestinian leadership.
Anti-Zionism in practice
Following these erroneous points, Waxman contests the rebuttal that "even if Anti-Zionism as an idea isn't antisemitic, in practice it is since it requires the destruction of the State of Israel, which will lead to the mass death of Jews." The professor counters the claim, saying that "peaceful dismantling" is a valid proposal, so anti-Zionism in practice is not inherently anti-Semitic. He qualifies this by adding that if you say you do care about those people (Israeli Jews), but you just want the peaceful dismantling of Israel, that isn't anti-Semitic, but if you say you don't care about what happens to 7 million Jews in Israel, then that is anti-Semitic.
In my view, it's highly unlikely that in an executed scenario of dismantling Israel, Israeli civilians won't be violently targeted, if not subjected to genocide. This is especially true if Israel enacts some major, one-way transfer of power to the Palestinian people and Jewish mechanisms of defense (the Knesset, the IDF, etc.) are eliminated or scaled-down. Anti-Semitism predates modern Zionism, including in Israel and the disputed territories, and it's certainly naive to believe that in the sectarian chaos of genocide and strife that exists in the many binational and multinational states in the region (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), Israel would somehow be an exception.
In other words, not listening to Jews when we tell you that dismantling Israel into another Arab-dominated state would enable a much higher scale of the current anti-Semitic attacks by Palestinians, because you don't trust when Jews call out the threat of anti-Semitism, is rooted in anti-Semitic bias (whether implicit or explicit).
When anti-Israel criticism meets age-old tropes
According to Waxman, anti-Zionist speech or criticism of Israel crosses the line and becomes anti-Semitic when criticism of Israel uses classical anti-Semitic or anti-Semitic-adjacent allegations via:
- Conspiracy thinking, i.e., "Israel was behind 9/11."
- Blood libels, such as the deliberate blood lust to kill children.
- Using anti-Semitic images like the swastika in protests or other places, full stop, because of Holocaust minimization and inversion.
- Imposing classical anti-Semitic stereotypes onto Israel.
He asserts that these beliefs are anti-Semitic, but not the speaker per se, particularly because anti-Semitism, like racism, is deeply embedded in our society and culture. We thus have to be vigilant to not make generalizations or assumptions about the intentions of such individuals, including in conversations about Israel. As a general remedy, it's best to not antagonize speakers but instead say, "You may not realize this, but you are employing something anti-Semitic in your criticism." He also suggests educating as to why (calling in, instead of calling out). I concur with that.
Waxman confesses that there are many shortsighted reasons why this conflict may resonate more with people, saying, "They're not good reasons necessarily, there are many stupid reasons, but they're just not inherently because of anti-Semitism." He cites that pro-Palestinian college students might have a roommate who's Palestinian and that's why they take this side in the conflict (or rather, in my own opinion, that Arab-influenced media outsizes the Jewish narrative in the mainstream).
Eyes on who?
Interestingly enough, Waxman affirms that nobody, Palestinian or Jew, is immune from espousing anti-Semitic beliefs (envy or fear of Jews, not just hatred). However, he deems it ahistorical to consider "Christian anti-Judaism, Marxism and anti-Zionism to all be cut from the same cloth" or to function in the same ways.
On the other hand, in the United Kingdom and Europe in general, Waxman notes there may be an exception, as the British Labour Party was under investigation for anti-Semitism largely manifested in its militant far-left anti-Zionism, aligned with British Islamists who attack Jews as a proxy for Israel. This intersection is an indicator that contradicts Waxman's prior point, demonstrating that anti-Semitism is communicable across ideological extremes and can make for strange bedfellows.
Waxman argues that the U.S. doesn't exhibit this threat yet, as it's mostly preoccupied with white supremacist anti-Semitic threats (signal the white supremacist anti-Zionist, David Duke, who he actually mentions during the lecture). Given that this webinar took place prior to the outburst of leftist anti-Zionist violence against Jews in Los Angeles and New York in May 2021, during "Operation Guardian of the Walls" and prior to the hostage crisis in Colleyville, one would hope that his views have since changed. Unfortunately, I don't think they have.
Despite recent tragedies against our community, this Israel studies chair has commented to students months later that "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free" messages scribbled profusely on chalkboards in UCLA's Bunche Hall were not examples of anti-Semitism or acts of intimidation against Jewish Bruins. While an upsurge in anti-Semitic violence took place during the May 2021 Hamas-Israel war, he had also refused to condemn Hamas in any capacity on Twitter, after sharing the opinions of accounts that targeted Israel's legitimate right to defense. Additionally, he was among the first professors to wrongfully defend the hyperbolic Amnesty International report this year that acts as another "apartheid libel" against the Jewish state. Each of these acts has resulted in one thing—inspiration for, if not the enabling of physical violence against Jewish people in the diaspora.
Rather than remaining neutral on these Jewish concerns (at least a baseline that many of us might still critique), Waxman has disappointed Jewish students further and carelessly propped up antisemitic voices. In fact, the chance that Waxman will denounce MESA's newly official BDS stance, which essentially demands his unemployment, is bleak. He doesn't understand how his words have opened the doors for anti-Semitic exploitation on and off-campus. As a growing trend across Israel studies departments worldwide—under Jewish support nonetheless—we're granted the wrong representatives of Jewish scholars, whose love for Israel isn't rightfully layered with nuance, but frankly manifested in the self-interest of acceptance in an academy too blind to its intellectualized hate.
'Winnowing flour' and 'sifting for chaff'
At the end of each of his arguments, Waxman's most fundamental postulation is that we should put less attention on the anti-Semites and more attention on what is or isn't anti-Semitic. We can't determine that every reason people may believe in opposing Jewish self-determination is predicated on a conscious or underlying hatred for Jews, but rather that such reasons may be simply based on a logical skepticism that Jewish statehood is more beneficial than harmful, personal connections or sympathies for Palestinian individuals, or even plain stupidity.
I understand that there may be varying levels of ignorance (and even plain stupidity) across the spectrum of those who oppose Israel's existence, which is why it's unfair to label all anti-Semites. There's value in this for the efficiency of changing minds through dialogue and education, rather than ostracization. At the same time, we must bear in mind the big picture that the less ignorant, especially, are sacrificing Jewish existential interests on the altar of "human rights" discourse, in favor of the traditional world order where Jews were before powerless.
From the invalidation of Jewish concerns for safety and self-determination as an academic abstraction, we see the antisemitic tropes of Jewish omnipotence and deceit re-emerge in just another form—anti-Zionism. Just as foolish as "winnowing flour" and "sifting grain for chaff," instead of the reverse, there are methodical flaws in Waxman's arguments that scream throughout the alternative models to the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. These gaping holes tangibly limit our ability as Jewish thinkers to articulate our contemporary experiences with anti-Semitism to the world. My question is: If we cannot address the unapologetic, conscious anti-Semites of today behind anti-Zionism, how can we expect those under their influence to understand what Jew-hatred fully is? Let the community and administration of UCLA wake up and restore the academy to scholarship, by addressing Waxman on these disparities and sending a clear message of dissent from MESA's shameful position.
Justin Feldman is a former research assistant at the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED) and contributor to Dr. Steven Zipperstein's "Zionism, Palestinian Nationalism and the Law: 1939-1948." He is the National Activism Manager for the Israeli-American Council, Mishelanu.