Many people have expressed fear about the growing BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement on campus. Some Jewish students have said that it makes them feel unsafe. A Jewish professor at the University of Michigan said that a “third intifada” may be upon us. Several mainstream writers picked up my report on a tense debate at Vassar over boycott, stressing the fear factor in the room.
Fear has become the byword, and today Frank Bruni in the New York Times seeks to justify the fear by saying that critics of Israel on campus are just anti-Semites: “[Some] college campuses in recent years have been theaters of anti-Israel discussions that occasionally veer toward, or bleed into, condemnations of Jews…[T]here’s still bigotry under the surface. There are still caricatures that won’t die.”
I believe these fears are overblown, and reflect a different fear entirely: the fear of Muslims daring to participate in American public life.
I watched most of the six-hour divestment debate at the University of Michigan and was struck by the cultural politics: the young Muslim and Arab students were very forthright about speaking as aggrieved Muslims and Arabs. Many women wore hijabs.
These young people are not conducting themselves in the same way their parents and grandparents did. They are not trying to keep their heads down like John Sununu (74), working quietly in the sciences, or even like dragon-slayer Ralph Nader (80), who didn’t lead with his Arab-American background (when I interviewed him many years ago for Vanity Fair, he was reluctant to get into the Israel-Palestine conflict; he had other fish to fry).
No, these students feel they have a right to speak out as Arab-Americans, and their anger about the U.S. global treatment of Arabs is at the front of their minds and gives tremendous force to the things they say. Many of the Arab students at Michigan read off long lists of names of family members in Palestine, from ages 2 on up– a lot of Arab names.
I too found that disorienting, just as I was thrown by the vehemence at Vassar. But the disorientation is a sign that this is an important cultural transformation. In fact, these young Arabs and Muslims are a lot like radical Jews who played such an important role in the anti-Vietnam-war movement. As Mark Rudd, the Students for a Democratic Society leader at Columbia in 1968, later wrote, most of the SDS members on that campus were Jewish. And they were out in a way their forbears weren’t. Rudd’s father changed his name from Rudnitsky to Rudd so that he could get ahead in the US army.
Mark Rudd felt more secure than his father; but drew on a sense of Jewish exceptionalism.
This particular empire [the U.S.] is neither the first nor the last to attempt to seduce us [as Jews] to join up. But we’d better not: it’s our job to be critical outsiders, both for our own survival and for that of the planet.
Rudd identified the military industrial complex with goyim and anti-semitism:
What outraged me and my comrades so much about Columbia, along with its hypocrisy, was the air of genteel civility. Or should I say gentile? Despite the presence of so many Jews in the faculty and among the students—geographical distribution in the admissions process had not been effective at filtering us out, our SAT’s and class-rank being so high—the place was dripping with goyishness. When I got there freshmen still wore blue blazers and ties and drank sherry at afternoon socials with the deans. At the top of the Columbia heap sat President Grayson Kirk and Vice-President David Truman, two consummate liberal WASP’s who privately claimed to oppose the war but maintained the institution’s support of it.
Rudd’s ethnic resentment was shared by conservatives. Norman Podhoretz said English departments didn’t see Jews as fit to be professors of Melville and Browning. Saul Bellow said that a “genteel dictatorship” of WASPs just wanted to stuff Jews and put them in a museum. Alan Dershowitz threatened to quit Harvard law school unless it named a Jewish dean. And neoconservatives emerged out of a resentment at Jewish exclusion (Jacob Heilbrunn has written).
Those Jewish voices scared the bejesus out of the established order. Just as the political engagement of Arab-Americans is scary for the established order today.
One reason this encounter is hard for Jews is we don’t like to think of ourselves as Establishment types. Hey, we’re the critical outsiders, just as Rudd said. So Jewish social identity is at stake; I think we have to come to terms with our power, as a central component of the Establishment, from the Supreme Court to the Fed. Just look at reports in the Israeli press on the power of Jewish donors, or John Judis’s book on Truman’s abandonment of his opposition to a Jewish state; Zionists have had access for decades. And if the SDS types could throw the Vietnam war at the foot of the WASP establishment, you can throw some of the Iraq responsibility at the feet of rightwing Zionists in the U.S. establishment– the neoconservatives, who got remarkably little criticism from liberal Zionists.
During the last Establishment failure, I can tell you that my wife and many other WASPs were ashamed of their caste. As a young person, she felt her tribe was responsible for countless ills, from anti-Semitism to the Vietnam War. Her neighbor the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote an important book calling on the Protestant clubs and boardrooms to open themselves up to talented young Jews. They did. Harvard named several Jewish deans to the law school, and a Jewish president too. Joseph Epstein wrote that the WASP establishment put up a white flag without a shot being fired.
Today, the Arab and Muslim students are part of a wider social revolution that includes many progressive Jews and is demanding real diversity in the Establishment. We see it in the First Family, we see it in the New York mayor’s family, we see it on NPR, where a new anchor, a woman of color, Audie Cornish, has brought in a perspective from black people I’ve never heard there before.
But if Obama and Bill de Blasio think you can diversify the Establishment without changing the politics of the special relationship with Israel (and continuing to suck up to AIPAC), they’ve got another think coming.
That’s the rage we’re seeing on college campuses. They want change on the issue that so affects them: America’s unbalanced policy in the Middle East. They are enraged at an Establishment that has helped kill at least 288,000 Muslims, and at Zionism in a way that will make earlier criticisms of Zionism inside the American discourse seem detached, wan or narcissistic. They are determined to bring a critique to the place it has always belonged, the American public square.
Palestine Solidarity Legal Support says these young people’s free speech is being repressed around the country. As they speak louder and undertake civil disobedience, some of these young Arabs and Muslims may end up paying a personal price for their activism. (Mark Rudd paid for the Columbia occupation with the end of his college days and future in the Establishment. He’s led a very worthy life of service as a teacher. His Columbia colleague Bob Feldman gave up his college degree and has also led a very worthy life, as a writer. So did my boyhood neighbor, Dick Cluster, gone from Harvard– writer and translator.)
So that’s what is so fearful. These young people are demanding their place as Americans in American public life. The U.S. will never be the same for it. No, we’ll be better.