In the 1920s, many leading figures in Yiddish literature and scholarship relocated to, or chose to stay in, the Soviet Union, where they found government support for their work, albeit at the cost of ideological conformity. Zelig Kalmanovitch, a leading East European Jewish intellectual at the time—and an anti-Communist who, later in his life, would embrace both Zionism and Orthodoxy—was greatly disappointed when he saw his friends make this decision. Kalmanovitch’s leading biographer, Joshua Karlip, reflects:
Over the past several weeks, I have thought quite a bit about Kalmanovitch’s feelings of betrayal and foreboding as one Jewish-studies colleague after another has added his or her voice to the anti-Israel chorus present in academia today. Colleagues at secular universities report to me the enormous pressure exerted on them by their departments to sign anti-Israel proclamations. Many do so, fearing for their careers.
One major difference exists, however, between [Soviet Jewish scholars of the 1920s] and Jewish-studies professors on U.S. university campuses in 2021. Captive in a one-party state, [they] had little choice but to translate its orthodoxies regarding the original sins of religion and nationalism into his Yiddish scholarship. In contrast, American Jewish scholars are free not to sign statements calling for the end of Israel. That many are signing these statements anyway reveals either their cowardice or, in many cases, their conviction in the rightness of their cause. History suggests that both motivations are likely to lead to the same dismal result.
Almost all [these writers and scholars] perished in the Stalinist purges of 1936-1937 and 1948-1953, accused by the Soviet government of the same national chauvinism that they had zealously pursued in other Jews.
A century ago, a combination of an aversion to Jewish peoplehood and the naïve belief that Jews possess the power to end anti-Semitism through a disavowal of the Jewish collective compelled some of the leading Yiddishists to sign a national suicide note in the Soviet Union. Nearly 100 years later, these same motivations have led many Jewish-studies scholars to attempt a similar move to channel progressive political passions in what they understand to be a salutary direction here in the United States: they blame Israel for the intensification of hatred against it while embarking on a radical de-Judaization of their own academic discipline.
The larger academic world, however, will not stop its Jew-hatred with calls for the elimination of Israel, no matter how enthusiastically Jewish-studies professors sign on. The same academic departments that today are pressuring Jewish-studies scholars to condemn Israel as an admission ticket to academic respectability will tomorrow turn that hatred on the discipline of Jewish studies and its practitioners.