Breaking news from the halls of the academy: Harvard University has discovered that Jews are a minority, and they have been targeted by hate.
With a touch of tutorial assistance from billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman along with dozens of alumni, it took only a month of intimidation and harassment of Jewish students, along with anti-Israel demonstrators chanting eliminationist slogans, for Harvard University President Claudine Gay to add antisemitism to its diversity program.
Harvard’s willful blindness to acts of antisemitism is not a new phenomenon in the world of higher education. Hand-in-hand with knee-jerk contempt toward Israel, antisemitism has thrived in the academy, in various forms, for many years. The trending form of this ancient bigotry is anti-Zionism, which has burst forth as lava from a dormant volcano.
Antisemitism does not register on university radar
It came as a surprise to Corinne Blackmer, an openly gay, Jewish professor, to see that antisemitism and anti-Zionism simply did not register on her university’s official radar. When she found that her office door – where she posted information related to Jewish, Israel, and gay issues – had been defaced with anti-LGBTQ, antisemitic, and anti-Zionist slogans and that there were death threats on her voicemail, she called the campus police.
Blackmer was puzzled when the responding officer seemed to recognize only the homophobic threat. All the other threats and defacements were ignored. She was viewed as only having been victimized as a lesbian.Blackmer went on to have more similar experiences that left her feeling that the authorities, along with her colleagues, had erased her identities as a Jew and a Zionist.
The experiences led her to examine anti-Israel bias in her field, which she documents in her 2022 book, Queering Anti-Zionism: Academic Freedom, LGBTQ Intellectuals and Israel/Palestine Campus Activism.
We have a cultural wish to believe that intellectual pursuits might be pristine and that researchers and thinkers follow the facts and go where they lead. Sadly, current events echo history and tell a very different story.
The acceptance of campus antisemitism in our past
The University of Heidelberg was a beacon of Nazi support in the 1930s. Many of its scholars directly justified or implemented Nazi policies, and played a critical role in the social consensus supporting Hitler. The Heidelberg faculty willingly embraced the Nazis’ “German spirit,” of aggressive nationalism, antisemitism, and the rejection of objectivity in scholarship.
American universities in the 1930s demonstrated their support for Nazism more passively, comparable to the passivity of those universities today, by refusing to take a principled stand against the Hitler regime. In The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses, historian Stephen H. Norwood describes how American educators helped Nazi Germany improve its image in the West as it intensified its persecution of Jews and strengthened its military.
There is a catechism on college campuses, as there is in church.
Political and intellectual attitudes become articles of faith that “everyone” believes. Faculty get ahead professionally by finding a niche of creativity within the approved way of thinking; not by challenging dogma, prejudice, or intellectual fashion. Even for those with the security of tenure, social desirability, and peer acceptance are meaningful incentives to conform.
At the University of Heidelberg, antisemitism directly served personal interest, as firing Jews from their positions created opportunities for career advancement. At Harvard and elsewhere, the perks of joining the ranks of the self-righteous antisemites/anti-Zionists may be more subtle but are nonetheless powerful.
The author is a psychologist, writer, and host of the podcast The Van Leer Series on Ideas.