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The Nation magazine mishandles prominent Rabbi’s complaint of anti-Semitic essay

The Nation magazine mishandles prominent Rabbi’s complaint of anti-Semitic essay

Deflection and denial is not an adequate response.

In November 2015, The Nation, a prominent progressive magazine, published an essay by controversial professor Steven Salaita which raised complaints from a prominent Rabbi that the essay crossed the line from legitimate criticism of Israeli policy to anti-Semitism.

As we noted in many prior posts, Salaita is a virulently anti-Israel academic who had a contingent offer at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign rejected in 2014. He sued and got a money settlement, but not the job. Salaita’s since become “enshrined as a symbol” in the American academy of the trouncing of academic freedom and the trampling of shared governance protocols.

Salaita’s essay in The Nation brought harsh criticism from a Professor of Jewish thought and culture:

Apparently it’s Zionism that ails the neoliberal university, along with everything else amiss in the world. You can read here his goodbye at the Nation. What reads like it was taken straight out from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the complaint that Zionism occupies the American mind and the American university expands as a logical next step on the basic view from the tweets and the book that “Zionists” are enemies of humanity, supporters of war crimes, adorn themselves with the teeth of Palestinian babies, etc, etc. Don’t be surprised when the next stage in on-campus Palestinian solidarity activism takes aim at purging U.S. academe of “Zionism,” namely Birthright, Hillel, study abroad in Israel, Israel Studies, and Jewish Studies.

The essay also prompted Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading voice in American Jewish Conservative circles, to write in complaint. In a Letter to the Editor sent to The Nation in November, Jacobs contended that Salaita’s article contained a series of disturbing anti-Semitic statements.

It took weeks for The Nation’s editors to reply.

The Nation’s response, along with Jacobs’ letter, are now featured together with Salaita’s essay on the online version of the magazine.

What The Nation had to say was unbelievable. Instead of interrogating Rabbi Jacobs’ charge, the editors completely dodged that issue by changing the subject. What’s more, they give Jacobs a not-so-subtle dressing-down for raising the charge in the first place. As noted in a thoughtful post by blogger David Schraub, it’s a “fascinating” and “conspicuously non-responsive” response.

Basically, The Nation’s shameful and shabby dismissal of Rabbi Jacobs’ discrimination allegations highlights the growing tendency in the Left to tolerate hostility toward Jews along with a “wild, demented, unhinged form of anti-Zionism”.

Introduction: The Nation Publishes Salaita Screed

We covered the bitter saga over Salaita’s employment in numerous posts. As we wrote in our most recent one, Salaita settled out of court after filing a lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC), the Board of Trustees (which voted against his hiring) and several administrators, accusing them of violating his contractual and constitutional rights.

For those who haven’t been following this drawn-out controversy: Steven Salaita’s contingent job offer at the UIUC was rescinded in August 2014 after he published hateful tweets on his personal Twitter account before and during Israel’s war with Hamas that summer.

[Steven Salaita Twitter Profile Pic, July 2014]

[Steven Salaita Twitter Profile Pic, July 2014]

The problem with Salaita wasn’t that his “angry tweets” were intemperate, or tended to involve a fair amount of cursing and use of the F-word.

Rather, as I argued in an op-ed featured in The Times of Israel (and reprinted as a  guest commentary by The News Gazette of Illinois):

Because anti-Semitism has a precise definition with specific manifestations, not every one of Salaita’s hundreds of angry tweets rises to anti-Semitism. But the vast majority of them are textbook instances of both classic and contemporary anti-Jewish prejudice. Salaita’s shocking anti-Semitism operates on two levels: he can imagine Jews as parasites and sexual deviants, “scabies” that “burrow under the skin” and “bloodletters” that “murder children” to make “necklaces from their teeth” and as sinister money-grubbers and power-grabbers, like the “Zionist donors” who he insists robbed him of his job”.

In The Nation Salaita writes about how Israel’s army is driven by “cruelty” and is full of blood lust; how Zionism (“incompatible with democracy”) is what ails the American university system; and how things would be so much better and purer in academia if only those supporters of Israel weren’t in “sites of authority, often an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables”.

Rabbi Jacobs Objects to Anti-Semitic Tropes

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a left-of-center organization that’s long been critical of Israel’s “settlements” and various Israeli state policies and practices that it believes is undermining the country’s democracy.

Jacobs is no stranger to controversy. Over a decade ago she made headlines when still a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary where she wrote an article critical of Israel’s housing policies in Jerusalem. Now, she spends a lot of her time railing against the “occupation” and defending Israel’s controversial left-of-center NGOS.

Jill Jacobs | Twitter

Jill Jacobs | Twitter

In November, Jacobs wrote in to The Nation, asserting that Salaita characterizes Zionism in such sweeping terms that it summons the specter of classic anti-Semitism.

Here’s Jacobs’ statement:

Letter to the Editor

Steven Salaita resurrects some of the most vicious anti-Semitic tropes, protecting himself by assigning these slurs to Zionism and Zionists, clear stand-ins for Judaism and Jews.

As the executive director of an organization that mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and their communities to protect human rights, including in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, I believe that the Israeli government can and should be criticized for the policies that have maintained a 48-year-long occupation, that expand settlements, and that violate the human rights of Palestinians. These practices violate both Jewish law and the founding ideals of the State of Israel.

However, argument with the policies of the State of Israel does not justify broad assertions such as, “It is necessary to connect this Zionist presence with the suppression of all radical ideas,” or “Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power,” or, bizarrely, the assertion that support for Israel is “an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables.” These statements, which do not even pretend to be about criticism of Israeli policy, summon the well-known bogeyman of a Jewish conspiracy that controls banks, governments, and other seats of authority.

Surely, The Nation, with its history of standing up for the human rights of all people, can find ways to criticize Israeli government policy without resorting to anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs Executive Director, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights New York City

According to Jacobs, she had to wait a long time to hear anything back. In an email which she shared via Twitter, The Nation finally contacted her earlier this month.

Jacobs' email from The Nation

The email is unnerving in and of itself.

Why would they take Salaita’s (or any author’s) “word” when confronted with such a charge? Further, the email suggests that were Jacobs not an admired progressive and held in such “high regard”, her accusations would’ve probably been dismissed out of hand. That is, it’s because The Nation’s editorial staff view her as a fellow traveler that they bothered to even look at her complaint, let alone publish it. The implication is obvious: had the letter come from someone on the center or the right, it would’ve more than likely landed in the garbage straight away.

But if the email is disconcerting enough, the actual reply is even worse.

The Nation Responds

The Nation Replies to Jill Jacobs

The Nation’s reply is unacceptable.

David Schraub argues on his blog that it sidesteps Jacobs’ criticism:

Rabbi Jacobs’ objection did not state that ‘Steven Salaita’s column is anti-Semitic because it criticized Zionism’. She leveled specific objections to specific passages…One can of course disagree with that assessment, and respond by saying why the passages in question do not in fact raise the tropes that Rabbi Jacobs claims that they do. The Nation’s reply does not do this. It is rather a complete non-sequitur: Judaism and Zionism are different…Does that mean that any criticism of Zionism, no matter how it is formulated, cannot be anti-Semitic? Surely, The Nation cannot believe that (can it)? But if we do concede that it is possible to criticize Zionism in anti-Semitic ways (e.g., by doing so in ways which raise the spectre of world-dominating Jewish conspiracies), then The Nation hasn’t actually said anything in response to Rabbi Jacobs…it has not provided a substantive reply”.

So The Nation fails to take Jacobs’ claim seriously even as it insists—like all good progressives do—to always take the issues of anti-Semitism seriously.

Burton tweet

But The Nation doesn’t only summarily dismiss the specific discriminatory allegations that Jacobs levels at Salaita’s piece. There’s also a veiled scolding of Jacobs too.

The Editors state in their reply that charges of anti-Semitism, “wrongly applied”, have the power to defame, ruin people’s careers and silence criticisms—presumably in the ways that The Nation believes Salaita was. As noted in their introduction to Salaita’s essay, the Editors clearly view the “embattled professor” as someone who unfairly had his “academic freedom violated” and his “Palestinian human rights advocacy suppressed”.

Maybe they think Jacobs offered her criticisms in bad faith. Indeed, Schraub conjectures that by raising the “evils of ‘wrongly applied’ anti-Semitism claims”, The Nation may—in spite its claim to “respect” her—be putting Rabbi Jacobs in “the same class as those Jews who are always crying anti-Semitism to ‘silence’ critics of Israel”.

Schraub’s central critique of The Nation’s response is that it “utterly fails to grapple” with Jacobs’ claims of discrimination.

It’s the central problem, for sure. But I would add that the reply also manages to utterly denigrate Jewish identity. News flash for The Nation: for most of world Jewry, Zionism is “intimately or essentially related” to Jewish self-conception.

As Prof. Andrew Pessin argues in an important op-ed published in the American Thinker last weekend, anti-Zionism—or Zionophobia—is inherently anti-Semitic not because all Jews are hated but because some Jews are, namely those who are Zionists and “stand up for the rights of Jews…Those Jews who believe that Jews have the right of self-determination in that one sliver of earth that is their ancient homeland”.

As Pessin notes, Zionophobia is the rejection “for Jews qua Jews [of] the same basic dignity and rights that all other peoples enjoy. And that just is antisemitism”.

Bottom line: The Nation’s defense of Salaita’s article is obnoxious because it legitimizes hating certain Jews (Zionists) for their Jewishness.


Salaita tweet to Jacobs


Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman      


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Thank you for including a link to the original article. I tried to read it, but I could not get past the opening paragraphs, where he equated losing out on a job offer for misconduct with murder and the persecution of the American Indian.

Exaggeration to some point beyond parody results in gibberish. I have better things to do.

innocent bystander | January 31, 2016 at 9:00 pm

“For those who haven’t been following this drawn-out controversy: Steven Salaita’s job offer at the UIUC was rescinded in August 2014 …”

No. Salaita did not have a “job offer.” The department that wanted to hire him does not have that authority. They can propose him for the position, but the Board must ultimately approval that proposal.

Yes, we all know criticism of the Israeli government and its policies does not necessarily equate to anti-Semitism.

At the risk of sounding like Supreme Court Justice Stewart, I know sincere and arguably legitimate criticism when I see it (even if I disagree with it).

And, “an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables” ain’t it.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading voice in American Jewish Conservative circles,

This may be confusing to LI readers who aren’t Jewish. In Jewish terms, “Conservative” doesn’t mean political conservatism, but the Conservative movement. It’s called “Conservative” because while agreeing in principle with the Reform movement, it balked at the wholesale rejection of all Jewish laws and traditions, seeking instead to “conserve” at least those that don’t clash with leftist political dogma. But politically and theologically it’s far to the left.

Of course it’s possible to criticise specific Israeli government policies without being antisemitic. There’s nothing antisemitic about disagreeing with Israel’s tax code, or its level of government spending, or its energy policy. But it is not possible to criticize Israel’s policy of defending itself from attackers, or to support those attackers, without being antisemitic.

Nor is it possible to champion the supposed right of Arabs to retake the territories they lost in ’48 or ’67 without being antisemitic. Regardless of what position one takes on the land rights of indigenous people, Israel wins. Either one believes that conquest does not extinguish people’s right to their homeland, and that so long as they maintain their claim they have the right to return, or one believes that conquest does give the conqueror the right to keep the land, and the displaced people’s rights are extinguished by time.

If one believes indigenous people retain the right to their land, then the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews. If one believes that the Jewish claim to Israel was extinguished by the Roman conquest, or by the years that passed since, then surely the same applies to the Arab claim, which was extinguished by the Israeli conquest, or by the years that have passed. Remember that the Arabs only ruled the “territories” for 19 years, while Israel has now ruled them for 48.

A Jew with a View | February 1, 2016 at 8:23 am

Declaring that because Zionism is a political movement, to be anti-Zionist is not anti-Semitic makes as much sense as claiming those who opposed the abolition of slavery did not make one a racist.