Contemporary Academic Antisemitism

This post selects from, and links to, an article in The Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, “The Devil’s Intersectionality: Contemporary Cloaked Academic Antisemitism,” by our colleague, Prof. Cary Nelson.  He discusses themes from Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti- Semitism, & The Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State, his book published in 2019; our sampling of this lengthy article begins as follows:    


Over a period of years, a pattern has emerged in anti-Zionist faculty publications that seriously compromises not only the scholars’ credibility and professionalism but also that of academic publishing as a whole. Academia has proceeded for a decade by blindly assuming that basic evaluation procedures like peer review, fact-checking, and copy editing have continued to function reliably. My 2019 book Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti- Semitism, & The Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State uses highly detailed case studies to demonstrate why this is not the case. I summarize those findings here and explore several of the key issues and consequences further. The ferocity of anti-Zionist conviction in these books and essays unfortunately means that they often cross the line into antisemitism. Using examples from work by Jasbir Puar, Sari Makdisi, and others, I demonstrate how distinguished university presses have become purveyors of antisemitism.


. . .  Israel Denial overall has two fundamentally different categories of chapters. The first of these is represented by a series of close readings of purported scholarship by anti-Zionist faculty members closely aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I wanted those critiques of work by individual faculty to be the most thorough and convincing ever published. The chapters on Judith Butler, Steven Sailaita, Saree Makdisi, and Jasbir Puar, with additional analyses of Nancy Scheper-Hughes and W. J. T. Mitchell, are each 20,000–30,000 words long. Often promoting what we now call “alternative facts,” their pseudo-scholarship regularly crosses a line into antisemitism. I would add to these a number of essays on Judith Butler and the very fine chapter on Noam Chomsky in Susie Linfield’s 2019 The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. I supplement my analysis of anti-Zionist publications with accounts of aggressively anti-Zionist teaching; those accounts are based on individual course syllabi collected from around the country.

The second, very different set of chapters is devoted to specific peace proposals and to ways of promoting them. The book embodies my conviction that neither category of work is sufficient on its own. While I yield to no one on the degree of my opposition to the BDS movement, I believe it is not enough to detail its destructive effects. We have to show that there are productive routes to peace and sound changes to recommend in Israeli policies. Conversely, peace proposals that do not engage the hostile political climate the BDS movement has created and the counterproductive demands it has circulated will not have much real world purchase. The dual structure will certainly be a problem for those readers who will be comfortable with one set of chapters but not the other. But as I say in the preface, I was not seeking to make things easier for anyone. Supporters of Israel need both political projects, whether they want them or not. 

. . . . And yet the book is explicitly Zionist and fiercely critical of BDS pseudo-scholarship and teaching.  . . .

. . . The BDS movement’s anti-normalization agenda is making rational dialogue nearly impossible. It actually aims to elevate the refusal to talk with pro-Zionist university or community members to a moral principle.  . . .

Saree Makdisi and Jasbir Puar

Despite working on this topic for years, I remain puzzled about faculty members’ willingness to lie in print.  . . .

This is not to say that more responsible forms of anti-Zionism are impossible. There are anti-Zionist books that are well researched.  . . . Two possible entries on that list, both from anti-Zionist publishers, would be Gershon Shafir’s 2017 A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict and Andrew Ross’s 2019 Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel. Both books are resolutely hostile to the Jewish state. Ross is a prominent BDS activist, active both at NYU and nationally, who seeks a one-state solution and is naïve about what it would do to its Jewish citizens.  . . . Shafir and Ross see all encounters and all evidence through the lens of their politics, but I am willing to engage with most (though not all) of their challenges. So I am not writing to condemn all anti-Zionist faculty publications or to claim that they are all antisemitic. I am writing to condemn the substantial number of such books and essays that are baldly unprofessional and dishonest because they are grounded in fantasy accusations.

. . .  So, to take my first example, in October 2017 Duke University Press published a new book The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability by Jasbir Puar, the Rutgers University women’s studies professor.  . . .  The book … did not return to the Israeli organ transplant accusations that occupied a good deal of the pro-Israel response to her lecture. Instead it focused on her … claim that Israelis for years had stunted the growth of Palestinian children in Gaza and the West Bank by denying them access to adequate food. The children were supposedly deliberately being kept on something close to a starvation diet, allowed enough nutrition to survive but not enough to remain healthy and enable normal growth. Other faculty, including Juan Cole, had made the same claim in op-eds, but Puar was the first to do so at length and subject them to peer review and publication by a university press.  . . .

I have concluded that the books and essays at stake are antisemitic for the following reasons that address common, but not universal, BDS views built into them: 1) they share with many BDS advocates a conviction that Zionism is racist at its core, despite the movement’s historical transformation and complexity; 2) they believe the very idea of a Jewish state is illegitimate and that Israel thus has no right to exist; 3) they object to the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, not just to the military occupation of the West Bank that began with the 1967 war; 4) they assert that normal relationships with any Israeli institutions or organizations that fail to condemn Israeli government policy are unacceptable; 5) they dismiss the right 6.5 million Israeli Jews have to political self-determination. In addition, they embody a number of other views held by more devoted academic anti-Zionists that are not held by many others in the BDS movement: 1) that Israel is a fundamentally demonic, destructive, and anti-democratic country about which little or nothing positive can be said; 2) that Israel is perhaps the world’s most extreme violator of human rights; 3) that there are no meaningful distinctions to be drawn between a given Israeli government and the Israeli people as a whole; 4) that distinctions between what is true or false can be set aside for purposes of political expediency.  . . . And there is a relentless and unforgiving quality to their pursuit of an anti-Israeli agenda. But that does not mean that I am claiming the people themselves are antisemites. You can adopt an antisemitic persona in what you write while maintaining Jewish friendships and seeing yourself as someone without prejudice. Of course, that may involve considerable self-deception . . . .

. . . . With Judith Butler, her ideological fixations primarily take the form of delusional philosophical and political formulations. They are developed at length in her 2012 book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.  . . .  All Jews, she claims, have the souls of wanderers; if they look into their hearts, they will realize they truly neither need nor want a Jewish state. With Jasbir Puar, her system of invented political ideas is underwritten by a litany of alternative facts, as I will discuss shortly.  . . . In Israel Denial I set out to find out and to present the definitive case that proves she and other key faculty enemies of the Jewish state live in an alternative universe, though one to which California, Duke, Minnesota, and Chicago, the latter being the publisher of Critical Inquiry, conspire to lend credibility and influence.

With these issues in mind, I can briefly summarize the case against Saree Makdisi’s arguments . . . . Makdisi, an English professor at UCLA, has published several long anti-Zionist essays in Critical Inquiry.  . . . Makdisi’s three full-length essays in Critical Inquiry are part of the journal’s recent dedication to making anti-Zionism part of its mission and identity, an agenda promoted by its anti-Zionist editor W. J. T. Mitchell. I will focus on Makdisi’s December 2017 Critical Inquiry essay “Apartheid / Apartheid  /  [       ],” which is his most up-to-date and comprehensive statement on Israel and Zionism. The bracketed blank space in Makdisi’s title is designed to suggest that Israel has disguised its apartheid system by not marking it with signage, thus making it invisible and unnamable.

Makdisi’s fundamentally polemical essay argues that Israel’s “apartheid regime” is actually worse than South Africa’s.  . . .   Along with his rhetorical flourishes, he offers seemingly empirical evidence of his claim: a catalogue of major features of South African apartheid and their alleged Israeli counterparts. He then attempts to go further to claim that Israel exceeds South African apartheid in its discriminatory and violent treatment of Palestinians. For example, he asserts that black South Africans were simply treated as inferior, whereas Palestinians are comprehensively dehumanized. Then he escalates the distinction as “the difference between exploitation and annihilation.” “Indeed,” he writes, “there is nothing even remotely resembling a precedent for Israel’s 2008-2009 or 2014 assaults on Gaza in the entire history of apartheid in South Africa.” But then black South Africans were not firing thousands of rockets into neighborhoods in Cape Town or Johannesburg or digging under them to construct hidden tunnels to be used for commando raids and terrorist attacks directed at civilians.  . . . Does Makdisi imagine that the Israelis “dehumanize” members of the Palestinian security services when they work together. Does Makdisi imagine that Arab Israeli citizens who work as doctors or faculty members, some of whom identify themselves as Palestinian, are “comprehensively dehumanized”? Contrary to Makdisi, nowhere within Israel proper is there is any form of discrimination comparable to that exercised by the repressive South African regime.

Makdisi declares that “every major South African apartheid law has a direct equivalent in Israel and the occupied territories today.” Space does not permit a comprehensive list of SA apartheid laws with no Israeli equivalent, but consider a few:

  1. The 1950 Population Registration Act required that every South African be classified into one of a number of racial “population groups.”

  2. The 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act allowed public premises, vehicles, and services to be segregated by race, even if equal facilities were not made available to all races.

  3. The 1951 Native Building Workers Act legalized the training of blacks in skilled labor in the construction industry, but limited the places in which they were permitted to work. Sections 15 and 19 made it an offense for blacks to work in the employ of whites performing skilled labor in their homes.

  4. The 1953 Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act effectively prohibited strike action by Africans.

  5. The 1956 Industrial Conciliation Act prohibited the registration of any new “mixed” race unions and imposed racially separate branches and all-white executive committees on existing “mixed” unions. It prohibited strikes in “essential industries” for both black and white workers and banned political affiliations for unions. Clause 77 legalized the reservation of skilled jobs to white workers, as the Bantu Building Workers Act of 1951 had done in the construction trade, “to ensure that they will not be exploited by the lower standard of living of any other race.”

  6. The 1953 Bantu Education Act enforced racial segregation in education. But Bantu education was not only about segregation; it was about the low quality of education provided to black South Africans. Deprived of much math and science, they were being trained at best for blue-collar jobs.  . . .

Click here to read Prof. Nelson’s entire article.