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The Choice

Should Jewish students accept the mantle of a marginalised group or reject DEI ideology altogether?

· 13 min read
Students holding Israel flags in front of a banner stating "Safe Space for Jewish Students."
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - MAY 8, 2024: Jewish students, supporters and U of T faculty attend Rally Against Hate, in support of Jewish and pro-Israel students and staff at the University of Toronto. Shutterstock.

He will say: Where are their gods,
The rock in whom they sought refuge,
Who ate the fat of their offerings
And drank their libation wine?
Let them rise up to your help,
And let them be a shield unto you!

~Deuteronomy 32:37–38

On 6 November, Bill Ackman appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss his efforts to restore sanity to American higher education. At the end of the interview, he was asked this pointed question by host and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin:

Do you feel more empathy or less empathy for the marginalised groups over the last five years where … the universities have stepped in? ... There’s a lot of people who are looking at this saying, “Oh, it’s so hypocritical because, you know, these other marginalised groups over the last five years, universities have stepped in to protect them. And now they’re not protecting them here” … but … the same people who are now saying this today, were in some ways against what was happening before.

Indeed, wasn’t it ironic to find free-speech advocates who had decried administrative censorship and the expansion of the DEI bureaucracy now lamenting universities’ failure to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation? Maybe the solution was simply to add Jews to the ballooning list of “marginalised groups” that DEI offices were charged with serving, and then Jews could enjoy the same sterilised campus environment to which other marginalised groups were entitled.

In response, Ackman pointed out that conservative students were the most marginalised cohort in today’s American academy, and he explained that he was not seeking a higher position for Jews on the DEI totem pole, but rather a consensus that all marginalised groups should be protected. Put that way, Ackman’s position seemed so unobjectionable it could hardly be opposed. Yet by tacitly accepting the premise that a group’s degree of marginalisation was what ought to qualify it for administrative protection, Ackman inadvertently embraced the ideological wellspring of the antisemitism he had appeared on the program to protest.

Let’s consider whether the students at Harvard who support Hamas—or at the very least believe that Hamas’s actions can be justified by Israeli conduct—constitute a marginalised group. In his 4 November letter to Harvard’s then-president Claudine Gay, Ackman described the protesters as a “small minority”; their opinions fall well outside the mainstream (nationally, if not at Harvard), and they don’t seem to be inundated with job offers at the moment. To suggest that the university intervene for Jewish students and against pro-Hamas students would, under Ackman’s own framework, require demonstrating that Jewish students are more marginalised, or otherwise more worthy of protection. Is any DEI officer likely to believe that?

Faced with a choice between protecting Jewish students and protecting pro-Hamas students, we know exactly how DEI officers would behave: exactly as they have behaved. At Harvard, their favourite people are “people of color, women, persons with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA, and those who are at the intersections of these identities.” As Ackman discovered, looking out for Jewish students is not part of their mandate, and even if it were, it wouldn’t change their view of which students are oppressors and which are victims. Nor would interventions by wealthy Jewish donors, which would, if anything, reinforce the idea of Jews as the ultimate beneficiaries of “white privilege.”

Understanding Woke Antisemitism: Quillette Cetera Episode 25
A conversation with author and free-speech advocate David Bernstein.

For universities, the demand that they protect Jewish students is not a value-neutral proposition. It requires them to make a political judgment that contradicts their prevailing ideology. We should not be surprised by the coalescence of antisemitism on Ivy League campuses—their postmodern worldview was always bound, by its own logic, eventually to turn on the Jews. In the wake of 7 October, it has.

To confront this scourge, Jews must resist the temptation to proclaim ourselves yet another minority group deserving of victimhood status. Antisemitism training will not keep us safe from those who see us as oppressors, and who therefore regard our diminishment as ipso facto virtuous. Rather than hope to be exempt from the consequences of the progressive belief system, we must acknowledge that teaching that belief system has led to students chanting “Intifada Revolution” on the Columbia quad.

The only way out is to renounce the entire ideological frame within which the antisemitism debate has heretofore been conducted. A university’s first commitment should not be to the marginalised, but to the truth. Were Israel conducting a genocide in Gaza, students would be right to protest, regardless of whether we considered them antisemitic. It matters that they’re lying. I’m not suggesting that universities evaluate the claims of student protestors before acting on behalf of one faction or another; I’m suggesting that at a university that valued truth above deconstruction, merit above identity, and agape over grievance, pro-Hamas “protests” would not be happening.

How We Got Here

On 17 April, at the Congressional hearings on antisemitism, Rep. Glenn Grothman mused to Columbia University President Minouche Shafik:

A Jewish member of the School of Social Work Faculty told the New York Times, quote, when Jews speak up at our school, they are met with you have white privilege, so shut up; you’re a coloniser; you’re an oppressor; you are reprehensible for the deaths of innocent Palestinians. … How can you get this sort of rhetoric out of your faculty? ... How does this happen? ... What is going on here? You guys talk about diversity. How in the world does this happen?

Has Rep. Grothman been to the Columbia School of Social Work website? The very first sentence on the home page reads, “Our mission is to interrogate racism and other systems of oppression standing in the way of social equity and justice.”

Is antisemitism a form of racism standing in the way of social equity and justice? If one understands racism as “prejudice plus power,” and if one considers Jews, as a group, to be “in power,” then it is not only impossible to be racist against Jews, it is imperative to side with their antagonists, provided those antagonists have less power than Jews do. That there would be no Jews should the power differential ever reverse between Jews and, for instance, the terrorists in Gaza and Lebanon sworn to their worldwide destruction, does not enter the moral calculus of a person who has been trained to think in this way.

Jews, on the other hand, make up only two percent of the US population, but a staggering 22 percent of students at Columbia University. Wouldn’t social equity and justice be better served by redistributing some of the spaces Jews presently occupy to prospective scholars from more marginalised groups? As Ibram X. Kendi, the prophet of antiracism, has informed us, “The only explanation for racial disparity between groups is that there’s something wrong with our policies.” Happily, he has a solution: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”

In other words, antisemitism may not be an obstacle to social equity and justice, but Jews are. While most of the anti-Israel students at Columbia would not endorse their ringleader Khymani James’s assertion that “Zionists don’t deserve to live,” I suspect that precious few could find fault in the syllogism by which he arrived at that conclusion. The ordeal to which they subjected Jewish students and faculty was merely a course of antiracist discrimination, and there is more to come.

In his 4 November letter, Ackman called on Harvard to reassess its admissions process to ascertain why it is admitting “racist students.” His assumption was that students animated by antisemitic passion are admitted to top universities only inadvertently. The problem, however, is not that universities seek out applicants who wish harm upon Jews or the Jewish state, but rather that they prefer applicants who subscribe to the postmodern progressive worldview, from which contempt for Jews logically follows.

For faculty hiring, the situation is far worse. Not only would universities hire professors Ackman would consider “racist,” many universities solicit professions of racism—in the form of pledges of allegiance to antiracist ideology—as a prerequisite even to be eligible to teach their students. And not just at schools of social work. Harvard recently conducted a search for a tenured professor of mathematics, and candidates were required to submit a “diversity statement” before their applications could be considered.

The Prophet of October 7?
Frantz Fanon’s defenders try to distance him from the of ethos of violence he advocated, even as they embrace his anti-colonialist rhetoric to promote anti-Zionism.

I can’t speak to how Harvard evaluates these statements. But in December 2019, Abigail Thompson, then the vice president of the American Mathematical Society, revealed that candidates applying for positions at the University of California, Berkeley, who say they will treat “all students the same regardless of background” are rewarded with a score of 1—2 out of a possible 5. In an environment so Orwellian that treating students equally is regarded as racist, and where professors are expected to memorise an ever-changing list of favoured “marginalised groups” for preferential treatment, is it any wonder that an MIT assistant professor would willingly surrender his linear algebra classroom to a student agitator waving a Palestinian flag and shouting false accusations of “genocide” against Israel?

Why are Jewish faculty told to shut up on account of their white privilege? Rep. Grothman’s earnest question reveals that the US Congress has no idea how American universities operate. How can you get this rhetoric out of your faculty? The faculty are hired to express this rhetoric! It’s not happenstance. Nor—as Rep. Grothman hypothesises—is it because there are more Democrats on the faculty than Republicans. Democrats outnumber Republicans in almost every professional context in America, yet Jews are thriving. The ideology Rep. Grothman despises predominates at Columbia University because it is promulgated as a matter of university policy: “Our mission is to interrogate racism and other systems of oppression standing in the way of social equality and justice.”

President Shafik answered by noting that “there are 4,700 faculty and most of them are doing an outstanding job.” I don’t doubt it. In fact, I would contend that they are all doing an outstanding job of what they were hired to do. The antisemitic professors who have risen to recent prominence are not, as Shafik imagines, a few bad apples; they are superstars who excel at inculcating anticolonialist, antiracist ideology in their students. Although Shafik signs every offer of tenure that Columbia University extends to a faculty member, she clearly does not read all the faculty job descriptions, and likely has never visited the School of Social Work website.

Where We Should Go

Before his death, Moses foretold of a time when the Jewish people would grow fat and forsake the God who made them, worshipping instead “alien things”—“gods they had never known, new ones, who came but lately.” In my lifetime, American Jews have prospered and flourished like few of their counterparts in Jewish history. It’s hardly surprising that so many embraced the progressive worldview that prevailed among the educated elite, even as it morphed into a quasi-Marxist monstrosity that came to regard its precursors’ liberal preoccupations—free speech and equality of opportunity—as avatars of oppression. No doubt some Jews sincerely adopted the new priorities—antiracism, decolonisation, equity—as part of tikkun olam, while others acquiesced despite misgivings because they trusted these “new ones,” so devoted to the interests of minorities, to protect the oldest minority on Earth. Concerning the proselytisers, the refrain went: Sure, their rhetoric may be over the top, but their aim is social justice, so how bad can they be?

Now we know. On 7 October, while the bodies of the massacred were still warm, Teen Vogue writer Najma Sharif tweeted, “what did y’all think decolonization meant? vibes? papers? essays? losers.” Her justification of mass murder garnered over 100,000 likes before she took it down. If nothing else, 7 October has taught us that these people really do mean what they say. Words like “decolonisation” and “antiracism” are not mere rhetorical devices employed to enlist the support of liberals in pursuing greater social equality; they are gateway concepts to a complete framework for understanding the world—a framework that holds oppressor groups responsible for all its ills simply on account of their continued existence and success. It is through this framework that the “best” educated people in America—students at Ivy League universities—could support the most barbaric terrorism against innocent people and consider themselves to be speaking on behalf of the oppressed.

Grasping this revelation, Jews in America face a choice. We can accept a carve-out as another marginalised group to be protected by the instruments of institutional power—DEI bureaucrats, antisemitism training sessions, and regressive speech codes. This would hamstring our adversaries for some time, albeit time borrowed at the cost of lending legitimacy to the ideology from which we are seeking protection. Or we can reject the “new ones,” and return to the tried and true—liberty, meritocracy, and normative morality.

The first path—that proposed by Andrew Ross Sorkin—is a dead end. Witness the response to his tweet of 27 April, in which he asked, “What would happen if companies told universities that they wouldn’t hire ANY of their students unless the schools take decisive action to end blatant antisemitism on campus[?]” Within three hours, broadcaster Mehdi Hasan replied, “But Andrew, why only antisemitism? Why not Islamophobia and anti-Black racism too?”

Notwithstanding the irony of interpreting attacks on Jewish students, instigated in part by Muslim students, as evidence that Muslim students need protection, Hasan’s reaction is instructive. It underscores the futility of the attempt to wield the tools of our adversaries in our own defence. If we allow the fight against antisemitism to be sublimated into the broader antiracist project, we will end up promoting antisemitism, and find ourselves singled out for more antiracist discrimination. On the other hand, if we enter the marginalisation melee, and deploy coercion (economic, legal, or otherwise) to wrest control of the mechanisms by which groups demand that others acknowledge their victimhood, then even if we win, we will only solidify the perception of our power, which is the very fuel for the ressentiment against us.

The second path is treacherous, but it is our best hope. Bill Ackman has come to share this view. On 10 December, he tweeted:

When I mentioned in my December 3rd letter to President Gay that among others, Jewish, Asian, Indian, and straight white male students were excluded from the benefits of the ODEIB office [sic], her solution to this problem … was to propose that the OEDIB include Jewish students in some manner. This is not [the] right answer. The OEDIB is a major contributing source of discriminatory practices on campus and highly damaging to the culture and sense of community at Harvard. It is beyond repair and should be shut down.

Ackman investigated the situation on college campuses with his own eyes, and when the facts led him to do so, he had the courage to adopt a stance that risked his social standing. No doubt the abolition of DEI would be a step in the right direction. But DEI is the tip of the iceberg. Closing DEI offices, or even dispensing with diversity statements altogether, would not suffice to restore intellectual integrity to the academic enterprise at a time when “interrogating racism and other systems of oppression” is already the mission of the Columbia School of Social Work. It is no exaggeration to say that every department, at every major university, is suffused with DEI ideology, and expunging it will require new faculty, new curricula, and new institutions, the latter of which we will have to sacrifice social prestige in order to build.

In the long run, antisemitism will fail for the same reason it has always failed: Excluding Jews requires abandoning the values that make a society great, values under which Jews thrive. Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag of 30 January 1939 is famous for his prophesy of the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe,” but it is also the speech in which he laid out his plan to replace the Jews who had contributed so much to Germany with those he considered his own kind. “We have hundreds of thousands of very intelligent children of peasants and of the working classes,” he declared. “We shall have them educated—in fact we have already begun and we wish that one day they, and not the representatives of an alien race, may hold the leading positions in the State together with our educated classes.” It didn’t work. The steps he took to drive Jews out of universities destroyed those universities as centres of science and learning.

If Hitler’s speech is redolent of today’s antiracist rhetoric, the reason is that, like Tolstoy’s happy families, all advocates of institutional racial discrimination are alike. They can always explain why it is noble and necessary to dismantle a meritocratic system and construct a maze of preferences for their favourite people in its place. It may be possible in principle to exclude a disfavoured group (“push the Zionists out of the camp!”) and retain impartiality for everyone else, but it seldom works out that way.

Jews are the perennial canary in the coal mine because we are an extraordinary people. We have been since we were brought out of bondage in Egypt, and so long as we are, we will always be considered privileged, no matter what tribulations we endure. It is critical that we learn this lesson. But the more important lesson is that institutional racial discrimination is always wrong, whether in the guise of antiracism or otherwise. Harvard was not a paradise before 7 October. It was and is wrong for the DEI office to discriminate against white students, or for the admissions office to discriminate against Asians.

If we expect others to speak up for us, we must refuse the Faustian bargain—proposed in various forms by Andrew Ross Sorkin, Claudine Gay, and numerous politicians—that we accept the mantle of a marginalised group to be protected by the DEI bureaucracy and, in exchange, endorse the ideology underpinning it.  We must say, to any college president or governor, congressman or senator, no matter how well-meaning, who comes along bearing this offer, that this does not work for us. Most obviously, it does not work because the threat to us is coming in no small part from other marginalised groups.

Ultimately, however, it does not work as a matter of principle. Right and wrong are not determined by which identity group you belong to and how oppressed it is. Professors should treat students the same, regardless of background, and pursue truth in their research, wherever it may lead. All peoples have the right to defend themselves against terrorists. These are the values we should champion to the world, not those of bureaucratic gods who are no shield—to Jews or anyone.

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