The following is a transcript of Episode 79 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. And welcome to Identity/Crisis. A show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on November 22nd, 2021.
So I’m not positive, but I think it might be the case that the Shalom Hartman Institute is the largest employer of PhDs in Jewish Studies in the Jewish community.
We have a whole bunch on our educational staff, myself included, and then a lot like dozens working as research fellows, scholars, and faculty at the Institute, both across North America and at our mothership in Jerusalem. I’m not telling you this in order to credential us, but in order to signal that we have as an organization, intimate knowledge of, and are really attentive to what’s going on at universities. You see, as an organization, we sit at a lot of intersections between North America and Israel, for example, between Jews of different denominations.
But this one between the academy and the community is a really significant one that we think about quite a bit. We have a lot of opinions here at Hartman about the modern university. Personally, for instance, I have a lot of gratitude to my professors and to my program for helping me learn how to think critically and how to write.
And I was also really happy to have an opportunity to get a serious, advanced degree that I could use to work in the Jewish community that didn’t require me to go to rabbinical school. But my colleagues and I also see and are aware of the problems in the academy. There’s a big labor problem and a broken supply chain between graduate students and jobs.
There are distorted economics in the modern university, which create the reality that you have both bloated endowments at some major universities and a widespread belief that the humanities are not affordable. The university has created weird effects out of the tenure system, which are in theory, meant to cultivate creativity, but also sometimes create kind of greenhouse conditions for the deepening of, and perpetuating of homogenous ideologies among scholars who stay in the same place for a really long period of time. Universities are for better or worse, like “cities on hills,” exemplars, in some ways, of a kind of ideal and also often detached from material realities in ways that make them kind of strange. And for the Jewish community, one of the most vexing and confusing aspects of the university that make it exceptional, or maybe make it a bellwether, which we’ll explore today is around Israel.
So when there’s a story about a BDS campaign, for instance, or about the silencing of discourse one way or another, or when there’s a news story about a Jew who’s singled out for their politics on Israel or about controversy in some Jewish educational institution about this Israel speaker or that one, there’s a good chance it’s taking place on a university campus or a college town or thereabouts. And it should make us wonder, is the university a template to help us think about Jewish politics, or is it a weird outlier that’s misleading us about what’s actually taking place in the Jewish community?
To unpack all of this is a colleague and friend Dr. Sarah Yael Hirshhorn who’s the visiting Assistant Professor at Israel Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. Sara’s first book, which came out from Harvard in 2017 is really a great book that we’ll also talk about a little bit today is called, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement.
It was an award-winning book and a unique book and actually kind of an exemplifier of what it means to sit between the university and the Jewish community. It is award-winning among scholars has won public awards in the Jewish community. And it’s a really wonderfully readable book and she’s working on a new manuscript that I’m excited about in tentatively titled New Day in Babylon and Jerusalem: Zionism, Jewish Power and Identity Politics Since 1967. Sara, it’s like a mad libs of great words that people talk about in the Jewish community.
And she’s a member of the teaching faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute. So first of all, thanks for being on the show, Sara, and let me start with that question, which is: is the university a template that helps us think about Jewish politics, or is it a little bit of an outlier? How do we correlate between what seems to be happening in the university campus and the question of whether it actually maps cleanly on what’s happening in the Jewish community around Israel?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: First of all, Yehuda, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. This is really one of my bucket list goals in life. So this is a dream come true to be here with you today. Thinking about the academy today, I often feel that we’re in a galaxy far, far away on planet academia land that really is a very long distance from the universe in which we live in the Jewish community.
I think there are many, many studies that show that diversity in terms of political attitudes, on college campuses is in decline. For example, the conservative faculty member is now almost extinct in the wilds of academia. And it’s increasingly difficult, I think, even to find those who hold politics that are centrist, or even what we might call liberal democratic on the university campus today. I recently saw a Pew survey statistic that suggested that 14% of the American population defines themselves as progressive left, but in my own anecdotal accounting, I would consider that probably 99.999% of university professors would categorize themselves in that way.
So it does suggest that there’s really a big disconnect between planet academia land and the Jewish community at large.
Yehuda: And why do you think that is? I mean, what do you attribute it to? Does it have to do with the mechanics or the design of the modern university? Does it relate specifically to the nature of the political questions that we’re litigating on campus? What do you suppose are the factors that actually have created that gap?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: I think it’s manifold. As you suggested, there are a lot of issues going on in the university regarding labor and the tenure process. And I think that itself creates a kind of homogenizing influence and a decrease in risk-taking at universities increasingly as they become increasingly corporated and sensitive to outside issues.
I also think that the academy, in particularly the tenure system, is not only a vocation, but it’s also a kind of social club and people tend to like to associate with people who think like them and share their interests. And I think that it’s very self-reinforcing in that way, in terms of the people who are selected as professors – people that you may have to interact with for the rest of your life.
Given the tenure system, people are looking for what they define as a good fit. And a good fit often is not only about a person’s scholarship, but also about whether their social attributes will conform to that of a department or the university.
Yehuda: When you mean social attributes you also mean political positions. So, people who have divergent political views or divergent not intellectual interests, but ways of thinking about the other things that other people think about in ways that make them a little bit strange, a little bit odd.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Yeah, I think that even though we talk a lot about the university as being a place where we’re challenged with uncomfortable ideas, I think fundamentally people in their social lives – and I think the social and the academic often map upon each other – don’t necessarily want to be confronted with that day in and day out.
I think most people and including academics probably prefer to be in circles that are people like themselves.
Yehuda: I know this is like a little bit of an obvious question, but I am curious to think aloud with you about it. It’s not as much of a question as much of a conversation piece. In theory, the notion of tenure is supposed to cultivate risk-taking among scholars, right? To make possible that a certain set of ideas that actually don’t have currency in the social fabric or don’t have currency politically or otherwise might even be considered dangerous, are allowed to flourish in the context of the university. When you look back, for instance – like I think it’s a great story that Edward Said becomes a university professor at Columbia in the 1980s when Palestine was not a mainstream cause even on the left in the 1980s. But it enables the production of a certain set of ideas that are really valuable in the context of the university. And it kind of seems like that same environment is having a damaging effect on the possibility of articulating counter positions as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I don’t know. You don’t need to affirm or deny whether that’s the case, but I’m curious what are the kind of ways in which you’ve seen this show up, especially in the field of Israel Studies where you operate.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: So, I guess, first of all, it has to deal with the labor, I wouldn’t say the labor shortage, but the labor problems of the academic market. So few people today are getting tenure. And so many people are stuck in kind of orbit of the university tenure process where they are worried about getting tenure or worried about the ability to get tenure
And I think that for those first many years of people’s careers, they’re very reluctant to speak publicly about issues. And also I think deliberately choose subjects of research that will be palatable to tenure committees or universities across the board. And that really discourages risk-taking because of the lack of tenure positions and the difficulty of getting tenure today.
I am a bit mystified though about why the endangered species that gets tenured today don’t use their position to speak out once they’ve achieved that degree of job security and social and academic standing. I’m not sure why that is, to be honest. It would be something that I would aspire to, but I see that still there are many pressures upon tenured professors to stay within the box.
Yehuda: Although, I guess what they would argue is that the dominant global Orthodoxy especially in America and certainly in the Jewish community is quote-unquote pro-Israel. And therefore they’re “speaking truth to power” that can be possible in the context of the university classroom because you’re ostensibly protected.
Certainly, if you have tenure from all sorts of those economic dynamics might be to actually articulate a counter-voice. I mean, that’s in theory, the position that’s being articulated. It just becomes a little bit strange when you’re actually all agreeing with one another in the context of a particular academic field.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Well, I think that’s right that the guild system is the correct analysis. These are people who’ve been trained in a certain way, who have apprenticed in a certain way, and ultimately attain a certain status. So it may be that people do think alike and there isn’t that much diversity amongst their political views by the time they’ve reached a certain level of achievement. Although I would suggest that it’s not at the tenure level and it’s not only about your politics.
It’s also about putting forward new theories of scholarship and new ways of thinking. And that I think can and should be done at that stage.
Yehuda: All right. So let’s use your book as an example if you’re comfortable talking about this. So your book which profiles, the American settler movement does so in a way that I felt – just from the outside, I’m not a professional scholar on this particular subject matter – but it felt to me reading it like there was a certain, I don’t want to say generosity or even sympathy because those are very loaded terms, but a certain willingness to understand the settler movement through a framework.
A little bit of anthropology and a little bit of kind of using an understanding of larger American ideas and then position the settler movement as kin to that, as opposed to the dominant ethos, through which settlers are understood by their critics as basically being monsters.
So I’m curious if that’s a correct read. I’m also curious about some of the reception that scholars who want to use the university campus as a means of cultivating a certain activism around occupation and settlers, what was the way in which your scholarship has been received in those circles?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: All right. So actually I took a look at a lot of literature about how we talk about, I guess what is colloquially called “bad men” or “bad women”. There’s actually a title to that effect in the same press in which I published my book. And I tried to think through some of those questions about how do you speak, as a historian, about people who are politically controversial, even people that have committed crimes of various sorts, even crimes against humanity.
There’s a whole literature about that. And I took the question of historical empathy very seriously. And tried to read quite a bit about what ideas exist out there about how to essentially put yourself in another person’s shoes historically without necessarily meaning that you need to adopt their political point of view or even have moral or emotional sympathy for a group and to take those ideas of history seriously.
I also wanted to think about the kind of history I was writing as a form of history from below. Now, usually, we don’t talk about people of this kind of political camp as being in that category. But in a sense, we are talking about individuals who are actors in a social movement that is only in part dictated from the top and is dictated by the State of Israel. And I really want us to think about this group of people seriously within that category, even if that was kind of an unpopular use of the term. And it became quite obvious to me actually, that the American story was perhaps the most important story.
Ironically, I really had very limited knowledge of American studies or American history when I came to graduate school. It wasn’t the focus of my studies and I really didn’t take coursework in those areas. That was something that I thought Americanists did, but I was a research assistant one summer and I was standing outside the office of one of the most prominent professors of American history at the University of Chicago. And I was standing by the photocopier doing whatever I needed to do as a research assistant. And we were chatting about my book. And he said, you know, you really need to take this angle seriously and try and cultivate that.
And it did strike a chord in me as being something that you could do. You could cross geographic borders and disciplinary borders. And that could be an interesting way of thinking about Israel Studies. I would say the reception of the book, therefore, has been challenging to many people who are comfortable with the more predictable narrative about settlers.
Yehuda: Right. And so here’s like a kind of an irony around this, which is, one of the things that you’re doing, I feel, in your scholarship is forcing a certain complexity. And so, number one, I want to talk with you about the question of what’s simple and what’s complicated. So that’s one piece of what you’re doing.
You’re basically saying, okay, if you really want to understand settlement’s occupation, you actually have to interrogate who settlers are. What is their internal narrative of what’s taking place here? So on one hand, there’s the simplicity-complexity piece. And the second thing that’s so interesting, Sara, is that – for the benefit of our listeners, one of the chapters that’s really worthwhile, it’s a good book, but in general, the one that I recommend to people most is about Efrat, which is one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. I think it’s crossed the 10,000 person threshold. So it’s now basically a city. And it is so familiar, at least for me having grown up modern, Orthodox in America.
I know some of the players. There’s a whole question of what’s similar and what’s different? So you are already engaging with that kind of analogy. And we want to resist all sorts of other analogies that people make that simplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So let’s take those two pieces in turn.
So what I’d love to hear are your reflections on how scholars and you in particular seek to make the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more complex in a climate where there are a lot of people who are trying to argue, this is actually supposed to be simple. And then we’ll come to the analogy question after.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Yeah. So, if you were on social media during operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021, you often heard this refrain that there is no conflict. that there’s really only one side. That we are no longer in the frame of history which we’ve used for the last hundred-odd years to discuss this conflict. And that to me seemed very strange. I understand the rationale behind that, that if you see the Israel-Palestine conflict as a contest between the powerful and the powerless, then it kind of dictates that sort of framing. But as a historian, I just don’t see it that way.
And I really want to resist those kinds of ways of speaking about the conflict. Now, I think sometimes complexity is now being used as kind of a euphemism for pro-Israelism and I also want to resist that trend, that making it complex does not necessarily mean you need to change your political views.
It just means to have a deeper understanding of the conflict itself and also of adjacent European and American Jewish history, as well as middle Eastern history that inform the conflict, because this is a part of the world that has been infused by so much surrounding it. And it seems to me valuable to take that into account.
Yehuda: Okay. And so then the flip side becomes: if you’re going to really understand this, you have to be willing to engage it through a prism of complexity. On the other hand, one of the tools that we always use analytically is: how do I use what I know and compare it to something else?
So you do that a little bit in your work. If you recognize this version of American exceptionalism, you’ll also be able to identify it as part of the story in Efrat. On the other hand, I don’t feel that the race analogy is a particularly useful one. And actually, it can oftentimes be a very damaging one. It’s saying if you recognize these racial dynamics in this place, therefore it must be there.
So what is the right way to draw an analogy when we’re trying to understand something far, far away? And what do you think is the wrong way?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: So, first of all, I think that the field of Israel Studies, in general, is moving toward a theory of comparison that we’re a very interdisciplinary field with scholars who don’t necessarily speak the same language academically, and the tools of comparison are very useful to us in trying to find ways to speak to one another, but also to explore this tension of Israel between uniqueness, the idea that, Israel is part of the chosen peoplehood of Israel and both its own desire as well as that of others for normalcy, to be seen as a state amongst all other states within a larger system.
So I think the tools of comparison are very important and certainly the field is moving in that direction. But I think there are right and wrong ways of doing this. The first is that the analogy needs to be used as an analytic tool and also to provide added value. I think also scholars need to be deeply informed about the different cases that they’re studying.
For example, if you’re going to compare Israel to South Africa, I would hope that you know something about South Africa or if you’re going to compare Israel to the United States in terms of settler colonialism, it would be good if you were deeply informed about both case studies in which you speak.
So using the frame alone without having deep knowledge is problematic. Although there are many fields of academic study, for example, thinking of political science, where the theory is really the most important thing and the case study is less so. So, it also depends on the discipline in which you work.
Yehuda: There are two questions that we’re hovering around with respect to academia. One is scholars as people who are doing analysis and developing critical vocabularies and the other though, and you can’t divorce the two is scholars as activists. Because one of the other components that shapes the modern university with respect to Israel is the environment of the university as activists.
It’s pretty pronounced, right? I mean, when you see petitions that are signed by huge swaths of the field of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies in which Israel is referred to as a settler-colonial regime that’s committing the crime of apartheid it becomes hard to figure out how much of this is actually applying critical methodology and how much of it is activism.
So before we get into the question of what you think about that kind of activism, first of all, I’m curious, why has Israel-Palestine in particular become such an important piece of the activism that both university professors and students engage on campus? There are a thousand issues. Why is Israel-Palestine the central one?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Well, I think there are a few reasons. The first is that the house upon which progressivism is built is that it engages with questions of settler-colonialism of state violence, of patriarchy, of race, and the inclusion of Israel-Palestine is a good case study whether or not all of those rubrics apply. And whether they’re applied correctly is another case. But I think that Israel-Palestine seems attractive because it illuminates certain themes. But I do think that there’s also a deeper question about why some of these critiques of Israel that could be applied to many, many other countries are being engaged with in the college campus in a particular and specific and vociferous way around Israel.
And that’s when I start to ask myself some questions about how much of this is about larger questions about dysfunctional states and about bad behavior on the part of nation-states in the universe. And how much is this about Israel as the only state of the Jews on the planet?
And I do think that there is a very distinct element of that.
Yehuda: Do you think – it’s a little bit left field. Some of the strongest critics of the university campus and their ideological homogeneity have started to organize. Right? So the University of Austin is one of these examples of an effort by people who claim that the university has become ideologically homogenous have started to put together this kind of activism, creating a new university.
For the record, I think we need more universities and colleges. So I don’t know if this is the right one, but I think we definitely need more. We certainly have enough students and we have enough underemployed academics. But one of the double standards that oftentimes surfaces is whether that ideological openness actually includes Israel-Palestine including some of the individuals who were involved with starting University of Austin famously earlier in their career were part of like protesting and even shutting down the discourse in Israel-Palestine in their own universities.
So can you help me decipher this a little bit? When we talk about opening up the discourse, are we really talking about making possible a real competition of ideas on the university campus between Israeli and Palestinian claims? Or are we talking about opening up the discourse in some ways and keeping the discourse shut down in others?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: I think that’s right. I don’t know that the University of Austin or any of the other organizations that claim to want to promote those goals are going to be any more ideologically heterogeneous than the current universities. I’m really intrigued to see what the Jewish and Middle Eastern studies faculty would say at those universities to make a decision about what that’s going to look like.
I think we’re also having a very difficult conversation now about free speech and how that might relate to both Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activism of where that falls in that larger conversation. So you use the word bellwether before. I think that is certainly the case here that Israel-Palestine is kind of a canary in the coal mine of these larger questions about free speech and cancel culture and the dysfunctionality of our contemporary American discourse.
So I guess we’ll have to see how this all plays out. It’s very hard to say right now what these new universities will look like and really how much they will contribute to this debate. I’m also not sure that we don’t have universities that describe themselves as being of a particular perspective.
We have Christian universities. We have conservative universities. We have different universities that profile themselves in different ways. And I wonder if it’s increasingly just going to be part of the market capitalism of universities that you go to the university where you think you fit best. And no university necessarily needs to cater to everyone.
Yehuda: Yeah, it’s interesting. When I was an undergraduate at Columbia and it was right before the movement by a number of young student – Bari Weiss, one of them – at the time in the early 2000s who mobilized against the number of professors who they felt were violating their positions through their politics in the classroom.
I came right before that. And I remember people going to those classes, participating in the classes that were considered, the anti-Israel classes and it was kind of great because they just argued back. And I don’t know, there’s something strange about the desire for ideological heterogeneity instead of investing students with the tools to be able to actually exhibit or demonstrate that kind of ideological heterogeneity.
I’m curious what you’re seeing in your classes on campus.
[00:24:13] Sara Yael Hirschhorn: So that’s what I’m extremely worried about. I have classes whose titles appear in the coursebook like “Zionism and its Critics,” “Modern Israel,” “The history of the Israel-Palestinian Conflict.” And I feel like, just by nature of those titles, there’s a segment of the campus that will never step foot in my classroom.
And I wonder how representative the students are that I teach at the broader intellectual climate on campus. I am not there to represent any particular political viewpoint in the classroom. And Israel Studies itself, I think has defined its work as providing both Israeli and Palestinian narratives, a dual narrative approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
I think we do need to have a larger conversation about what the differences between Israel Studies and Palestinian Studies or Palestine studies, which is emerging on many campuses and how will we counterbalance each other or what the goals of those different fields would be.
But I want students of all races, colors, and creeds to attend my classes and to discuss not only with me but really with each other about, about these issues. I think my position as a professor today is not just to deliver information, but it is in fact to be kind of – I wouldn’t call it a safe space because I don’t think Israel-Palestine itself is very much of a safe space – and I don’t think that our students necessarily need to benefit from that kind of way of thinking, but an opportunity for students to engage with each other.
And I really hope that I am seeing as much diversity in my classroom as there is on campus, but I’m a little skeptical about that.
Yehuda: Yeah. I would imagine that if you teach a class at a major research university titled “Zionism,” I would anticipate, based on my assumption reading Jewish news, that students are showing up and protesting every day. And I’m sure that that’s not happening. So what do you attribute to the gap between the narrative of campus as a place of fierce Israeli-Palestinian conflict but that is mostly materializing in the public square, as opposed to in the classroom. It feels totally screwed up to me.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Yeah. I think we have a real disconnect. First of all, we’ve spoken before about the data problem in terms of anti-Semitism on campus and how this is read, and also to what extent it is being used. And that in and of itself is a bigger conversation to have. But I think that the problem in the classroom is not so much that – I don’t have people protesting outside my office.
No one’s chaining themselves to the fence outside of my classroom. But I do think that there’s a real question about whether students would rather vote with their feet in the sense that instead of thinking through these questions intellectually with their peers, they’d just rather not take a class like that because that might challenge how they respond.
So I think that’s a real problem. And I think also the question of fear is often one less about the actual incidents of microaggressions or macroaggressions when it comes to Antisemitism on campus, but just the absence of conversation about Israel-Palestine, and the self-censorship that goes on with this particular topic being kind of a third rail of campus politics and that students in their dorm rooms or in the cafeteria would prefer not to talk about it.
And if they do talk about it, there’s not only intellectual consequences, but I see it as also having social consequences for them and having a successfully integrated academic career
Yehuda: Yeah, I wonder whether there’s another problem here though, which is – I’m just going to rant for a second. I hope that’s okay. I remember as both an undergraduate and graduate student it was not crazy that if you’re a Jewish student, you’re going to go to your professors and ask them questions about your own identity and your own politics.
It’s like a pretty normal thing for somebody between the ages of 18 and 22 to do. And almost as a rule. My professors basically said that’s not my job. That’s at the Hillel. I’m not here to cultivate Jewish identity. They don’t want you to talk about it. They were scared of what it meant.
In some ways, I’m sorry, I’m generalizing, but this was kind of my experience. And then I was sitting there like once in graduate school and I looked at the buildings you had like the Jewish Studies in one building and next to it was like East Asian languages and cultures. And you saw this group of Chinese and Chinese American students sitting around with one of their professors, like talking about Chinese-ness and I was like, why are, why is there a resistance around this when it comes to Jewish and Israel Studies on campus unless it’s in the business of kind of protesting or standing against? Why is there this reluctance to embody something positive and proactive?
And I know all the dangers. I get it. the fear about not being serious academics, et cetera, but something feels lost to me, given the place where Jews have actually reached in both Jewish Studies in Israel Studies on campus.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Yeah. I also feel that. And I think that there is a delegation of responsibility to external partners on campus: Hillel, Chabad, some other kind of Jewish society, you name it. But I think it also has to do historically with the way Jewish and Israel Studies developed and particularly Jewish Studies that Jewish Studies initially came out of this 1960s environment of the new Jews and radical Zionists on campus feeling that they were extremely assimilated and didn’t necessarily have the Jewish background to discuss the issues that they wanted to engage with.
And they actually were calling for Jewish Studies like other identity politics groups were at the time black studies or otherwise calling for departments or chairs to be founded to help inform them about their backgrounds. But then think Jewish Studies particularly in the 1980s, kind of took a turn towards professionalization.
And there’s a real reluctance to engage with those questions from which it initially emerged and more into making Jewish Studies into a legitimate academic discipline with critical inquiry and biblical exegesis and all the kinds of theories and models that other departments that were striving for objectivity would trend towards.
Whereas the other identity politics departments deliberately inculcated an identity formation and agenda. And that was very important for their own self-definition. And I do wonder today if Jewish Studies had taken that turn and had went in that direction, where would this new generation of Jews be. What has the Jewish Studies project you know done for the Jewish community? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it just different from other identity politics, faculties, and the way that they have self-defined?
Yehuda: You know Sara, there’s a tremendous amount of investment that takes place by Jewish community and Jewish philanthropy in the campus setting. Much of it doesn’t any more route through the formal educational structures at the university, but whether it’s Hillel or Chabad or other entities that hang around the university, engaging students sometimes through Hillel and Chabad, sometimes outside of it, Hartman is one of these organizations now in this landscape too.
There’s a tremendous amount of Jewish, philanthropic dollars and interest. So I want to culminate with two questions. The first is what would you like to see happen with that interest by the Jewish community, as it relates to addressing the flaws of Jewish identity and Israel identity on campus life? And where might that work be able to actually materialize, not just outside the classroom, but inside the classroom?
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Well, I think it would be great if these programs had buy-in from faculty, but also from administrators on campus and particularly helping to reshape what the DEI culture looks like when it comes to Antisemitism on campus. Because I think the playbook of Antisemitism for an administrator sitting in a corner office when it comes to adjudicating these concerns is: swastika on a bathroom stall.
We know that’s Antisemitism, but let’s say you paint on the rock in the center of the Northwestern campus “from the river to the sea. Palestine must be free.” Does that feel threatening to Jewish students? Do people know where that slogan comes from? What are the implications of that? But I do feel very concerned increasingly that the Jewish Studies faculty may find themselves because of their playing it straight philosophy, increasingly marginalized from these identity politics conversations that are happening on campus.
And, you know, I’m going to be quite frank and I’m sure there are going be people who will send you nasty emails after I said this, but at what point are Jewish faculty on campus going to become you know active participants at least bystanders to Antisemitism in a university space.
And I think that that needs to be addressed very clearly because we are there. And I think that we do have some role to play without jeopardizing our academic credentials and the goals of scholarship
Yehuda: Okay. So then the last one, and I really struggle about this one. So I’m curious, and it kind of goes back to where we started, which is: to what extent is what we’re seeing the trend of where we’re headed? And I as I’ve shared with you in the past, there was an incident a few years ago at UCLA with a college student who was running for office.
And she was asked rather inappropriately in the lead-up to running for office about her politics on Israel, which is an inappropriate question to ask of Jews. Just because they’re Jewish, they shouldn’t have to have to defend their position on Israel one way or another. It shouldn’t be a litmus test.
She actually won the position, but it became a national news story. And it created a tremendous amount of drama by a lot of people who were not at UCLA with all sorts of hypotheses about how bad it was on the UCLA campus. I can tell you having spoken to Hillel directors for years, many of them say one of the hardest parts of their job is that the general public believes that they are like working as the Hillel director of the Warsaw ghetto.
When in fact there’s a tremendously vibrant Jewish life on campus. But like isolated incidents get pulled out and extracted. It’s one of these, like the plural of anecdote is not anecdata. It’s not data. So what should we be watching for? What’s the right way for a consumer, for someone who’s concerned about these issues on campus, to be watching these stories unfold? What are the versions of these stories that reflect really important political dynamics that we have to pay attention to and that we have to solve for?
And what are the things that we have to get, to create a much better filter around, to be able to understand that it’s local, it’s contextual? It may be minor. It may be individual, etcetera.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: So those are some really big questions. I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer all of them. What I can say is that the university campuses that I’ve taught on in the United States and in the UK have had private Jewish life and students who are trying to understand what the new 21st-century Jewish identity looks like.
And Israel may not have the same role in that as it had to play before. I think what we need to look out for is: when is that the decision of millennials having open and honest conversations amongst themselves of what role Israel plays in their own Jewish identity? And when is that being imposed from the outside?
Because they’re being told in certain spaces outside of the Hillel building, that you need to check your Zionist identity and even sometimes various forms of your Jewish identity at the door to participate in progressive politics or to participate fully in university life. And that’s what I’m concerned about.
So there’s that disconnect. I also think that, again, the stories that aren’t being told are the stories that are the most important. The story is kind of a self-censorship or the stories that Israel-Palestine is a very uncomfortable subject on campus and particularly has social consequences for students’ participation in university life. And that’s something that I think we need to create a space for, and community for students who want to interact with those issues and not solely through kind of an activist person.
You can go join your local, friends of Israel chapter, but also some other way that students who just want to engage intellectually around these issues without any particular political event can have community.
But I am really concerned about what that means for the next generation we’re hoping to train as a cohort of Jewish leaders on campus. And part of that is just the simple sitting down with your friends and having a conversation about these issues in your dorm room at two o’clock in the morning.
And that’s something I think you and I did maybe a few decades ago, but it’s not something that current students are doing for a variety of reasons. They are not doing it as much. And what will the implications be for the future when they just haven’t had that opportunity in life? And it’s a precious opportunity.
Yehuda: Yeah. Our colleague Marc Dollinger out of San Francisco says it regularly in his talks, which is when you read a story about what’s taking place with a particular campus, the first and most responsible thing to do is to not stitch it together to your own experience of what’s happening elsewhere, but to actually look for, and listen for more accurate news reports that come out of a particular campus and try to locate it in the context of that campus. Because one of the things that even those of us who care about these issues, who are really concerned about what’s taking place on campus, we are engaged in a huge projection exercise, which is rooted, has fears about what the next generation of Jews will be, et cetera.
And oftentimes we are stitching together stories in ways that are actually not even serving those very students on any particular campus who are struggling in a particular moment.
Sara Yael Hirschhorn: Yeah, I’m worried that actually, students don’t have enough opportunities to protect their own voices. It’s a lot of frankly 40 plus year old people who are telling the world about what college student life is like, I’m not in the position to discuss that. I don’t live in a dorm.
I don’t eat in the cafeteria. I’m not 18 to 22 and I have no right to be telling anyone else about what the experience of my students are. It’s their voices that need to be heard.
Yehuda: Well, thank you so much, Saraa, for coming on the show this week. And thanks to all of you for listening to our show. Dr. Sara Yael Hirshhorn’s most recent book is “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement.”
Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by So-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs.
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