When I was an undergraduate at Northwestern, I took a class in Jewish studies primarily because I thought it would be easier for me since I had gone to Jewish day school. In addition, my other classes came with reputations for being tough that quarter. Secondly, I thought it might be interesting. It was neither. The class, in part, dissected the Bible according to its many supposed authors and their political proclivities. It was mostly based on the hypotheses of German Protestant scholars That the Bible has been read by Jews as a source of wisdom or by Christians, including social leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, for a source of inspiration over millennia, was apparently irrelevant.
Ironically, this example is part of a persistent and pervasive problem about how Jewish studies departments have been colonized. Since its inception, Jewish studies examined Jewish culture and history through the prism of Western thought (using whatever narrative had come to dominate academia at a given time), though it obscures this bias and its antisemitic effect. Most other “studies” departments tend to extoll the identity of their subjects. In contrast, American taxpayers and Jewish donors unwittingly continue to pay for degrading—and even demonizing—Jews, which is singularly ignored when it comes to Jewish studies.
The conception of so-called “scientific study of Judaism,” which should have been objective, began with internalizing the virulently anti-Jewish German prejudices (Judenhass) and its obsession with self-confidently deconstructing the Hebrew Bible. And, while many scholars today acknowledge this problematic beginning, the resulting method—biblical criticism—still dominates the field, though occasionally updated with Western postmodern approaches that are just as negatively biased against the text. Thus, with some exceptions, most students aren’t offered courses on the Bible’s literary or philosophical content, though other classical ancient texts, and most certainly non-Western ones, are taught this way.
Jewish history is another arena in which the problem remains prevalent. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded $250,000 of taxpayer money to two Jewish studies professors and one Middle Eastern professor who have adopted Marxist Western anti-nationalism. (Marx himself famously internalized negative European tropes about Jews.) Their research focused on and lauded Jews who chose assimilation over tradition and nationalism, especially in the modern period. Their mandate to further reimagine the history of the Jews in the area is one of happy integration. As a bonus, they are planning a high school textbook in the vein.
No one should be surprised. Professors receiving this grant have publicly used descriptions of Israel that are antisemitic in nature under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definitions, such as “racist, ”apartheid,” “ethno-nationalist,” “settler colonialist” and others, all centered around the characteristic of European Marxist anti-nationalism and its obsession with Zionism. This approach to Jewish history now prevails. Fewer college students are taught why reasonable Jews may have resisted assimilation or adopted Zionism, but rather, they are learning why virtually all other peoples want to be sovereign or to preserve their culture.
Another example reflects both Western far-left and far-right ideologies about conspiratorial malignant Jewish money. A Temple University Jewish studies professor wrote a history of American Jewish philanthropy that is astounding in its selective presentation of facts.
It erases more than 80% of Jewish giving done outside of foundations as well as cancels virtually every Jewish woman involved in Jewish philanthropy. Many of these philanthropists were pivotal throughout Jewish history, including establishing its priorities. Instead, this professor focuses on an unrepresentative small sample of Jewish men and includes a conspiracy theory to decry the evils of Jewish philanthropy. For example, the author presents Norman Sugarman, a lawyer who lobbied for the Tax Reform Act of 1969 as the reason the legislation resulted in “creating capital-rich futures for public charities.” Apparently, this one Jewish tax lawyer had power over the Congress, along with the president who signed the bill and the Internal Revenue Service that administered the law. It must be noted that the technical definition involved also impacted every non-Jewish charity, which constituted 95%-plus of its effect. Therefore, maybe —just maybe other actors were involved, no matter how one feels about the underlying merits of the law. But that is beside the point for this Jewish studies professor. As is de rigueur on the Western far left, the author opposes capitalism and any effort to dispute the Boycott Sanction and Divestment movement that is directed only toward Israel.
At Northwestern University, a professor co-authored a book which can be reasonably described as a conspiracy theory narrative, like many on the Western far-right and far-left. Despite finding “the vast majority” of her colleagues facing no issues and only two anti-Zionist colleagues who faced any challenge to their tenure consideration (and indeed received tenure), she and her co-author conclude that anthropologists are oppressed by “compulsory Zionism,” Jewish “student moles” and “campus rabbis,” to name just a few of the authors’ unevidenced fears. The absence of evidence is apparently proof of the conspiracy theory. One cannot even understand the book unless it is first assumed that Zionists—though not other nationalists (except for “Americanists”)—are inherently evil. Northwestern funded part of the costs for the book.
All these professors are beneficiaries of either public funds or private endowments from Jewish community members. These funds were bestowed based on a commitment to learn about different cultures, and thereby, to promote mutual respect and tolerance, not to blame all evil on Jews. It is time for the American taxpayer as well as the Jewish community at large to consider why they are funding Western antisemitic biases, which masquerade as scholarship. It is time to act. In an era where we are teaching the history and culture of peoples on their own terms, it is time to decolonize Jewish studies as well.
Scott A. Shay is the author of “Conspiracy U: A Case Study” (Wicked Son, 2021).