Jewish Studies against the Jews

As America’s universities catch fire and its Jewish students grow more fearful, the field most likely to have something to say has remained silent—or worse. How did it go wrong?

May 6, 2024 | Andrew Koss
About the author: Andrew N. Koss, a senior editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.

A man walks by Columbia University students at a vigil in support of Israel on October 12, 2023. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

For the past several weeks, national and even international attention has been locked on the chaos brought to American college campuses by anti-Israel demonstrations that have become increasingly bold in flouting the authorities, harassing fellow students, and echoing Hamas slogans. Less attention has been paid to the professors who teach those students, yet no small number of professors have gotten involved, sometimes to comfort Jewish students, far more often to join the protesters or to complain about efforts to restore order.

Middle East-studies departments have been well represented, almost exclusively in the anti-Israel camp, but Jewish-studies faculty have largely sat out of the conversation. Some may find this strange. At a time of crisis for the Jewish people, and especially for Jewish university students, it would seem that those who have dedicated their lives to studying Jewish history, Jewish culture, and Jewish religion would have the most to contribute.

Having spent a good chunk of my life involved in academic Jewish studies, I am not especially surprised. The six years I spent studying Jewish history in graduate school were good ones: I had the usual share of ups and downs, but I got an absolutely unbeatable intellectual experience. Likewise, the four subsequent years I spent teaching Jewish history at universities were quite rewarding. I got an inside view of a lot of the problems with academia, but I had some great colleagues and students. I spent almost none of this time engaged in political fights about Israel, or anything else for that matter.

For all that, the problems in my old field have been building for decades, and have now come to a head, clear for all to see. The silence is both the heart of the problem and the least of it: the way too many scholars of Jewish history have conducted themselves since October 7 has confirmed my growing suspicion that something has gone deeply amiss.

There was the November 20 open letter in the New York Review of Books that sixteen Holocaust and anti-Semitism experts wrote in November cautioning Jews against comparing the still-fresh massacre to the Holocaust and Hamas to the Nazis. This was not because nothing should be compared to the Nazis, but because it was the rhetoric of Israelis that should remind people of them, and it was the still-nascent campaign in Gaza that more resembled the Holocaust. There was the way that, on October 13, Raz Segal, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, argued that Israel’s actions in Gaza were “a textbook case of genocide.”

These problems are not limited to the fringes of the field or a few professors. The Association of Jewish Studies, the field’s main professional organization in North America if not in the world, on October 9 sent a message to current and former members expressing “deep sorrow for the loss of life and destruction.” This infuriatingly vague statement—who lost their life, and where, from whom?—received immediate pushback, leading to a second email the next day. Yet even the second likewise refused to name Hamas’s victims.

There is a common thread to these and plenty more episodes. It is, thankfully, not that the worst mass murder of Jews since World War II cannot be condemned—things are not that bad yet in Jewish studies. It is that the attack cannot easily be condemned as an attack on Jews.

Perhaps strangely, perhaps not, this problem has reared its head at a time when the field is in many ways at its height. There are more professorships than ever before, more courses being given, and more books being published. Much of the scholarly work is extremely good, exploring previously unstudied subjects that deserve attention, and correcting errors and misinterpretations made by previous generations of scholars. Moreover, the field is more accepted by other disciplines than ever before, with distinguished experts in those disciplines mentoring students working on Jewish topics and writing on these topics themselves. Outside of the universities, the Orthodox and even the haredi world are showing newfound willingness to learn from academics, and academics are happy to oblige.

In a way, all that merely heightens the anger and disappointment Jews should feel at the shortcomings of those who study them. My goal in what follows is to attempt a diagnosis, to explain the origins of the ailment, and to think about a couple of models for restoring it to health. As I do, a picture will emerge of both an individual field highly relevant to the current crisis, and of the whole university, in all its tatters.


I. The Emergence of Jewish Studies


The emergence of academic Jewish studies as something distinct from traditional religious study was a complicated process, so I offer here a highly abridged version. In my view it’s worth beginning in the 16th century, when a German Jew was received into the Catholic Church and took the name Johannes Pfefferkorn.

Like some baptized Jews both before and after him, Pfefferkorn used his knowledge of Jewish texts, especially the Talmud, to defame his former coreligionists. His success at his new calling eventually drew the involvement of Johannes Reuchlin, one of the great humanist scholars of his day and perhaps the greatest of all Christian Hebraists, who drew on his vast erudition to defend the Jews, no doubt saving them from persecutions that would have been far worse.

It was on the work and spirit of figures like Reuchlin that later Christian Hebraists would build. But it was only when Jews themselves became involved that one sees the emergence around 1820 of the field known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, a name properly translated as either the scholarship of Jewry or the academic study of Jewish things. The field’s founders belonged to the first generation of Jews to attend German universities, and they were a remarkable bunch. Two of them, Leopold Zunz and Isaak Marcus Jost, wrote the first major works of Jewish history according to the sense in which history writing is now understood. Two others, Eduard Gans and Heinrich Heine, would later convert to Christianity; the former went on to become Germany’s leading scholar of jurisprudence, the later one of its greatest poets.

Whether they remained Jewish or not, these men saw their scholarship as in the service of the Jewish people, part of a project to help it to obtain civil rights and to become more modern, which, as they understood it, meant moving away from Orthodoxy while maintaining a strong connection to Judaism. Even the converted Heine drew on what he learned from this circle in crafting his marvelous poem “Jehudah Ben Halevy,” which tries to weave the story of Jewish literature into the story of the world. In the following decades, the founding group’s most prominent successor, the historian Heinrich Graetz, played a key role in the formation of Conservative Judaism’s German predecessor and developed a kind of proto-Zionism. Graetz rarely failed to use his knowledge to defend Jews from attack, doing so most prominently in a dispute with an eminent scholar of the ancient Near East who had written an “expert” defense of anti-Semitism. In a sense, this was a 19th-century version of the Pfefferkorn-Reuchlin debate, except this time the Jews had a defender from within their own ranks.

Later generations of Jewish scholars would take different approaches to their academic pursuits and had very different visions of the Jewish future. But all shared a sense that the study of Jewish life should also promote that life. The Russian historian Simon Dubnov (1860–1941) or the social scientists associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna wanted to preserve and celebrate the Jewish cultural heritage while paving the way for what they imagined as a new era of secular Jewish flourishing and political self-confidence. In Germany and Austria, their contemporaries—Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, and Martin Buber—used modern Jewish scholarship to delve into the religious tradition for spiritual succor in an era of rising anti-Semitism and civilizational crisis.

After World War II, the so-called Jerusalem school—led by scholars at the Hebrew University—cultivated a view of Jewish history deeply informed by Zionism. The founders of Jewish studies in the U.S., meanwhile, drew on a newfound self-confidence as Jews and Americans and on a desire to salvage and rebuild the cultural and intellectual edifice the Nazis had demolished. They hoped, moreover, to bring the riches of Judaism and Jewish culture to an increasingly multicultural and tolerant country.

Perhaps the greatest examples of the intertwining of secular scholarship and the protection of the Jewish people came during the Shoah itself. In the Warsaw Ghetto, the historian Emanuel Ringelblum organized an underground effort to create the first Holocaust archive, preserving, with considerable success, the experiences of a Jewish community even as it was about to be slaughtered. Another historian, Majer Balaban, performed one of the noblest recorded acts of intellectual dishonesty, arguing, in contradiction to his previous conclusions, that the Karaite Jews of the Crimea were descendants of Tatar converts. He thus persuaded the Nazis that these were not Jews in the racial sense and saved hundreds of lives.

We should not idolize these figures. They produced a vast corpus of brilliant scholarship, but also much that was flawed. Sometimes their ideological priors warped their interpretations. Nor did they see themselves merely as cheerleaders of, or apologists for, the Jews; they were happy to point out flaws where they saw them. Yet despite the intellectual and ideological variety among them, they shared an understanding that Jewish studies was an academic discipline dedicated to the pursuit of the truth, and that the pursuit of the truth was not in tension with but could even serve Jewish civilization.

For all the robustness of the field today, much of what has gone wrong comes from the loss of this shared sense, which has been replaced not with aloof impartiality, but with something more worrying. This transformation took place in several phases, the first, to my eyes, beginning slightly before the turn of the century.


II. Decline, Phase 1


A generation ago, before terms like “intersectionality” and “critical race theory” made their way from academic conferences into political discourse, the new scholarly techniques of the day were known by the names “deconstruction” and “postmodernism.” Broadly speaking, these techniques rejected Enlightenment rationalism, grand narratives of human progress, and the notion that texts had well-defined meanings, instead seeing in them a struggle among competing meanings and narratives.

Since Jewish studies was part of the university and had been from its inception, it was no surprise when these techniques showed up on its shores. By the 1990s, Jewish-studies scholars were increasingly focusing their attention on individuals and phenomena that “didn’t fit into existing categories” or that “crossed boundaries.” As in the wider university, this research was not necessarily bad or even unimportant in itself. But, as in the wider university, an overabundance of it had a cumulatively corrosive effect.

Cultures of the Jews: A New History (2002), a multiauthor work assembled and edited by the historian David Biale meant to cover the entire scope of Jewish existence, embodied this problem. More postmodern than many of his contemporaries in the field of Jewish history, Biale has produced some important and intelligent scholarship. Many of the contributors to the volume have likewise earned their distinguished reputations, and it is one of those books I turn back to from time to time as a resource.

The problem with Cultures of the Jews doesn’t arise from any of the individual chapters, but in the idea that this hodgepodge could come together as a “new history” of the Jews, and, indeed, that the hodgepodge was a better method than, say, a work by a single author motivated by a central thesis. Behind this idea was a theory Biale had first outlined in 1994, when he decried what he called the “hegemonic discourse” of Jewish studies. The hegemony of this discourse was embodied in his view by the word “Judaism” itself, which Biale considered to have been “quite literally ‘invented’ by canonical Jewish thinkers in the last 200 years”—rabbis, scholars, or other authority figures—and which led to the exclusion of “those voices that have resisted or ignored this hegemony”—2nd-century Jewish peasants who might not have accepted rabbinic canons of interpretation, medieval Ashkenazi women, or any number of less-influential figures in Jewish history.

In most cases, Biale’s rejection of hegemony amounted to looking at exceptions to trends in Jewish history: liberating the field from hegemony meant that scholars ought to focus on other, less-popular matters. (It also meant accepting that it is necessary to challenge the “discursive distinction” between Jew and Gentile.) Looking at buried bits of history is not an unworthy goal, but the result, as realized in Cultures of the Jews, is a bit like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: it’s ingenious, but it isn’t as good as Hamlet, and it makes no sense if you haven’t seen the original.

The literary scholar David Roskies summed up the problem in his review for Commentary:

Although Biale would no doubt deny the charge, implicit in his historical trajectory, with its celebration of “hybridity” and “boundary crossing” and its lavishing of attention on the idiosyncratic, on converts and apostates and outliers of various stripes, is the assumption that historically Jews have had little or nothing to say for themselves. . . . What it utterly fails to explain is what they brought with them, or why, for the most part, they bothered to remain Jews. For that, one must look elsewhere.

In other words, investigations into neglected subjects like Babylonian magic bowls or the sexual indiscretions of wealthy Jews in Renaissance Italy can help add texture and detail to the story of the Jews, but these eccentricities of history cannot on their own convey that story. By trivializing and fracturing Jewish history in this manner, scholars like Biale left a void at the core motivation of the field: if there is not really any single thing as Judaism or a Jewish people, what makes Jewish history worthy of study in the first place?

That question lies at the heart at the field’s current troubles. Jewish-studies scholars did not have much trouble answering it in the past. As Ruth Wisse, who was part of the pioneering generation of Jewish-studies scholars in America, put it to me: originally, Jewish studies sought to tell the world “come see what Judaism is.” This was an attitude based on the assumption that Jewish history, culture, and religion had something to teach the world. Even when the field looked outward, its motivation came from inside.

But at some point, Wisse argued, the “come see” motivation was supplanted by another one, what she calls a “we can do that too” spirit, a competitive or jealous attitude that declared that Jewish studies can do what other fields do. To give an example, when women and gender studies burst on the broader scene, Jewish-studies academics wanted to prove that they too could deal with such questions in their own work. This proved a misstep. The problem is not with studying women and gender, nor with any of the other subjects of the “studies” fields as such. The problem, as it was with postmodernism, was oversupply: too much imitation, external motivation, and desire to be recognized for it have weakened the field’s own internal resources. Once that happened, Jewish studies became, to borrow a term, colonized by outside and increasingly ideologically driven methodologies.

I became aware of this shift, although I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time, in my first year of graduate school in 2004, when I encountered the then-trendy term “subaltern studies,” that is, the study of those who are oppressed or subjugated. The study of the oppressed—wasn’t this what Jewish historians had been doing since the 19th century? And why weren’t more of the practitioners around me saying, “Look, our field has been doing the subaltern thing for more than a century, here’s what we can teach you”? Instead, too many scholars within the field responded by saying, “How can we get in on this subaltern thing too?”


III. Decline, Phase 2


At the time, I didn’t fully grasp how corrosive these trends would be. It was only the arrival of the fateful years between 2016 and 2021 that revealed the consequences of our earlier lack of intellectual self-confidence. That was when the growing influence of the set of ideas now called “wokeness,” a sharpening of tensions around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the election of Donald Trump, revelations of widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood and elsewhere, the COVID-19 epidemic, and the slaying of George Floyd mixed together into a roiling cauldron of cultural-political passions. These passions overflowed into every sphere. They overflowed most of all into the academy.

At the beginning of this period, when I attended the Association for Jewish Studies conference in 2016, I found the climate not much different from what I had been used to. I made no secret of the fact that I had been working at Mosaic, a publication that has been known to advocate positions not always popular among academics, and nobody pelted me with stones, figuratively or literally.

When the stone throwing did start, in 2021, it was aimed at a scholar of American Judaism named Noam Pianko, who was forced to resign from his position as president of the AJS for the crime of participating in a conference call with Steven M. Cohen, an eminent demographer and sociologist who, it had recently been revealed, had been sexually harassing female colleagues.

Cohen was rightfully disgraced, but the defrocking of Pianko, on the other hand, was absurd and vengeful, an act not justified by his presence on the call. Academia has always been full of backstabbing and competitiveness and probably always will be. The Pianko affair, by contrast, had the character of a power struggle: the usual sniping was not enough, and had to give way to de-platforming, to disappearing.

Even more concerning was the way Cohen’s personal conduct was turned into a reason to lambast his research. Why was he so obsessed, his critics asked, with Jewish fertility, Jewish marriage, and Jewish “women’s bodies”? Something nefarious must be at work. Indeed, these preoccupations, they wrote, were symptoms of the fact that “American Jewish continuity discourse was embedded within patriarchal and misogynistic structures.” Here were Jewish-studies professors using the faddish vocabulary of 21st-century academia to set themselves against Jewish reproduction—a maxim encoded in the first commandment of the Hebrew Bible, a preoccupation of thousands of pages and works of Jewish law and thought, and a duty around which some of the religion’s and the world’s most interesting and vital cultural practices have grown.

If there was ever a signal as to the field’s shifting values, that was it. Cohen used the methods of social science to understand American Jews so that they could continue to exist and thrive. This was solidly in line with what the field used to believe in—with one of its animating drives. The mostly secular and Marxist Jewish social scientists of 100 years ago whom I studied in my own research sought to use the methodologies of their time to understand Jewish life so that those who wanted to help the Jews would have data to draw on. Even in the recent past this belief held: for all my objections to David Biale’s vision, he argued in his 1994 essay that it is admirable for Jewish historians to “shape their work to engage the pressing cultural questions of Jews” in their own time. Twenty-five years later, Cohen was being targeted for trying to do the same.

And this targeting revealed that a question had opened up at the core of the field. If Jewish studies should not be put to use for serving the Jewish people, and Jewish studies isn’t some wholly impartial form of scientific study, then what is its purpose?


IV. The Eye of Critique Turns


Condemning other Jews has been a favorite Jewish activity from time immemorial—just open the book of Jeremiah. It’s certainly an activity that Jewish historians and academicians never refrained from engaging in. A Jewish studies that engaged only in apologetics and eschewed any unflattering material about its subjects would be dishonest, disingenuous, and boring—a poor field indeed. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that many of its practitioners now believe that Jewish studies exists in order to criticize Jews. They may believe that this is a form of helping them. But the emerging tendency isn’t about pointing at past mistakes from which Jews today can learn lessons. Nor is it about holding up past virtues to contrast them with the supposed defects of the present. It is about using Jewish history as a cudgel.

Examples of this attitude are none too hard to find. In 2020, I reviewed an ambitious work of history called Jewish Emancipation, by the Yale historian David Sorkin. The book was exceptionally impressive and analytically astute. But some of the author’s conclusions struck me as forced, especially his insistence that Jews are not yet fully “emancipated.” To make this case, Sorkin devoted the final pages of his book to lamenting the existence of American Jews who send their children to private schools, oppose affirmative action, and do not “remain concerned for the equality of all members of society.” Sorkin made a similar argument about contemporary Israel, where, in his view, Jewish emancipation has been stymied by discrimination against women, Mizrahim, Arabs, and the non-Orthodox. To look at this another way, here was a top scholar in the field marshalling the authority of Jewish history to condemn Jews that he didn’t like, be they too religious, too racist, too communal.

Equally revealing was an experience related by the historian Joshua Karlip, who has emerged as the field’s most astute internal critic. When asked at a 2020 Jewish-studies panel to explain the growing scholarly interest in tracking and describing anti-Jewish violence, he offered the fairly obvious answer: an increase in anti-Jewish violence had made the topic seem more relevant. Yet a senior scholar who was present took umbrage at the suggestion and told him that his answer “was exceedingly Jewishly focused.”

Exceedingly Jewishly focused is an outlandish criticism to offer in a discussion of Jewish historiography, at a Jewish studies seminar, in response to a comment regarding anti-Jewish violence. It is impossible to imagine it being offered even ten years ago. It would have been regarded as nonsensical. Jewishly focused was the point.

For his part, Karlip saw this exchange as part of a larger de-Judaizing trend in the field, noting the “often scant Jewish knowledge” of many of its scholars, of whom as many as 80 percent are “not able to read Hebrew sources fluently.” It sounds outrageous, but there’s little doubt he’s right: the mid-20th-century days when scholars like Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and Isadore Twersky dominated the field and demanded extensive and detailed knowledge of classical religious texts is largely a thing of the past. The greater interest in Jewish studies from other fields has brought with it much that is fresh and beneficial, but its cost has sometimes been dilution. A lack of Hebrew—a hard language to master—or of the fundaments of Judaism doesn’t stop someone from producing an excellent account of, say, Romanian anti-Jewish laws in the 19th century, but it can prevent a thorough investigation of those laws’ effects on the Romanian Jewish community.

Still, I don’t think Karlip’s explanation of declining knowledge gets at the motivation behind the bizarre rebuke he received. After all, there are still many crack talmudists and ordained rabbis today who put their extensive knowledge to academic purpose. In my view, Karlip provoked such a response from his interlocutor because he violated a very specific taboo: he mentioned the murderous attacks on the Poway and Pittsburgh synagogues in the same breath as the deaths of hundreds of Israeli Jews at the hands of Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada. I suspect that this is what was meant by “exceedingly Jewishly focused”—too focused on the wrong kind of Jews, and on the wrong kind of anti-Semites. To Karlip’s interlocutor, the deaths of those Israeli Jews happened because they were Israeli and not because they were Jewish. To say otherwise, as Karlip had—even to admit the possibility that the intifada was motivated by anything other than a fight against oppression—was to commit a grievous conceptual error: Israelis could not be allowed to drink from the fountain of subalternity.

Is it thus any surprise that in the wake of October 7, the Association for Jewish Studies could not say aloud that those killed were Jews, and that they were killed because they were Jewish?


V. Disentangling Israeliness and Jewishness


The need to disentangle Jewishness and Israeliness was similarly at play in a disturbing occurrence that took place at the most recent AJS conference in December 2023, an occurrence that I don’t think has been reported elsewhere.

Perusing the conference catalogue from afar—I haven’t been in several years—I found no shortage of talks and panels that piqued my interest, and I was pleased to see presentations on a variety of subjects that I think have been insufficiently studied: Jewish responses to the First World War, Kabbalah and early modern science, contemporary haredi society, and a bevy of panels on Yiddish. Others covered topics probably no less serious that appeal to scholars whose interests are very different from mine. There were plenty of the eye-rolling sort that you find at any academic conference too—presentations like “How Goodly Are Your Tents: Studying the Bible Through Circus Arts.”

And then there were the Israel panels, with participants ranging from the far end of the Zionist left to outright anti-Zionism, often without representatives of other views. One revealing panel description asserted that Benjamin Netanyahu’s “political theology . . . explicitly aims at preventing Jews from following a natural impulse to retreat towards liberal-diasporic forms of Judaism aimed at maintaining the torch of universalistic ethics.” The language is dense but revealing. The issue isn’t whether the prime minister has a political theology or what it consists of. It is the assertion that Jews’ “natural impulse” is toward a “liberal-diasporic” Judaism, which is the only kind that can support “universalistic ethics,” an ethics that is taken to be an obvious and unqualified good.

All of this is an elaborate way of saying that the non-liberal-diasporic form of Judaism, the national-communal form of Judaism known as Zionism, goes against Judaism’s very nature. This the sort of statement I was rightfully taught in graduate school to eschew as a form of “essentialism.” It is also the sort of statement that is intended to depict Israelis as something akin to traitors to the Jewish story.

And it is a statement came to life on the last day of the conference, at a session on Jewish humor during which one of the participants, a left-leaning Israeli professor, shared some scholarly reflections on Israeli comedy in the wake of October 7. During question time, someone in the audience, with support from likeminded companions, took an increasingly hostile line. Weren’t satirical skits on Israeli television lampooning Hamas and its Western supporters racist and homophobic? Didn’t this presentation implicitly—arrogantly—assume that the audience was made up entirely of Zionists? Worse still, didn’t the talk, and those in the audience who laughed at the material, effectively endorse the mass slaughter of Palestinians?

After a while, the presenting professor fainted, apparently in part due to a medical condition, which didn’t deter her opponents from harassing her further while she was down. She tried to continue but collapsed again and had to be taken to the hospital, where, thankfully, she recovered. Her chief antagonist, who regularly posts on social media about the evils of Israel and its Jewish supporters, specializes in European Jewish history and is himself Jewish. I was told by multiple people who were present that he and his fellows remained unrepentant, although the AJS authorities reportedly reprimanded him.

Somehow, it seems, a Jewish-studies conference has become an unwelcome space for Israelis to speak openly about Israeli culture, and there is a growing contingent within the discipline that believes the subject can only be discussed in a way that highlights Israel’s sins. This is a disturbing and unjust development, and one that is destined to corrupt scholarly pursuits.

Perhaps even worse, it seems as if the same attitude is starting to be applied to what might be called the Israeli characteristics of Judaism. A panel at the same conference about the history of the Jews of the American West described the way that Jewish books, museums, and communal commemorations “have long embraced settler-colonial narratives of westward expansion, celebrating the unusual degree of belonging and freedom experienced by 19th-century Jewish pioneers, while obscuring the violence of western settlement.”

The claim is that American Jews have spent too much time focusing on their successes and their escape from persecution and discrimination and not enough on their evils. Evils that happen to resemble the same claims that are now loudly made about Israelis. Evils like settler colonialism. Evils like genocide.

Thus, the panelists demand historians “grapple with . . . Jewish participation in settler colonialism, including land theft and genocide.” American westward expansion indeed involved terrible mistreatment of Native Americans, including land theft and arguably genocide. I don’t doubt that there were Jews who participated in such horrors. But the claim that Jews as a community “have long embraced settler-colonial narratives” is nothing else than a turning on American Jews of the intellectual gun now used against Israel. Are Jews just a people bound to engage in settler colonialism, land theft, and genocide? That’s the sense you get from the leading edge of the field.


VI. Anti-Zionism Bleeds Out


The way that vicious anti-Zionist attitudes are now bleeding from the study of Israel into the study of the diaspora is also evident in the work of Shaul Magid. Magid is the author of much sophisticated research into the history and theology of Hasidism. Now he devotes his scholarly efforts to furthering what he terms a “counter-Zionist” worldview, expressed most fully in his most recent book, The Necessity of Exile. Then there is his previous book, a biography of the ultra-Zionist terrorist Meir Kahane that seeks to tie what Magid doesn’t like about American Jewry—in particular its attachment to Israel and its fear of rising anti-Semitism—to Kahane, so that fairly mainstream Jewish attitudes get tarred with Kahane’s bigotry and penchant for violence.

Paralleling this development, there seems to a willingness in the field to absorb the ideas of anti-Zionist scholars from outside Jewish studies, and not only when it comes to evaluations of the history the Jewish state. Jasbir Puar, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers, has become especially successful by combining queer studies, disability studies, and “biopolitics” in the service of leftwing causes. Her most recent book, The Right to Maim, propagates the most perfervid libels against Israel, such as the accusation that Israel is responsible for American police abuse of African Americans. The field of Jewish studies cannot be expected to prevent slanders like these from spreading in other fields. But surely it is not too much to expect scholars in a field devoted to the careful study of Jewish matters not to repeat them or to endorse those who propagate them. Yet one can find Jewish-studies papers declaring their debt to Puar’s work.

Perhaps even more pernicious is the influence in Jewish studies of the anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose first book, Facts on the Ground, almost prevented her from getting tenure at Columbia University because it argued, preposterously, that Israeli archaeologists wantonly destroy artifacts of Arab history in a politically motivated pursuit of evidence to back up Jewish claims to the land of Israel.

Abu El-Haj’s second book, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology, expands the target from Israel to Jews. It purports to be an anthropological study of Jewish interest in genetic markers of Jewish descent, which it attempts to tie to 19th- and early 20th-century race science—an argument that has the tenor of an accusation. The premise is evident on the very first page: namely, that “there is no evidence that a collectivity called ‘The Jewish People’ was exiled from ancient Palestine or descendants of that collectivity lived for generations in the diaspora and then returned to the land of Israel and founded the modern Jewish state. The story of an ‘exiled-people race’ is the creation of modern Jewish nationalism.”

Starting from this point—a point that echoes Biale’s challenging of the idea of “the Jewish people”—The Genealogical Science is only one step removed from the crackpot theories of the mid-century Jewish intellectual Arthur Koestler, of acolytes of Louis Farrakhan, and of various neo-Nazi-types on the dark corners of the Internet: today’s Jews aren’t the “real Jews.” It is the work of a scholar with a flimsy understanding of Judaism and Jewish history that—judging by the footnotes and repeated quotations—is informed primarily by the radical anti-Zionist historian Shlomo Sand, author of such books as How I Stopped Being a Jew. Once again, historians of Judaism should shun The Genealogical Science as bigoted and unserious. Instead, I have more and more found it cited as something to be taken seriously, even if the result is to reject Abu El-Haj’s conclusions. Jewish studies will only become more susceptible to such falsehoods if it continues to invite in scholars ignorant of the fundaments of Judaism and Jewish history.


VII. The Current Crisis


It’s important not to overstate things. So far as I can tell, the ideas that the Jews have no historical existence as a people or that settler colonialism is a particularly Jewish vice remain on the fringes. For all this disturbing scholarship, it still remains confined to a minority in both the university and the field of Jewish studies. At heart, most professors are pedants obsessed with their own obscure and narrow corner of research, and aren’t especially politically active or radical. This is both encouraging and a major weakness, encouraging because most professors even at this late date are reasonable people, a weakness because they are too reasonable, too afraid, too reticent to speak up.

For this reason, the deepest danger to the field isn’t that all current Jewish-studies professors will become obsessed with bad ideas, but that bad ideas tend to drive out good ones if not actively fought (and that future Jewish-studies professors will take them as normal and acceptable).

Unfortunately, that is what seems to be happening. It is precisely now, when Jews are murdered in Israel and bullied on campuses across the country, that one might expect Jewish-studies professors to have something to say. The problem is that they don’t seem to agree. They have become practiced at speaking up only when comfortable for them—when they feel they can reasonably go along with the climate emanating from the rest of the university.

This is the dynamic, I suspect, behind the weak AJS letters in the days after October 7, and behind the silence of most Jewish-studies professors in the last few weeks, as the anti-Israel protests have become disturbingly anti-Semitic, even though that’s something most of them surely see.

It is perhaps what impelled David N. Myers, a prominent professor at Jewish history at UCLA, to take to the pages of the Forward last week to condemn “one of the darkest nights” in UCLA’s history, a night that saw a “total systems failure by the university, the city of Los Angeles, and the state of California.” By this he didn’t mean the fact that protesters had taken over campus, were harassing students and preventing them from getting to class, and were repeating the slogans and waving the flags of murderous terrorist groups. He was silent about all that. No, what moved Myers to take a public stance was the violence committed by pro-Israel counterdemonstrators, who seem to have stormed a protest encampment in the middle of the night. After criticizing them, he added that peaceful pro-Israel protesters “bore striking similarities” to the violent ones, and admonished Jewish communal leaders to join him in his condemnations. Myers is not wrong about the violence—it should not have happened. He is simply revealingly selective in what he speaks and doesn’t speak about.

Here he is matched by one of the more famous Jewish studies professors in the country. Harvard’s Derek Penslar entered the spotlight a few months ago, when, after much turmoil on campus, Harvard asked him to co-chair the school’s anti-Semitism committee. Penslar is an accomplished scholar who has devoted most of his career to substantive research. And when he comments on anti-Semitism as a current issue, it has always been to reduce its boundaries. He said in January that complaints about anti-Semitism are “exaggerated,” and has shown a deep commitment to the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism, a document that bears the signatures of many prominent professors of Jewish studies and that is designed explicitly to narrow the definition of anti-Semitism.

Imagine a professor of African American studies who had argued that racist abuse perpetrated by American police officers is a much smaller problem than commonly assumed, and that many of the cases usually adduced as examples of racist policing ought not to be considered racist at all. Would he be considered as a possible chair of a major anti-racism center, or to head up a committee about how to respond to racist incidents on campus?

Of course not. We don’t have to do much conjecturing either: Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist and expert on racial equality argued in a 2019 paper that there was no racial disparity in policing in the city of Houston. Claudine Gay got him suspended.

But Fryer was never a professor of African American studies. In fact, I doubt such a department would have him. For better or worse, that’s what sums up the difference between Jewish-studies departments and every other “studies” department, and that is what returns us to one of the central problems I earlier described: professors in Jewish studies are increasingly drawn to seeing their job not as advancing the prospects of Jews but as exposing their faults, real or imagined. It is hard to imagine Gershom Scholem or Heinrich Graetz behaving the same way.

Rightly or wrongly, academia has committed itself wholeheartedly to the study and elevation of the oppressed, the subaltern. There are indeed some scholars who have applied this term to Jews, but in general Jews are too white, too successful, and above all too Zionist to fit into this category; if they were ever seen as subaltern, they are no longer. And, to return to the other core problem of the field, this means that the original aim of Jewish studies, to advance the prospects of Jews, must be questioned and abandoned, if not reversed.

This need not even be particularly desired on the part of Jewish-studies professors. It just needs to be pressed on them. When Zionism becomes one of the great evils in the eyes of their colleagues, when Judaism is linked to genocide across the world, Jewish faculty embedded in the broader university inevitably feel that they have to demonstrate that they are not associated with those Jews. To justify their interest in Jews—to themselves as well as to their colleagues—Jewish-studies professors increasingly feel a need to show that they are active denouncers of Jewish sins. To maintain their credibility, especially if they want to get prestigious appointments, they must display their credentials by keeping up with the latest trends. The idea of Orientalism, created by Edward Said with the primary purpose of attacking Israel, has gone somewhat out of style, but accusations of Israeli colonialism have not. The savvy scholar, jockeying for one of an ever-dwindling number of university appointments, will at the very least pay homage to these theories and their worst proponents. Otherwise, they risk the worst of all possible outcomes: being branded as conservatives.

Thus, Noam Pianko must be de-platformed, Steven M. Cohen’s research must be explained by his abuse, Jasbir Puar’s work must be seen as a font of wisdom, Jewish settler colonialists in Colorado must be condemned alongside those in Katamon, the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel must be questioned, and worse still is yet to come.


VIII. What Undergraduates Want


So far, this essay has focused on the ex-cathedra statements of scholars and the work they produce. It has ignored until now what the field looks like from the student perspective. Given that they make up half the university, it’s worth thinking about them for a moment. What do undergraduates want from Jewish-studies departments and what are they getting?

First, a qualification. Jewish-studies classes are attended by Jews and non-Jews alike. At some universities, non-Jews make a clear-cut majority of students taking Jewish-studies classes. That’s a good thing for all sorts of reasons, most importantly because the primary goal of all university departments is education and scholarly research. As much as I’ve argued here that it’s proper for Jewish studies to serve the Jews, it must also engage in less parochial aims.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not fair to ask what Jewish studies can and should offer Jewish students. Here I want to draw on my own personal teaching experience: from 2005 to 2007 as a graduate student at Stanford, and from 2010 to 2014 as a professor at Brooklyn College and Colgate University. These are three very different institutions, and I encountered a wide range of students, from people who had grown up in relatively insular Orthodox communities, to suburban Jews with paltry Jewish educations, to Haitians and Jamaicans who had no idea Jews existed as a modern people before moving to Brooklyn but knew their Bible backwards and forwards.

So far as I can tell, Jewish students want three things, beyond just a chance to expand their knowledge about a subject important to them, or to take a class that fulfils a requirement, isn’t too early in the morning, and is taught by someone who doesn’t have a reputation as a tough grader.

First, there are Orthodox students from yeshiva or day-school backgrounds who think they can get an easy A, but there are also many who are very eager to have a perspective on Judaism and Jewish history that’s different from what they learned from their rabbis. Teaching them can be very rewarding. There are probably some professors who take inordinate pleasure in destroying the (supposed) myths these students hold dear, but my impression is that that’s become less common over the decades, not more.

Second, there are students who have had very little Jewish education of any kind and want to make up for it. Sometimes, I suspect that their parents want the same thing. Jewish-studies departments can do much for these students, but even at their best are ill-suited for the job. If these courses have a message that is anti-Jewish, then the results will be that much worse. Talking to these students outside of the classroom, I found myself torn between acting as a professor and a committed Jew wanting to engage in religious outreach. And that problem just highlights how ill-suited professors are to doing the job of Jewish educators.

Third, there are students who want someone who can bolster them when under attack, or at least put in difficult situations, as Jews.

When it comes to the first, these students will always be a minority, but Jewish-studies departments are well equipped to giving them what they want. As for the second, Jewish-studies courses are a great way to enhance a Jewish education, but no substitute for one. Here the burden lies on parents. If you don’t want to send your kids to day school or yeshiva, enroll them in Hebrew school or Jewish summer camp; take them to synagogue; send them to Israel; celebrate Jewish holidays; read them Jewish books; go to the rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner; have them apply to extra-curricular programs. But don’t think for a minute that college courses can make up for any of this.

The third desire, for support, was mentioned to me by two different professors quite recently. These students’ needs entail anything from asking about how to handle an exam scheduled on Shabbat to wanting to talk to somebody about a vicious anti-Israel protest to wanting to hear the facts from someone with authority who doesn’t seem hostile to the Zionist enterprise. Only one of these professors, it’s worth noting, is in Jewish studies, but it’s not crazy to say that Jewish-studies professors should be natural people for students to turn to. It’s also probable that the professors’ disappointing silence, if not hostility, to Israel over the last six months will make that much less likely.


IX. Is Jewish Studies a Lost Cause?


Ultimately the problems of Jewish studies flow from the problems of the university. I frankly don’t know how these problems can be fixed, so I won’t try to end with direct prescriptions for reform. Instead, I’d like to offer some examples of things that are going right—not examples of good scholarship, of which there is still no shortage, but of Jewish scholarship being used to help the Jews. Perhaps highlighting such scholarship can persuade more scholars to follow in its footsteps.

First, university scholars are rediscovering the appeal of speaking to non-scholarly audiences, and that is true of Jewish-studies scholars in particular. There is a tremendous interest in academic Jewish studies among the Orthodox and among Haredim, as shown by the remarkably successful SeforimChatter podcast. And it’s not just the Orthodox. A bevy of podcasts as well as publications (like, well, this one) regularly offer academics platforms that weren’t available a decade or two ago to write things that aren’t necessarily ideological, things that bring their academic expertise to bear on questions of public concern. These endeavors provide audiences with a chance to learn, but also teach academics to speak to the Jews.

Beyond this, I’d like to single out two cases that represent what Jewish studies can and should be. I should disclose that I’ve had positive personal and professional encounters with both of the individuals I’m about to discuss, but I’ve deliberately avoided choosing as examples friends, colleagues, and mentors so as to remain somewhat unclouded by bias.

The first is Naomi Seidman’s 2019 book, A Revolution in the Name of Tradition: Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley who writes on topics like “the sexual politics of Hebrew and Yiddish” and “gender and the remaking of modern Jewry,” Seidman is one of the pioneers of women’s studies in Jewish studies. I don’t know what her political beliefs are, but I suspect they are very different from mine.

The subject of this book, Sarah Schenirer (1883–1935), was a young woman from a Polish hasidic family who helped to establish a network of Orthodox schools for girls at a time when such institutions were all but nonexistent in Eastern Europe. Today, most haredi girls’ schools are part of this network, and Seidman, an ex-Hasid, attended one herself.

Schenirer has become a revered figure in haredi circles, and Seidman’s biography challenges many elements of the hagiographic narrative of her life. It is also meticulously researched, full of insight and penetrating analysis as well as human sensitivity. As an Orthodox Jew with considerably more liberal attitudes about education than the average Bais Yaakov principal, I appreciated Schenirer more after reading this book. I can’t imagine anyone but the most hardened ideologue (either haredi, feminist, or anti-Orthodox) reacting differently. Seidman’s book undermines the picture of Schenirer the saint and gives us something much better: a full-fledged human being to be admired and even emulated.

I’ll also note that Seidman, in her nonacademic writing, has used her formidable intellectual abilities as well as her personal experience to defend the Jews—without engaging in apologetics—in her review of the miniseries Unorthodox, about a young woman leaving her hasidic community.

My second example is a scholar named Jonathan Gribetz, now of Princeton. His book, Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter, has, improbably, received praise from Ruth Wisse and from Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi, academia’s most eminent apologist for Palestinian terrorism.

But I don’t want to highlight Gribetz’s scholarship, but instead his pedagogical approach, which he recently outlined in an interview with the Orthodox podcaster and rabbi Dovid Bashevkin. Rather than shrinking from the challenge, Gribetz finds himself teaching classes on Israeli and Palestinian history to classes that include Jews as well as Arabs, classes in which he brings an approach that strikes me as just right. “This class,” he tells his students, “is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” If only the Khalidis of the world had the same attitude.

One of my intellectual heroes is Max Weinreich, a linguist and Yiddishist who was among the founders of Vilna’s YIVO Institute, and the only one to survive the Shoah. Contrary to widespread misconception, he wasn’t an anti-Zionist, although he wasn’t quite a Zionist either. He was deeply committed to two principles: one was that Jewish scholarship should be in the service of the Jewish people. The second was that YIVO should be unparteyish, a Yiddish word that literally means nonpartisan, but also conveys something more. The YIVO of old was open to scholars of all political and religious orientations, and it exemplified the hope that scholarship could transcend political loyalties, that research could be oriented toward the truth, and that such an endeavor would strengthen the Jewish people. That’s the vision we should hope Jewish studies can recover. This task is hard enough under any circumstances. It’s downright impossible if Jewish studies becomes a weapon against the Jews.