Courtesy of Cornell University

Cornell University during the 1950s

November 7, 2023

SCHWARZ | Anti-Semitism at Cornell and Beyond: Then and Now

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I not only have taught and written with great pleasure at Cornell for 56 years, but I have also been treated very well here. For those reasons, this is a difficult piece to write.

We at Cornell do not want to become the poster people for blatant anti-Semitism on campuses, and we do not think it reflects the reality of what has been happening here. We are mortified to hear on CNN or read in the New York Times about one student arrested for spouting anti-Semitic bile or one professor expressing “exhilaration” from Hamas’s actions on Oct. 7, where they slaughtered and kidnapped Jewish babies and Jewish elderly.

In fact, the campus has not devolved into chaos. Nor has anyone been physically harmed. Despite a fraught environment, most faculty and students have been going to classes and doing what they usually do. Yes, Jewish students have felt uncomfortable, especially before the student culprit was arrested, but almost all attended and kept up with classes.

In part we, like many campuses, have a crisis of ignorance, in part a crisis of malice, and it is not always easy to separate them. Even a cursory historical survey of the Middle East reveals that the Zionist movement — founded by Jews desperate to escape pogroms and the Holocaust and return the Jewish people to their homeland — was often an agrarian movement revolving around rural Kibbutz communities. Based on egalitarian and communal principles, these communities were dedicated to turning desert into arable land. But it must also be acknowledged: The establishment and history of Israel includes regrettable behavior on both the Arab and settler sides.

Palestinians living in Gaza are fellow human beings and must be separated as much as possible from Hamas terrorists who slaughtered and kidnapped Jews on Oct. 7. Many supporters of Israel, including me, understand the need for a two-state solution and have been deeply troubled by the return of Netanyahu as Prime Minister and his efforts in building a coalition with the inclusion of those with racist views of Palestinians.

Many students do not seem to understand that graffiti such as “Zionism = genocide” or “From the river to the sea” are anti-Semitic tropes calling for the destruction of Israel and its Jewish people. (The expression is the first half of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a reference to the land between the Jordan River, which borders Eastern Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west.) The latter phrase implies that the Jews in Israel should cease to exist. As historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore puts it in the Atlantic, this is a “chilling phrase that implicitly endorses the killing or deportation of the 9 million Israelis. It seems odd that one has to say: Killing civilians, old people, even babies, is always wrong. But today say it one must.”

I have given talks in Israel, the last time giving the prestigious Paley lectures, and have been to the West Bank. I have also visited Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Dubai. I have talked to many people in these countries, including at least one senior Palestinian who was my guide in Jordan. There is plenty of suspicion, anger and fear to go around. But there has been also more day-to-day cooperation and dialogue than most people realize among Israel and the leaders of the aforementioned countries — especially Jordan and Egypt — and between the Israeli military authorities and the Palestinian Authority officials. I am reasonably certain some dialogue continues even now.

I have had in recent years a great deal of trouble unravelling the threads that separate vociferous anti-Israel perspectives from expressions of anti-Semitism. I am uncomfortable when I hear on my own campus sentiments in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. I am even more uncomfortable when those views shape the discourse about curricular issues or take the form of anti-Semitic remarks that not only support violence directed at Israel but reveal malice towards Jews. In recent years, I have heard instances of faculty minimizing or trivializing the Holocaust and speaking with little regard for the history of Jews or Israel, one that dates back almost three thousand years.

We know that the Holocaust is fading from memory and is often denied and misrepresented for political purposes, including by those who oppose the very existence of Israel. Anti-Semitism has increased in the U.S. and has become mainstreamed as an acceptable attitude in some circles. As Mireille Silcoff put it in a Nov. 2022 New York Times piece, “Antisemitism felt like it was trending — moving, with bewildering speed, from something verboten to something floating casually around the culture.” A week later New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg commented: “Now . . . anti-Jewish bigotry, or at least tacit approval of anti-Jewish bigotry, is coming from people with serious power: the leader of a major political party, a famous pop star, and the world’s richest man.”

In a 2021-2022 report, The Anti-Defamation League observed:

The antisemitic vilification of Zionism and ostracization of Zionists has emerged as a common phenomenon within some campus spaces. . . .The trend of targeting Jewish students who publicly express support for Israel’s existence as a Jewish state animated much of the worst anti-Israel activity during the 2021-2022 academic year

While a great many Jewish students, faculty and staff vociferously oppose Netanyahu’s policies, many of us are at times put in a position where we are equated with the most militant Israelis and asked to defend Israel against accusations of “genocide” and “Apartheid” as if Israelis were historically responsible for all tensions in the Middle East. On occasion, Jews have been told to go back to Israel. Furthermore, there have been occasional anti-Semitic incidents on campuses in recent years.

I was born in 1941. I grew up in a world where Jews were not considered as white by those descended from other European nationalities. Jews were excluded not only from employment at some major companies but by tradition and covenant from living in certain neighborhoods, belonging to certain social groups or being welcome at some resorts.

Let me turn to the world of colleges and universities. Before World War II, some public universities, especially the City University of New York, were much more welcoming to Jewish students and faculty than the elite private colleges and universities. Were it not for the fact that Jews were at the forefront of nuclear physics at the end of the World War II, there would have been fewer Jewish faculty, particularly in the Ivy League, when I began my job search in the fall of 1967. But I was still a curiosity at a few of the Ivies.

Today Jews are far better off at colleges and universities than in the 1960s and even 1970s when there were Jewish admission quotas at many elite schools and Jewish faculty, especially in the humanities, were admonished not to be “too Jewish.” Now we have at colleges arrangements for observant Jews as well as for other demographics such as Muslims.

When I was a graduate student at Brown University between 1963 and 1968, Jewish graduate students in English were expected to pursue the authorized subjects and study texts by Christian writers, while submerging their own identity. The imagined “ideal” intellectual posited by the formalism of New Criticism with its supposed focus on the text — but with a propensity for established conservative readings — was the then reigning ideology. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and certainly not urban Jews were the dominant group in most English Department faculties. The anti-Semitic ravings of Ezra Pound, for example, and the poisonous if less strident anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot were excused as the eccentricities of men of genius. Now we are often more aware of the need for resistant readings and critical interpretations of various forms of authorial anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.  

When I arrived at Cornell in 1968 as a young assistant professor, I encountered some resistance as a supposedly aggressive, outspoken New York Jew who spoke with a downstate accent and who didn’t know the rules of oblique and understated expressions of opinion. I was reminded on occasion that I didn’t know my place.

Although only a small number of faculty in the Cornell College of Arts and Sciences were Jewish, I had the sense that we had more Jews than the other Ivy League institutions. After they got to know me, a few of the Jews shared their own unpleasant experiences, including negative tenure decisions elsewhere stemming from their Jewish identity. Some who had Jewish antecedents but who did not publicly identify as Jews were very quiet about their heritage.

Recently, within the world of higher education there has been some backsliding. It has become fashionable in some supposedly progressive circles to revive the stereotype of Jews as brash, overtalking and manipulative, even while linking Jews to slavery, or blaming them for “globalism” which on both the right and left has become a trope for transnational conspiracies controlled by Jews in media and finance. In the university world, I have heard the linking of Jews to the hegemony of white males, as if Jews could be lumped with those who dominated U.S. universities in the years before and after World War II. In fact, in my experience here and my knowledge of peer institutions, Jewish academics were often the very ones who fought to open the doors to women, racial and ethnic diversity, and the LGBTQ+ community.

I am loathe to support limitations on free speech. But we do need to be vigilant about confusing a legitimate debate about the Israel-Palestinian conflict with stereotypes about Jews or labelling Jews on campus who support the state of Israel as racists or Nazis. We need be attentive to the vituperations of those who have long vilified Israel as an excuse for vilifying Jews as colonialists or white supremacists. Assuming that Jews are responsible for all that is wrong in Gaza and the West Bank, some faculty and students have used their rhetoric to make common cause with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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