"European Jews, like European Christians, are converts to these strange Palestinian religions," declared Columbia University professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history Joseph Massad on Nov. 11 in Washington, D.C. This well-known antisemite's assertion that Jews in the Western diaspora have no ethnic ties to the historic Jewish nation was merely one howler among many in his anti-Israel keynote address to the Palestine Center's annual conference.
His talk, entitled "Jewish Self-Determination in the Land of the Palestinians," is part of the decades-long attempt by academics to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state by denying that modern Jews are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. What they lack in facts, goodwill, and honest scholarship, they try (and fail) to make up for in hatred and vitriol.
In this case, Massad promoted the discredited theory that Ashkenazi Jews in Europe are the descendants of converts to Judaism. "If the European Jewish converts somehow claim to be descendants of the early Jews of Palestine, then why are European Christians also not claiming that they are descendants of the early Palestinian Christians," he analogized. The obvious answer is that Christianity is a proselytizing religion transmitted via baptism, not lineage, and its spread among gentiles (non-Jews) throughout the Mediterranean world meant that its adherents represented myriad genetic pools: Greek, Roman, Germanic, Celtic and more. Massad also failed to explain why Jews throughout history have endured so much repression, including Nazi genocide, if their identities as Jews stemmed from religious practices alone.
Moreover, roughly half of Israel's Jewish population does not descend from the Jewish diaspora in Europe and the Americas. Rather, these Mizrahi Jews descend from Jews who fled Muslim repression in the Middle East and North Africa after Israel's creation in 1948, a fact that completely debunks Massad's European colonial narrative about Israel. Massad offered no analysis of whether these Jews, who have their own indigenous history of Zionism, simply hail from converts in the Middle East.
Rather than the Jews, Massad claimed as the Holy Land's "indigenous" population the Palestinians, a local Arab population whose ancestors derive largely from across the Middle East, including Egypt and Arabia. Egging him on, moderator Eid Mustafa, the board vice-chairman and treasurer of the Palestine Center's parent organization, the Jerusalem Fund, invoked the hoary modern Palestinian claim that they descend from the ancient Canaanites. He claimed that an uncited Hebrew University genealogical study showed that "most of the [Jewish] Israelis have no connection to the land, while the Palestinians are the original Canaanites who have lived ever since history."
Like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) claim of Cherokee ancestry, Massad referenced the "descendants of the ancient Hebrews who converted to Christianity and Islam," without noting how Islam often coerced conversion of Jews. "It's so funny. No one would ever question Egyptians today claiming direct descent from the pharaohs or ancient Egyptians," he said. He did not explain whether ancient Egyptians and not Coptic Christians or 7th-century Arab Muslim invaders formed the bulk of modern Egypt's genetic stock.
"But the Palestinians somehow cannot claim their ancient Hebrew ancestors, because some stranger of your population claims them as their ancestors," Massad wondered. He paused not to explain whether his beliefs entailed that a Jewish presence remained in the Holy Land until Muslim invasions overwhelmed it, although he caveated, "I don't support any of these claims," which "are problematic." In all, Jewish national claims to Israel provided "really a lesson in deception," Mustafa concluded.
Despite the deep historical connection of Jews to their ancient homeland, and the relatively modern national consciousness of Palestinians, Massad demonized Zionists as colonizers. "In the tradition of all colonial powers, which denied that the colonized were a nation, the Zionists began with denying the nationness of the Palestinians while affirming the then recent Zionist invention of Jewish nationness," he said. "The Zionists are just not original thinkers at all," he added, for French and Italian colonizers had also claimed to be "returning" to former Roman provinces in Algeria and Libya. These Europeans asserted that the "Arabs are the new colonists," a claim based on historical evidence, given the region's history of Islamic imperialism, overlooked by Massad.
"The largest contingent of the early colonists of Palestine were Ukrainian Jews. So, Ukraine has had a very, very important colonial history in Palestine," Massad noted, and ridiculously identified these Jews as "Ukrainian colonists." In his view, such imperialists unconcerned about Judaism could have seized any territory worldwide, for Zionism's founding father Theodor Herzl had speculated in the 1890s about establishing a Jewish state in either Palestine or Argentina. Massad's superficial, mendacious historical review over stillborn attempts to settle Jews outside of their historic homeland left unmentioned that Herzl never wavered from his final goal of settling Jews in Zion. Proposals he entertained for Jews finding temporary refuge from persecution in places like then British-ruled Uganda were deeply controversial among Zionists, even to the point of inciting Jewish assassination attempts upon Zionist leaders.
A potpourri of extreme statements rounded out Massad's screed, such as his unexplained condemnation of the "infamous political program" conceived at the May 1942 Zionist Biltmore Hotel conference in New York City. He denounced right wing Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who sought to develop Palestine's backwater into the equivalent of any modern, developed European state, as a "European supremacist." Yet the liberal-minded Jabotinsky consistently emphasized the protection of individual rights of all, including an Arab minority, in his envisioned Jewish state.
Citing a 1970 amendment to Israel's Law of Return, under which any Jew worldwide can automatically immigrate to Israel, Massad resorted to the reductio ad Hitlerum argument that Israel "adopted Hitler's understanding of what Jews should be." While Jewish halachic law defines a Jew as any person having a Jewish mother, Nazi racial laws decreed that any person with two Jewish grandparents qualified as a Jew. Meanwhile the amended Israeli law extends the definition to any person with a maternal Jewish grandmother or Jewish spouse as well as converts to Judaism, terms that Massad gratuitously Nazified with Holocaust inversion.
Building on his smear of Israel as Nazi-like, Massad alleged Israel's "religious or theocratic" and "Jewish supremacist character," thereby further exposing his bigoted obsession with Arab-Jewish demographics. Zionists "face the old-new reality of Jews as a minority in their own colonial settler state," he said, although modern trends favor a healthy Jewish majority in Israel even with the disputed West Bank territories included. Without the slightest evidence, he scandalously suggested that Israel purposely seeks "to reduce the Palestinian birthrate."
No rewarding conversation is possible with a racist demagogue like Massad. His slanders against Jews and Israel amply justify the past denouncements of his tenure at Columbia. This modern Ramallah on the Hudson and numerous other like-minded academic institutions have long forfeited their reputations as centers of the rigorous study of the Middle East. They deserve neither public nor institutional support.
Andrew E. Harrod, a Middle East Forum Campus Watch Fellow, freelance researcher, and writer, is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter: @AEHarrod.