Opinion

The New Kherem, or ‘Barry Trachtenberg Does Not Represent Us!’: On speaking for and against Jewish self-interests

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A version of this talk was delivered on February 28, 2020 at the symposium, “Becoming Allies: Muslim-Jewish Solidarity in the Face of Islamophobia and Antisemitism,” at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. The author thanks Ariel Salzmann for organizing the symposium and Mir Yarfitz, Michaelle Browers, and Jennifer Greiman for their helpful feedback.

The global rise in ethno-nationalism, xenophobia, and racism has brought with it a new line of attack against Jewish critics of Israel and Zionism. Not only does this new strategy attempt to silence critics through now-commonplace denunciations in the press, assaults on academic freedom, and financial strangleholds, but supporters of Israel are increasingly engaging in a new form of kherem (Yiddish and Hebrew: “excommunication”) against those Jews who refuse to align themselves with the state and support Palestinian freedom. No longer content to condemn us as “self-hating,” this new phase of Zionist attack seeks to exclude us from our local Jewish communities and to deny our place among the Jewish people more globally. As such, it presents a complicated set of challenges both to anti-Zionist Jews and even Zionist Jews who are critical towards certain aspects of Israeli policy, as well as to scholars working in the field of Jewish studies who maintain a critical stance towards their subject matter. This tactic represents a new attempt at our marginalization and delegitimization as Jews, as scholars of Jews, or both. As well, it forces us to rethink our relationship to the Jewish community as a whole.

As a Jewish scholar of modern Jewish history who has been publicly critical of aspects of Israeli policy and American support for Israel, I’ve received a modest share of attacks in the right-wing (and not so right-wing) Jewish press. I’ve been accused of comparing Nazi Germany to Israel, of excusing the United States’ response to the Holocaust, and of aligning myself with the Jewish right’s most recent boogeyman Congressional Representative Ilhan Omar (who in fact I have supported). Most recently and oddly, I’ve been described as “hijacking” a Holocaust-studies pedagogy institute that I’ve helped to organize. It’s no longer a strange experience for me to receive angry and even threatening emails and voicemails. Likely because I’m white, Jewish, cis-gendered, hetero, and male (as well as not being active on social media), what I’ve experienced is mild in comparison to what so many colleagues in academia have suffered. I’ve even managed to stay out of Canary Mission and AMCHA’s sights.

Attacks on me began in particular following my 2017 congressional testimony against the United States ratifying the new “working definition of antisemitism” put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a definition which contains examples that explicitly equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism and which threatens to exacerbate rather than limit anti-Jewish violence. Attacks continued through the publication of my 2018 book, which seeks to de-exceptionalize antisemitism in the United States during the time of the Holocaust and argues for considering it as part of America’s long history with racism.

In February 2019, a group of students at my university held a series of events as part of a Palestinian Solidarity Week that they were organizing in response to a student government resolution passed in late 2018 that supported the IHRA definition. Their activism included building a mock “wall” on a campus quad, installing an informational poster session on Palestinian history in the student union, and hosting a film screening of Five Broken Cameras followed by a group discussion. Each of these events was disrupted by Zionist supremacist activists and at times, the Zionists received support from certain officials from within the university. The “main event” of the week was a panel discussion in which students, community activists, and faculty were to speak on the relationship of antisemitism and anti-Zionism and to make the case that the student government had erred when it passed its resolution accepting the IHRA’s definition. In the days running up to the event an intimidation campaign mounted by Zionist students and a pro-Israel faculty member successfully scared off the students from appearing on the panel. As a consequence, not only were no students able to speak at the forum they themselves had organized, but no Palestinian, Arab or Muslim voices were present among the remaining panelists, which included a Religious Studies contingent faculty member as moderator, and as panelists, a Political Scientist who is an expert on Arab political movements, a local activist with the Christian Peacemakers Team, and myself.

At the start of the panel discussion, protesters filed in wearing the colors of the Israeli flag, and many were wearing the flag tied around their necks so they looked oddly like superhero capes. Surprisingly, the signs they carried – at least the ones that I observed – did not express support for Israel or denounce the panel or the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, but rather declared that “Barry Trachtenberg does not represent us.” Others, apropos of I don’t know what, other than a new line of attack among Zionist students more broadly, proclaimed the indigeneity of Yemenite Jews who arrived to Israel after the 1948 war.

The posters and signs declaring that “I” did not represent “them” led to an interesting and combative discussion at the panel, which was something of a powder keg, over the meaning of that statement. On one hand, the immediate interpretation was a simple one. Factually speaking, it is correct that I did not reflect the views of the Zionist students, who believed in spite of the open mic format, in spite of their successful shutting down of or limiting all of the other events scheduled for that week, and in spite of their own frequently held uninterrupted events, that their views on the subject were being censored.

On the other hand, the subtext of their signs was equally clear. What the signs were saying, and what the students (including leaders of Hillel and other Jewish groups) and their supporters were insisting, was that because I was not representing a Zionist position, I was not a Jew and therefore had no “right” to speak out of a position of personally being a Jew, from my field of expertise, nor in my capacity as Director of the program in Jewish Studies. Because I was not speaking as a Zionist Jew and therefore, in the interests of Jewish state power, I found myself cast out of the official Jewish community on campus. This kherem was confirmed by a slew of hate mail that followed and which demanded that I be fired, threatened to withhold donations, and referred to me alternatively as a “kapo,” a “Hitlerite,” or simply a “Nazi.” One message left on my voicemail hoped that Hashem would burn my “twisted soul in hell.”

A similar excommunicatory act occurred later that year in the fall, when I organized a collaboratively-taught Lifelong Learning course for adult (mostly retired) learners in the community which was entitled “Understanding Palestine & Israel: Contested Pasts and Presents.” The six-week course was taught by seven faculty members from four disciplines, and was drawn from colleagues in our university’s Jewish Studies Program and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies program. The course moved through the long history of Palestine/Israel, and then moved chronologically to cover the pre-biblical period, the time of the Hebrew bible and the Middle Ages, the early modern period of Ottoman rule, the rise of European antisemitism and Zionism in both Europe and Palestine, the Holocaust, the Nakba, the formation of Israeli and Palestinian identities post-1948, the intifadas, and the current political stalemate. The course was highly popular and all sixty available seats filled within a matter of days.

Among the participants of the course was a local rabbi who is politically progressive on many social issues and also a strong supporter of Israel. Prior to the first class, the rabbi was in contact with university officials to express his concerns over the course and in particular my role in it. After the first session, he began what became a series of emails criticizing the course for having “erased” the Jewish presence to the region. I was accused of having offended Jewish sensibilities by referring to the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians in 1948, a term the rabbi argued is “loaded and charged” for Jews (with no reference to how “loaded and charged” the actual ethnic cleansing might have been for Palestinians who experienced it then and who have contended with the consequences ever since). Quickly, it became evident to many of the faculty that unlike most of the other participants in the class, the rabbi was not there to learn what we had to teach but to make certain that we adhered to a Zionist rendering of this history. This became clear to everyone in the penultimate session when he lost his cool and attempted to shout down one of the professors in the middle of a talk on Palestinian organized resistance.

Over email, I privately called him out on his behavior, cc’ing my colleagues teaching the course. The rabbi’s response, by contrast, was quite public. Near the end of the course the High Holidays began. This year’s Yom Kippur sermon was on the topic of “Love of Israel,” much of which comprised an attack on our university for teaching anti-Israel views. In a line that several congregants interpreted as being directed towards me in particular (I wasn’t in attendance), the rabbi went on to sermonize that to criticize Israel from any position other than out of a love for the state is anti-Jewish, declaring “To fight against Israel, as a Jew, is to turn your back on family.” Once again the message was clear, Jews who support Palestinian human rights are not a part of the Jewish community. Although the “Mission & Beliefs” of the temple are to “welcome members from all Jewish backgrounds,” clearly this doesn’t extend to non-Zionist Jews.

The timing of these accusations has been, in a way, fortuitous for my thinking about my relationship – as a secular, diaspora American Jew who studies modern Jewish history – to the larger Jewish community. It just so happened that in the weeks prior to the February 2019 panel discussion, I had reread Edward Said’s 1993 lectures Representations of the Intellectual, which had been a foundational text for me when I stumbled across them as a graduate student at Oxford in 1994. That was the same year that I took first my trip to Israel/Palestine to test my critique of Zionism against the experience of seeing it for myself. In these six lectures, which first aired over the BBC, Said argues that contemporary intellectuals have all too often relinquished their critical faculties over to the task of serving structures of power, such as governments, think tanks, and corporations and as a consequence we have lost our scholarly independence and discharged our primary responsibility, which is to advance the cause of human freedom. In the end, Said claims, the role of the intellectual – which he defines as a critic standing outside systems of institutionalized power – will be filled best by those on the margins of society – the exiles, the incarcerated, and the amateurs – who can most effectively challenge systems of authority and speak for justice and equality.

What stood out for me in those lectures then, and what remains fundamental to my understanding as a scholar some twenty-five years later, was Said’s admonition that academics must never provide their intellectual labor over to the service of states or corporations, or to spend their time pursuing academic honors and accolades. As he said,

The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public, in public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles; that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of those standards need to be testified against courageously.

So in the end, it is the intellectual as a representative figure that matters: someone who visibly represents a standpoint of some kind, and someone who makes articulate representations to his or her public despite all sorts of barriers. My argument is that intellectuals are individuals with a vocation for the art of representing, whether that is talking, writing, teaching, appearing on television; and that vocation is important to the extent that it is publicly recognisable and involves both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability.

These words have been guiding principles for me and it has been helpful and even comforting to revisit them at the moment when I have been called out repeatedly for not representing “my” people.

More broadly, they are also useful to reflect upon and to push back against the present moment when Jews who are non-Zionist or otherwise criticize the state are being told there is no place for them within the Jewish community. My very personal anecdotes are but examples of a much broader trend to effectively de-Judaize critics of Zionism and Israel and even in some instances, to go so far as to Judaize Israel’s non-Jewish supporters.

  • Take for example, the policy of Hillel International to prohibit its local chapters to co-sponsor events with groups critical of Israel and supportive of the boycott.
  • Take for example, Donald Trump’s Executive Order that defines US Jews as comprising a nation separate from that of other Americans, effectively denying both the “Americanness” of US Jewry and the “Jewishness” of non-Zionist Jews.
  • Take for example, the Italian-American and Catholic Rudy Giuliani’s declaration that he is “more of a Jew” than George Soros because of his unwavering support for Israel:

Don’t tell me I’m anti-Semitic if I oppose him. Soros is hardly a Jew. I’m more of a Jew than Soros is. I probably know more about — he doesn’t go to church, he doesn’t go to religion — synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel.

  • Take, for example, the fact that among those testifying to Congress regarding the so-called “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” was the leader of Christians United for Israel Action Fund, a person with no expertise in these issues, yet whose main qualification is being the head of a right wing Christian group that has aligned itself with major Zionist organizations both within and outside of Israel.
  • Take, for example, the states of Israel, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria, Scotland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, North Macedonia, and Italy which have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
  • Take, for example, the new wave of laws and executive orders against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in the United States, adopted by twenty-seven individual states and the Department of Education.
  • Most frightening of all, take Israel’s “nation-state law” that puts into law what had been practiced since the founding of the state: declaring that non-Jews are not members of the Israeli nation, and that Jews are defined first and foremost by their national identity.

Again, as non-Zionist Jews or as Jewish critics of Israel, we are used to being called “traitors” or accused of being disloyal, but what seems new is that the familiar equation that has been put forward for decades by Zionists, that Zionism = Judaism, is now being stressed much more forcefully in its negative form: anti-Zionism = Heresy. While this feels new, it is not without precedent. I am reminded of Gershom Scholem’s condescending and sexist criticism of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a study that took Israel to task for making a show trial out of the genocide. Sent by the New Yorker to report on the trial, Arendt wrote a now-famous series of dispatches that were published in book form with the subtitle “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” a contentious concept that continues to be debated. Arendt found fault with nearly every aspect with the trial, but not, it should be noted, Israel’s right to hold it, the verdict, or the decision to execute. Nevertheless, her refusal to view Israel as a bearer of righteous justice, her denial of Israel’s self-proclaimed right to represent world Jewry, and her depiction of Eichmann as more of a clown than the amoral supervillain that the prosecution sought to portray him as, led her to take a mocking and often derisive tone in her reportage. In response, Scholem, who was at the pinnacle of his scholarly stature as the foremost historian of Jewish mysticism and Jewish public intellectual (and who in fact opposed the capital sentence), referred to Arendt as a “daughter of our people” and, given that familial bond, took her to task for not demonstrating the proper Ahavat Yisrael” (Hebrew: love for the Jewish people).” In effect he was arguing that Arendt was forfeiting her place within the Jewish community because she submitted her critique of the trial not out of “love” for Israel, but out of a concern for universal principles of justice.

As Scholem’s criticism of Arendt demonstrates, the charge of heresy is not entirely novel. It is, however, increasingly being turned into a strategy to deny our right to participate in Jewish communal spaces and conversation.


I had returned to the Said lectures as part of a seminar that my partner had organized on Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s 2013 Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, another text that, like Said’s, critiques the place of scholars vis-à-vis their own institutions but which goes on to argue that in performing our work within academic institutions, we enable and reinforce the structures that disallow the establishment of a society based upon the principles of universal equality. Academia, they assert, exists not to transform society, but to prop up its structural inequalities and through our academic labor, we perpetuate this function. The academy reinforces class, gender, and racial divisions. It trains scientists to engage in military research, produces warriors to advance imperial interests, prepares cadres of diplomats, and police, and bosses, and in a multiplicity of ways maintains national identities. One way to escape this condition, they argue, is through a form of “theft.”

To be clear, while the image of faculty fencing computers and lab equipment or padding expense accounts in order to donate the proceeds to revolutionary causes is an intriguing one (and one that I imagine has happened many times before), what Moten and Harney mean is something quite different. Rather, they argue that it is our responsibility to utilize the tools of the academy not to fulfill its mission of sustaining structural inequality, but rather to reinstrumentalize and redirect those tools towards transformative radical change. As they write… (and I’m editing out a small passage that I think is racist) [1]:

In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, […], to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.

As non-Zionist Jews, Jewish critics of Israel, or scholars of Jewish Studies who wish to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians, we can learn from Said’s caution about who we should be representing and Moten and Harney’s notion of academic stealing. We must think of how to leverage (and not in the capitalist sense) our position to resist efforts by major Jewish organizations, the state of Israel, and their supporters to equate Zionism with Judaism and anti-Zionism with heresy.

These challenges raise the question of the purpose and function of Jewish Studies to the larger Jewish community in an age of collective Jewish power. Do we fulfill the stated and assumed expectations of our donors and institutions and present ourselves as representatives of the larger Jewish community and as advocates for Jewish communal agendas? Or, can we find a way to be at home on the margins of that community in order to represent a set of ideals and principles that work toward the cause of human freedom? These questions of positioning are profoundly demanding and not without risk. As Said cautions:

Always, however, the intellectual is beset and remorselessly challenged by the problem of loyalty. All of us without exception belong to some sort of national, religious or ethnic community: no one, no matter the volume of protestations, is above the organic ties that bind the individual to family, community, and of course nationality.

Put another way, is our purpose to interrogate our subject matter or to prop it up? A conversation is long overdue concerning which disciplines are expected to do which. Colleagues in French or Russian studies get little to no blowback for criticizing aspects of French or Russian history, culture, or policy, but my colleagues in Women and Gender Studies or Hindu studies certainly do when they defy the expectations of the leaders and spokespersons of communities they purportedly represent.

Although the secular study of Jews dates back to Germany in the first decades of the 19th century, it took off with increasing acceleration in the decades after World War II to become an academic discipline in the United States and is now found in many college and universities around the world. Today, very many – and perhaps most – Jewish Studies programs and academic posts (including the chair I hold) are privately funded. We are dependent upon philanthropy for our endowed chairs, lecture series, conferences, book subventions, our major book awards, popular programming, and our research funds. With that funding typically comes a set of sometimes implied and sometime explicit expectations that we faculty – who are mostly Jews ourselves – are expected to reflect and support. We are the beneficiaries of the vast sums of money donated by the Shustermans, and the Bronfmans, and the Steinhardts, and the Adelsons, and the Singers who use their philanthropy to buttress the State of Israel and further the erasure of Palestinian. If Moten and Harney are correct in their assertion that academia exists in large measure to prop up and expand state power and social inequities, Jewish Studies is certainly no exception. It is incumbent upon us, as Jews and as scholars of Jews, both to recognize that the profound success of Jewish studies is not based only on its merits (or because we fancy ourselves “people of the book”), but on our reliance upon wealthy patrons with their implicit or even explicit expectations.

There are those of us within the field of Jewish Studies who believe simultaneously that Jews have just as much a right to exist in the world as do all other peoples and who recognize that Jews have just as much a capacity for violence as all other peoples. It is our obligation, therefore, to use our positions to show solidarity with other peoples with similarly long histories of oppression, to link our fate with the undercommons, and to explore how, as “anti-representatives” of the Jewish community, we can call out abuses by the Jewish State and its defenders in the diaspora.

Our own “academic stealing” might look like the following:

  • We can use our training to reject a Zionist rendering of history that obliterates 2,000 years of diasporic cultural creativity and cooperation.
  • We can turn our scholarly skills over to the resistance to white supremacy, ethno-nationalism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism.
  • We can represent not a people, or a nation, or a state, or our institutions and employers, but a set of ideals that commit us to furthering the cause of solidarity, justice, equality, and freedom.

As the new mukhromin (Yiddish and Hebrew: “excommunicated ones”), we are fortunate enough to have a legacy from within our tradition which to draw. These are the ideals expressed by the anarchist Bernard Lazare, who was one of Alfred Dreyfus’s earliest defenders and who wrote during the formative period of Zionist movement that:

For a Jew, the word ‘nationalism’ should mean freedom. A Jew who today may declare, “I am a nationalist,” will not be saying in any special, precise or clear-cut way, “I am a man who seeks to rebuild a Jewish state in Palestine and who dreams of conquering Jerusalem.” He will be saying, “I want to be a man fully free, I want to enjoy the sunshine, I want to have a right to my dignity as a man. I want to escape the oppression, to escape the outrage, to escape the scorn with which men seek to overwhelm me.”

These are the ideals expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected demands that she prioritize Jewish suffering over that of other oppressed peoples. As she wrote from prison in 1916 to a Social Democrat friend who encouraged her to focus her activism on the “special suffering of Jews,” she replied,

What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch […] they resound with me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.

These are the ideals expressed by Hannah Arendt in her reply to Gershom Scholem’s insistence that the only legitimate criticism of Israel is leveled by those who do so out of love for Israel,

The truth is I have never pretended to be anything else or to be in any way other than I am, and I have never even felt tempted in that direction. …To be a Jew belongs for me to the indisputable facts of my life, and I have never had the wish to change or disclaim facts of this kind. …

As for her so-called lack of “love for the Jews,” she responded by rejecting completely Scholem’s notion that as a Jew, it was her responsibility to love the Jewish people. “I indeed love ‘only’ my friends,” she wrote, “and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” She then posed the question back to him, to paraphrase, “What good can come out a people who only believes in itself”? “…I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.”

The power of Jewish Studies is not to be found in reinforcing contemporary Jewish mythologies and popular self-conceptions, not in teaching narratives of “loss and redemption,” or the “miracle” of the “rebirth” of the Jewish people in their own land as our patrons too often insist that we do. Certainly it is not in “representing” uncritically the interests of Jewish collective power. Rather, the potential of Jewish Studies rests in teaching and interrogating the history of a people who, for reasons both internal and external to them, have resisted being boxed into rigid categorizations. I convey to my students that the field of Jewish Studies is not only an amalgam of various disciplines, e.g., history, religion, political science, literature, archeology, and sociology, but that it also comes with its own vibrant set of demands, terminologies, tensions, and assumptions. At its best, the field challenges geographic, linguistic, religious, class, gender, racial, imperial, and national boundaries, and contests accepted notions of citizenship, peoplehood, and community. It touches upon dozens of languages, nearly every region of the world, and several millennia. As such, the field of Jewish studies is a history of Jews’ interdependence and interconnectedness and a recognition that to survive in this world, we must remain of this world. We must align ourselves with the world, and not set ourselves apart from it.

Notes

  1. The edited passage refers to “its gypsy encampment.” While I realize that the term “Gypsy” is not always a pejorative one, and some within the Roma and Sinti communities have embraced or accepted it, the appellation as it is used here inappropriately consigns this group to a stereotypical metaphor.
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Good for Prof. Trachtenberg for doing all this great work. However, I think his take that there is a new attack on pro-Palestinians is off. There is nothing new in this. On the contrary, appearing before congress and running university panels as pro-Palestinian thankfully means BT is on the inside, not the outside. Twenty plus years ago we protested the Zionists with: “Not in My Name!” “X does not represent us!” was how we picked… Read more »

Wow!! Bravo, Mabruk, Barry Trachtenberg!! An excellent and much needed article! You are one of my heros. It is increasingly obvious that Zionists are in panic mode and for good reason. By riding on America’s back and bleeding it financially for decades they have gotten away with well documented and accelerating violations of international humanitarian law, including the brutal occupation and theft of Palestinian land and constant crimes committed against the essentially defenseless Arab inhabitants.… Read more »

On topic + off topic comment: Trachtenberg’s story in Electronic Intifada, “Panic over BDS reaches fever pitch” https://electronicintifada.net/content/panic-over-bds-reaches-fever-pitch/28786 “First, the attempt to paint BDS as anti-Semitic is primarily a ploy to deflect what are otherwise legitimate criticisms of Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians living under occupation. Off topic – not sure where this fits in but it needs to get out there: “Terrorism was Israel’s ‘pretext’ to turn Jordan into Palestine, says Ehud Barack…The goal… Read more »

… supporters of Israel are increasingly engaging in a new form of kherem (Yiddish and Hebrew: “excommunication”) against those Jews who refuse to align themselves with the state and support Palestinian freedom. No longer content to condemn us as “self-hating,” this new phase of Zionist attack seeks to exclude us from our local Jewish communities and to deny our place among the Jewish people more globally. … Anti-Zionist Jews protest the injustice and immorality of… Read more »

I can assure you, those raucous students definitely consider you a Jew. They called you a kapo. It’s a complete misunderstanding and ignorant use of the term. You are not a kapo. A kapo was forced upon pain of death, or family members deaths. You were forced to do nothing. You come by your views honestly with apparent integrity. I don’t think what you are complaining about is anything that PhilWeiss hasn’t experienced for over… Read more »