Jewish studies

Essay on the real meaning of institutional boycotts

Supporters of the American Studies Association’s call for a boycott of Israel universities are distorting what the boycott is – and how it will affect academe. The "institutional boycott" is likely to function as a political test in a hidden form. It violates principles of academic freedom. And in practice, it has been, and is likely to continue to be, a campaign for the exclusion of individual scholars who work in Israel, from the global academic community.  It’s time to look with more care at the boycott and what it’s really about.

What the ASA Resolution Says

The ASA resolution reaffirms, in a general and abstract way, its support for the principle of academic freedom.  It then says that it will “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” It goes on to offer guarantees that it will support the academic freedom of scholars who speak about Israel and who support the boycott; the implication here is that this refers to scholars who are opponents of Israel or of Israeli policy.  The resolution does not specifically mention the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars or students, nor does it mention protection for people to speak out against the boycott, nor does it say anything about the academic freedom of people to collaborate with Israeli colleagues.

What the ASA names "the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott" is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) "Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel." The PACBI call explicitly says that the "vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics," that is to say individuals, have contributed to, or have been "complicit in through their silence,"  the Israeli human rights abuses which are the reasons given for boycott. There would be no sense in making this claim if no sanctions against individuals were envisaged. The PACBI guidelines state that "virtually all" Israeli academic institutions are guilty in the same way.

These claims, about the collective guilt of Israeli academics and institutions are strongly contested empirically. Opponents of the boycott argue that Israeli academe is pluralistic and diverse and contains many individuals who explicitly oppose anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and the military and the civilian occupations of the West Bank. These claims about the guilt of Israeli academe are also contested by those who hold that the principle of collective guilt is a violation of the norms of the global academic community and of natural justice. Opponents of the boycott argue that academics and institutions should be judged by the content of their work and by the nature of their academic norms and practices, not by the state in which they are employed.

The PACBI guidelines go on to specify what is meant by the "institutional" boycott. "[T]hese institutions, all their activities, and all the events they sponsor or support must be boycotted." And "[e] and projects involving individuals explicitly representing these complicit institutions should be boycotted." The guidelines then offer an exemption for some other classes of individual as follows: "Mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott."

A Political Test by Another Name

Refusing to collaborate with academics on the basis of their nationality is, prima facie, a violation of the norms of academic freedom and of the principle of the universality of science. It seems to punish scholars not for something related to their work, nor for something that they have done wrong, but because of who they are.

In 2002 Mona Baker, an academic in Britain, fired two Israelis from the editorial boards of academic journals that she owned and edited. Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger are both well-respected internationally as scholars and also as public opponents of Israeli human rights abuses, but nevertheless they were "boycotted." The boycott campaign sought a more sophisticated formulation which did not appear to target individuals just for being Israeli.

In 2003, the formulation of the "institutional boycott" was put into action with a resolution to the Association of University Teachers (AUT), an academic trade union in Britain, that members should "sever any academic links they may have with official Israeli institutions, including universities." Yet in the same year, Andrew Wilkie, an Oxford academic, rejected an Israeli who applied to do a Ph.D. with him, giving as a reason that he had served in the Israeli armed forces. The boycott campaign in the UK supported Andrew Wilkie against criticism which focused on his boycott of an individual who had no affiliation of any kind to an Israeli academic institution. If the principle was accepted that anybody who had been in the Israeli armed forces was to be boycotted, then virtually every Israeli Jew would be thus targeted.

In 2006 the boycott campaign took a new tack, offering an exemption from the boycott to Israelis who could demonstrate their political cleanliness.  The other British academic union, NATFHE, called for a boycott of Israeli scholars who failed to "publicly dissociate themselves" from ‘Israel’s apartheid policies." The political test opened the campaign up to a charge of McCarthyism: the implementation of a boycott on this basis would require some kind of machinery to be set up to judge who was allowed an exemption and who was not. The assertion that Israel is "apartheid" is emotionally charged and strongly contested. While it is possible for such analogies to be employed carefully and legitimately, it is also possible for such analogies to function as statements of loyalty to the Palestinians. They sometimes function as short cuts to the boycott conclusion, and as ways of demonizing Israel, Israelis, and those who are accused of speaking on their behalf.  In practice, the boycott campaign attempts to construct supporters of the boycott as friends of Palestine and opponents of the boycott as enemies of Palestine.

It is reasonable to assume that under the influence of the campaign for an "institutional boycott," much boycotting of individuals goes on silently and privately. It is also reasonable to assume that Israeli scholars may come to fear submitting papers to journals or conferences if they think they may be boycotted, explicitly or not; this would lead to a "self-boycott" effect. There are anecdotal examples of the kinds of things which are likely to happen under the surface even of an institutional boycott. An Israeli colleague contacted a British academic in 2008, saying that he was in town and would like to meet for a coffee to discuss common research interests. The Israeli was told that the British colleague would be happy to meet, but he would first have to disavow Israeli apartheid.

The PACBI call, endorsed by ASA, says that Israeli institutions are guilty, Israeli intellectuals are guilty, Israeli academics who explicitly represent their institutions should be boycotted, but an affiliation in itself, is not grounds for boycott. The danger is that Israelis will be asked not to disavow Israel politically, but to disavow their university ‘institutionally’, as a pre-condition for recognition as legitimate members of the academic community. Israelis may be told that they are welcome to submit an article to a journal or to attend a seminar or a conference as an individual: EG David Hirsh is acceptable, David Hirsh, Tel Aviv University is not. Some Israelis will, as a matter of principle, refuse to appear only as an individual; others may be required by the institution which pays their salary, or by the institution which funds their research, not to disavow.

An ‘Institutional Boycott’ Still Violates Principles of Academic Freedom

Academic institutions themselves, in Israel as anywhere else, are fundamentally communities of scholars; they protect scholars, they make it possible for scholars to research and to teach, and they defend the academic freedom of scholars. The premise of the "institutional boycott" is that in Israel, universities are bad but scholars are (possibly, exceptionally) good, that universities are organs of the state while individual scholars are employees who may be (possibly, exceptionally) not guilty of supporting Israeli "apartheid" or some similar formulation.

There are two fundamental elements that are contested by opponents of the boycott in the "institutional boycott" rhetoric. First, it is argued, academic institutions are a necessary part of the structure of academic freedom. If there were no universities, scholars would band together and invent them, in order to create a framework within which they could function as professional researchers and teachers, and within which they could collectively defend their academic freedom.

Second, opponents of the boycott argue that Israeli academic institutions are not materially different from academic institutions in other free countries: they are not segregated by race, religion or gender, they have relative autonomy from the state, they defend academic freedom and freedom of criticism, not least against government and political pressure. There are of course threats to academic freedom in Israel, as there are in the U.S. and elsewhere, but the record of Israeli institutions is a good one in defending their scholars from political interference. Neve Gordon, for example, still has tenure at Ben Gurion University, in spite of calling for a boycott of his own institution; Ilan Pappe left Haifa voluntarily after having been protected by his institution even after traveling the world denouncing his institution and Israel in general as genocidal, Nazi and worthy of boycott.

Jon Pike argued that the very business of academia does not open itself up to a clear distinction between individuals and institutions.  For example the boycott campaign has proposed that while Israelis may submit papers as individuals, they would be boycotted if they submitted it from their institutions.  He points out that "papers that ‘issue from Israeli institutions' or are 'submitted from Israeli institutions' are worried over, written by, formatted by, referenced by, checked by, posted off by individual Israeli academics. Scientists, theorists, and researchers do their thinking, write it up and send it off to journals. It seems to me that Israeli academics can’t plausibly be so different from the rest of us that they have discovered some wonderful way of writing papers without the intervention of a human, individual, writer."

Boycotting academic institutions means refusing to collaborate with Israeli academics, at least under some circumstances if not others; and then we are likely to see the reintroduction of some form of "disavowal" test.

The Boycott Is an Exclusion of Jewish Scholars Who Work in Israel

In 2011 the University of Johannesburg decided, under pressure from the boycott campaign, to cut the institutional links it had with Ben Gurion University for the study of irrigation techniques in arid agriculture. Logically the cutting of links should have meant the end of the research with the Israeli scholars being boycotted as explicit representatives of their university. What in fact happened was that the boycotters had their public political victory and then the two universities quietly renegotiated their links under the radar, with the knowledge of the boycott campaign, and the research into agriculture continued. The boycott campaign portrayed this as an institutional boycott that didn’t harm scientific co-operation or Israeli individuals. The risks are that such pragmatism (and hypocrisy) will not always be the outcome and that the official position of "cutting links" will actually be implemented; in any case, the University of Johannesburg solution encourages a rhetoric of stigmatization against Israeli academics, even if it quietly neglects to act on it.

Another risk is that the targeting of Israelis by the "institutional boycott," or the targeting of the ones who are likely to refuse to disavow their institutional affiliations, is likely to impact disproportionately Jews. The risk here is that the institutional boycott has the potential to become, in its actual implementation, an exclusion of Jewish Israelis, although there will of course be exemption for some "good Jews": anti-Zionist Jewish Israelis or Israeli Jewish supporters of the boycott campaign. The result would be a policy which harms Israeli Jews more than anybody else. Further, among scholars who insist on "breaking the institutional boycott" or on arguing against it in America, Jews are likely to be disproportionately represented. If there are consequences which follow these activities, which some boycotters will regard as scabbing, the consequences will impact most heavily on American Jewish academics. Under any accepted practice of equal opportunities impact assessment, the policy of "institutional boycott" would cross the red lines which would normally constitute warnings of institutional racism.

The reality of the "institutional boycott" is that somebody will be in charge of judging who should be boycotted and who should be exempt. Even the official positions of ASA and PACBI are confusing and contradictory; they say there will be no boycott of individuals but they nevertheless make claims which offer justification for a boycott of individuals. But there is the added danger that some people implementing the boycott locally are likely not to have even the political sophistication of the official boycott campaign.  There is a risk that there will still be boycotts of individuals (Mona Baker), political tests (NATFHE), breaking of scientific links (University of Johannesburg) and silent individual boycotts.

Even if nobody intends this, it is foreseeable that in practice the effects of a boycott may include exclusions, opprobrium, and stigma against Jewish Israeli academics who do not pass, or who refuse to submit to, one version or another of a test of their ideological purity; similar treatment may be visited upon those non-Israeli academics who insist on working with Israeli colleagues.  There is a clear risk that an ‘institutional boycott’, if actually implemented, would function as such a test.

PACBI is the "Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel." What it hopes to achieve is stated in its name. It hopes to institute an "academic boycott of Israel."  The small print concerning the distinction between institutions and individuals is contradictory, unclear and small.  It is likely that some people will continue to understand the term "academic boycott of Israel," in a common sense way, to mean a boycott of Israeli academics.

David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, the University of London. He is founding editor of Engage, a network and website that opposes boycotts of Israel and anti-Semitism.


Essay says that the Israel boycott runs counter to leftist intellectual traditions

What the social-democratic left has always objected to is not the liberal aspiration to universal rights and freedoms, but rather the way that classical liberalism generally ignored the unequal economic and social conditions of access to those freedoms. The liberal’s abstract universalism affirmed everyone’s equal rights without giving everyone the real means of realizing these formally universal rights. The rich and the poor may have an equal formal right to be elected to political office, for instance, but the poor were effectively excluded from office when it did not pay a full-time salary.

For this reason generations of social democrats have insisted that all citizens must be guaranteed access to the institutional resources they need to make effective use of their civil and political rights. The British sociologist T. H. Marshall referred to those guarantees as the social component of citizenship, and he argued that only when this social component began to be incorporated into citizenship did equal citizenship start to impose modifications on the substantive inequalities of the capitalist class system. Today, when neoliberalism is ascendant and the welfare state is in tatters, it is more important than ever to remember the social-democratic critique of formal equality and abstract universalism.

Like other freedoms, academic freedom cannot be practiced effectively without the means of realizing it. At one time, those means were largely in the hands of academics themselves. As the German sociologist Max Weber put it, “The old-time lecturer and university professor worked with the books and the technical resources which they procured or made for themselves.” Like the artisan, the peasant smallholder, or the member of a liberal profession, the scholar was not separated from his means of production. But that time is long past. As Weber understood well, this “pre-capitalist” mode of scholarship had already disappeared a century ago, when he wrote those words.

The modern academic, he pointed out, did not own the means to conduct scientific or humanistic research or to communicate his or her findings any more than the modern proletarian owns the means of production, the modern soldier owns the means of warfare, or the modern civil servant owns the means of administration. Like those other figures in a capitalistic and bureaucratized society, the individual academic depends on means that are not his or her own. Specifically, she relies on academic institutions and the resources they provide — access to books, journals, laboratories, equipment, materials, research and travel funds, etc. — to participate in the intellectual and communicative exchanges that are the lifeblood of her profession. Unless she is independently wealthy, she depends on an academic institution for her very livelihood.

What, then, is an academic boycott of Israel in relation to these facts? The boycott recently endorsed by the American Studies Association, its supporters emphasize, is aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at individual scholars. Consequently, Judith Butler explained in the pages of The Nation in December 2013, “any Israeli, Jewish or not, is free to come to a conference, to submit his or her work to a journal and to enter into any form of scholarly exchange. The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities.”

Butler argues that such a request does not infringe upon the Israeli scholar’s academic freedom because that scholar can pay from her “own personal funds” or ask others to pay for her. Personal funds presumably come from the salary paid to the Israeli scholar by her institution, but for Butler money apparently ceases to be institutional once it changes hands. One wonders why this same reasoning doesn’t apply to conference or travel funds furnished by an Israeli university.

One also wonders how many ASA members are willing to raise their own dues or earmark a portion of their current dues to pay for the participation of Israeli colleagues in the activities of their organization. Furthermore, one wonders why Butler, who has raised concerns about new forms of effective censorship exercised by private donors, does not have similar concerns about the donors who might pay for Israeli colleagues. But the most serious problem with Butler’s proposal is that it imposes special costs and burdens on Israeli scholars, creating substantive inequalities that undermine the formally equal and universal freedoms that she is eager to affirm for everyone in the abstract.

While scholars of other nationalities may use the resources of their institutions, Israeli scholars must make do with their own private means or rely upon charity; they enjoy equal academic freedom in the same way that the rich and the poor are equally free to hold an unpaid office. For the generously paid academic aristocracy at elite institutions, using one’s own personal funds may only be an “inconvenience” (Butler’s word) rather than a hardship. However, not all academics have personal resources in such abundance, and those with fewer personal resources are more dependent on institutional funding.

Because “academic freedom can only be exercised when the material conditions for exercising those rights are secured,” Butler has argued, the academic freedom of Palestinians is vitiated by the conditions of Israeli military occupation. She is indeed right, but the remedy for military occupation is a negotiated peace, not an effort to deprive Israelis of the material conditions for their academic freedom. Butler seems not to understand how her point militates against her own demand that Israeli scholars become luftmenschen. The distinction between an institutional and an individual boycott only makes sense in a world of abstract universalism, where Israeli scholars are entitled to academic freedom in a formal sense without equal access to the institutional means and resources they need to realize it in practice. The great irony of the campaign to boycott Israeli academics is that its proponents consider it a litmus test of left-wing politics when in fact they fail to apply consistently one of the left’s most important insights.


Chad Alan Goldberg is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors and the Jewish Labor Committee.

The Chosen Few

Jerome Karabel's The Chosen is the big meta-academic book of the season -- a scholarly epic reconstructing "the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," as the subtitle puts it. Karabel, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, has fished documents out of the archive with the muckraking zeal worthy of an investigative journalist. And his book, published this month by Houghton Mifflin, is written in far brisker narrative prose than you might expect from somebody working in either sociology or education. That's not meant as a dis to those worthy fields. But in either, the emphasis on calibrating one's method does tend to make storytelling an afterthought.

For Karabel really does have a story to tell. The Chosen shows how the gentlemanly anti-Semitism of the early 20th century precipitated a deep shift in how the country's three most prestigious universities went about the self-appointed task of selecting and grooming an elite.

It is (every aspect of it, really) a touchy subject. The very title of the book is a kind of sucker-punch. It is an old anti-Jewish slur, of course. It's an allusion to Jehovah's selection of the Jews as the Chosen People, of course. It's also a term sometimes used, with a sarcastic tone, as an ethnic slur. But Karabel turns it back against the WASP establishment itself -- in ways too subtle, and certainly too well-researched, to be considered merely polemical. (I'm going to highlight some of the more rancor-inspiring implications below, but that is due to my lack of Professor Karabel's good manners.)

The element of exposé pretty much guarantees the book a readership among people fascinated or wounded by the American status system. Which is potentially, of course, a very large readership indeed. But "The Chosen" is also interesting as an example of sociology being done in almost classical vein. It is a study of what, almost a century ago, Vilfredo Pareto called "the circulation of elites" -- the process through which "the governing elite is always in a state of slow and continuous transformation ... never being today what it was yesterday."

In broad outline, the story goes something like this. Once upon a time, there were three old and distinguished universities on the east coast of the United States. The Big Three were each somewhat distinctive in character, but also prone to keeping an eye on one another's doings.

Harvard was the school with the most distinguished scholars on its faculty -- and it was also the scene of President Charles Eliot's daring experiment in letting undergraduates pick most of their courses as "electives." There were plenty of the "stupid young sons of the rich" on campus (as one member of the Board of Overseers put it in 1904), but the student body was also relatively diverse. At the other extreme, Princeton was the country club that F. Scott Fitzgerald later described in This Side of Paradise. (When asked how many students there were on campus, a Princeton administrator famously replied, "About 10 percent.")

Finally, there was Yale, which had crafted its institutional identity as an alternative to the regional provincialism of Harvard, or Princeton's warm bath of snobbery. It was "the one place where money makes no difference ... where you stand for what you are," in the words of the then-beloved college novel Dink Stover, about a clean-cut and charismatic Yalie.

But by World War One, something was menacing these idyllic institutions: Namely, immigration in general and "the Hebrew invasion" in particular. A meeting of New England deans in the spring of 1918 took this on directly. A large and growing percentage of incoming students were the bright and driven children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. This was particularly true at Harvard, where almost a fifth of the freshman class that year was Jewish. A few years later, the figure would reach 13 percent at Yale -- and even at Princeton, the number of Jewish students had doubled its prewar level.

At the same time, the national discussion over immigration was being shaped by three prominent advocates of "scientific" racism who worried about the decline of America's Nordic stock. They were Madison Grant (Yale 1887), Henry Fairfield Osborne (Princeton 1877), and Lothrop Stoddard (Harvard 1905).

There was, in short, an air of crisis at the Big Three. Even the less robustly bigoted administrators worried about (as one Harvard official put it) "the disinclination, whether justified or not, on the part of non-Jewish students to be thrown into contact with so large a proportion of Jewish undergraduates."

Such, then, was the catalyst for the emergence, at each university, of an intricate and slightly preposterous set of formulae governing the admissions process. Academic performance (the strong point of the Jewish applicants) would be a factor -- but one strictly subordinated to a systematic effort to weigh "character."

That was an elusive quality, of course. But administrators knew when they saw it. Karabel describes the "typology" that Harvard used to make an initial characterization of applicants. The code system included the Boondocker ("unsophisticated rural background"), the Taconic ("culturally depressed background," "low income"), and the Krunch ("main strength is athletic," "prospective varsity athlete"). One student at Yale was selected over an applicant with a stronger record and higher exam scores because, as an administrator put it, "we just thought he was more of a guy."

Now, there is a case to be made for a certain degree of flexibility in admissions criteria. If anything, given our reflex-like tendency to see diversity as such as an intrinsic good, it seems counterintuitive to suggest otherwise. There might be some benefit to the devil's-advocate exercise of trying to imagine the case for strictly academic standards.

But Karabel's meticulous and exhaustive record of how the admissions process changed is not presented as an argument for that sort of meritocracy. First of all, it never prevailed to begin with.

A certain gentlemanly disdain for mere study was always part of the Big Three ethos. Nor had there ever been any risk that the dim sons of wealthy alumni would go without the benefits of a prestigious education.

What the convoluted new admissions algorithms did, rather, was permit the institutions to exercise a greater -- but also a more deftly concealed -- authority over the composition of the student body.

"The cornerstones of the new system were discretion and opacity," writes Karabel; "discretion so that gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.... Once this capacity to adapt was established, a new admissions regime was in place that was governed by what might be called the 'iron law of admissions': a university will retain a particular admissions policy only so long as it produces outcomes that correspond to perceived institutional interests."

That arrangement allowed for adaptation to social change -- not just by restricting applicants of one minority status in the 1920s, but by incorporating underrepresented students of other backgrounds later. But Karabel's analysis suggests that this had less to do with administratorsbeing "forward-looking and driven by high ideals" than it might appear.

"The Big Three," he writes, "were more often deeply conservative and surprisingly insecure about their status in the higher education pecking order.... Change, when it did come, almost always derived from one of two sources: the continuation of existing policies was believed to pose a threat either to vital institutional interests (above all, maintaining their competitive positions) or to the preservation of the social order of which they were an integral -- and privileged -- part."

Late in the book, Karabel quotes a blistering comment by the American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy (Exeter '27, Harvard '31, Harvard Ph.D. '37) who denounced C. Wright Mills for failing to grasp "the role of the preparatory schools and colleges as recruiters for the ruling class, sucking upwards the ablest elements of the lower classes." Universities such as the Big Three thus performed a double service to the order by "infusing new brains into the ruling class and weakening the potential leadership of the working class."

Undoubtedly so, once upon a time -- but today, perhaps, not so much. The neglect of their duties by the Big Three bourgeoisie is pretty clear from the statistics.

"By 2000," writes Karabel, "the cost of a year at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had reached the staggering sum of more than $35,000 -- an amount that well under 10 percent of American families could afford....Yet at all three institutions, a majority of students were able to pay their expenses without financial assistance -- compelling testimony that, more than thirty years after the introduction of need-blind admissions, the Big Three continued to draw most of their students from the most affluent members of society." The number of students at the Big Three coming from families in the bottom half of the national income distribution averages out to about 10 percent.

All of which is (as the revolutionary orators used to say) no accident. It is in keeping with Karabel's analysis that the Big Three make only as many adjustments to their admissions criteria as they must to keep the status quo ante on track. Last year, in a speech at the American Council on Education, Harvard's president, Larry Summers, called for preferences for the economically disadvantaged. But in the absence of any strong political or social movement from below -- an active, noisy menace to business as usual -- it's hard to imagine an institutionalized preference for admitting students from working families into the Big Three. (This would have to include vigorous and fairly expensive campaigns of recruitment and retention.)

As Walter Benn Michaels writes in the latest issue of N+1 magazine, any discussion of class and elite education now is an exercise in the limits of the neoliberal imagination. (His essay was excerpted last weekend in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

"Where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market," writes Michaels, " neoliberalism -- with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market -- is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth."

How does this work? Well, it's no secret that going to the Big Three pays off. If, in theory, the door is open to anyone smart and energetic, then everything is fair, right? That's equality of opportunity. And if students at the Big Three then turn out to be drawn mainly from families earning more than $100,000 per year....

Well, life is unfair. But the system isn't.

"But the justification will only work," writes Michaels, if "there really are significant class differences at Harvard. If there really aren't -- if it's your wealth (or your family's wealth) that makes it possible for you to go to an elite school in the first place -- then, of course, the real source
of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can't just buy your way into Harvard."

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Jewish in Polynesia

As a Jewish professor, I know that it is my lot in life to deal with stereotypes of Jewish academics. As a Jewish professor from California, dealing with these stereotypes is even more difficult because I lack recourse to the solution favored by many colleagues: acting as if the complex negotiation of my identity can be accomplished simply by assuming that "Jewish" means "from New York" and leaving it at that. As a Jewish professor from California who teaches in Hawaii, navigating my identity as a practicing Reform Jew, both in the classroom and out, has taken many surprising twists and turns.

Oxford University Press's Judaism: A Very Short Introduction notes astutely that Jews, like tomatoes, are neither "particularly complicated or obscure when left to themselves, but they don't neatly fit into the handy categories such as fruit or vegetable or nation and religion which are so useful for pigeonholing other foods and people." Growing up in northern California, I went to a high school where the blanket term "Asian" was scrupulously decomposed into a wide variety of ethnicities, which included not just Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but Hmong, Miao, Mien, Lao, Hongkie, Taiwanese, and so forth. When I got lunch at Vang's convenience store, my Thai friend grumbled about "those hill people." But for him, as for me, there was only one kind of white person: the white kind.

It was not until I moved to graduate school in Chicago that I realized that there were different kinds of white people. Growing up in Reagan's America, "Marxism" to me meant a critique of the soullessness of suburban life. Exploitation was not about class -- it was about Mexican-Anglo relations. While I understood that my religion made me different from most people, it didn't seem to make me any more distinctive than the guy in my class whose family had a time-share in Tahoe: I missed a few days of class for high holy days, he missed them for the time share. But living on the south side of Chicago, class became an inescapable fact of life, and "color" meant "black" and "white."

That I could understand. But I was particularly puzzled by religion as a source of social differentiation in America. I traveled to Minnesota and visited small towns, which featured intersections with churches on every corner. Why did the Missouri Synod Lutherans need one church and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans need another? And how was all this related to the graduate student parties where bizarre passes would occasionally be made at me by women whose complex psychological relationship with novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Ravelstein had driven them out of their dairy-rich farming communities and into the arms of a cosmopolitan intellectualism which they expected me to embody?

My dissertation committee consisted of three Jewish structuralists and a Protestant interested in performativity. The Protestant member of my committee claimed that reading Kierkegaard's analysis of the sacrifice of Isaac through a Derridean lens could help explain nationalism in Indonesia, but this was the closest I actually got to Judaism as a religious phenomenon. Actually that is not true. At one point as I was driving in the car with one member of my committee, she pointed out a kosher butcher shop and told me that that was where another member of my committee went "for really good meat." But that was it -- my committee was alarmed when I suggested that Judaism was not actually synonymous with being an atheist intellectual, or even who knew where to get a pound of lean pastrami.

I originally felt my move to Hawaii would be a sort of homecoming -- a return to the multicultural environment of my childhood and an end to the terrible, terrible cold I had suffered through in the Midwest. In fact I was in for a bit of a shock. Hawaii has a unique local culture derived from the state's legacy of plantation colonialism and its overthrow at the hands of a strong labor movement. As a result Hawaii owes much to the Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese workers who moved here to cut cane. And of course there is the rich tradition of native Hawaiian culture, which has experienced a renaissance here in the past 30 years. Since the United States has long been the inheritor of Spanish colonialism in the Pacific, our islands are called home by increasing numbers of Chammoro and Filipinos. The growing number of migrants from Samoa and Tonga allows Hawaii to challenge Auckland as the unofficial capital of Polynesia. And there is no doubt that Honolulu -- the forward point for the projection of U.S. political and military power into the Pacific -- has long been a center for Micronesian migration.

Further, Hawaii has one of the highest rates of intermarriage in the country, and the place is remarkably cosmopolitan given its small size and distance from major centers. The result of all this is that my students are more likely to visit Saipan than Schenectady, and know more about Pago Pago than Paris. It soon became apparent that the welcome return to my natal relation to my Jewish identity was not to be had -- and for reasons more enduring than the fact that the Web site for my new shul in Honolulu was ""

A great deal of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course involves getting students to rethink ideas of race and ethnicity in light of the anthropological concept of culture. However, I feel very uncomfortable asking my students to objectify themselves in class by asking them "as an Asian, how do you feel about this?" or lecturing my African-American students about supposedly innate black athletic ability. On the mainland I solved this problem by objectifying myself and examining, for instance, stereotypes about Jews. In fact I typically use the tomato imagery from Oxford's Very Short Introduction to Judaism. "So," I said in my first class in the islands, dry erase marker in hand and ready to make a discussion-spurring list, "what are some stereotypes you have of Jewish people?"


"Please," I say generously, "This classroom is a safe place where people can discuss controversial topics civilly, so don't feel you need to spare my feelings. So: what are some stereotypes of Jews?"

Silence. As a new professor I had read countless books and articles exhorting me not to get freaked out if it took a while for someone to say
something. But this time I get nothing. Nada.

"How about the idea that Jews are good with money?" I finally offer.

"You mean like they're pake?" asked one confused woman, using a
Hawaiian term originally meant to describe Chinese people, but which in
local slang simply means tight-fisted.

In this and other classes I quickly came to realize that when it comes to Jews the Hawaiian response to the question of "is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit" is to ask "what's a tomato?" In California, my identity as a Jew wasn't particularly relevant. In Honolulu, I am pretty much off the table insofar as the ethnic imagination of my students goes. All white people were haole -- a Hawaiian word with a slightly derogatory connotations (one of my students wears a T-shirt to class that reads "Haole you flew here I grew here".)

The problem was not just that my students didn't know that I was a tomato, they're often a little unclear on the idea that people must be sorted into fruits and vegetables. To put it another way: it is difficult to expose the culturally-contingent nature of your student's essentialist folk theories of identity when they have names like Motoko Kapualani da Silva or Brian Ka'imikaua Li. This latter student claimed to be "Japanese, Filipino, and Hawaiian." I pointed out to him that his last name was Chinese. He paused and thought about it for a second and then remembered that yes, his family was also Chinese but he had never really thought of "Li" as a Chinese name. By speaking frankly about my own identity with my students I learned that they did not operate with the same concepts of race and ethnicity that my students on the mainland did, and this insight allowed me to teach anthropology in a way that was accessible to them.

Now when I teach my intro class I engage my student's expectations about ethnic difference by approaching some of the aporias of identity in Hawaii. How does the selective retention of taboos and purity laws by orthodox Jews provide a model of how (or how not!) to creatively innovate one's tradition? Why do we speak of Hawaii as a multicultural paradise when there is so much racial tension simmering under the surface? Is the distinction of "local" and "haole" one of race? Of class? What does it mean to talk about "ancient Hawaiian tradition" with a professor whose people lived in diaspora for a millennium before the first Hawaiians arrived in the islands? Why are haole tourists noisy, rude, and overbearing compared to locals? How can we use the concept of culture to render this comportment intelligible?

In sum, living in Hawaii has forced me to rethink not just my own Jewish heritage, but  the issue of heritage in general. As an anthropologist I find the challenge of working through these multiple layers of identity and (as we say in the business) “group affiliation” to be both professionally and personally rewarding. And most important of all, it provides my students a chance to grow intellectually by thinking about identity and belonging in ways they may not have before. In the next few semesters I plan to put together a class entitled "Kohen and Kahuna," based on an unpublished manuscript by a Rabbi and sociologist who studied at the University of Hawaii in the 1940s. We will not discuss Woody Allen films or where to get a pound of lean pastrami. We will discuss the comparative study of taboo, social complexity in Polynesia and the ancient Middle East, and anxiety about not being able to chant properly in your heritage language. Shaloha, everyone!

Alex Golub
Author's email:

Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.

People of the Book

Not so long ago, word that Jewish intellectuals were starting a cultural magazine would have been slightly more newsworthy than another Tex-Mex restaurant opening in San Antonio. Connoisseurs would appreciate the update, of course. But in ordinary circumstances, it would just seem in the nature of things.

The first issue of The Jewish Review of Books, a quarterly, has now been sent, by mail, to some 29,000 readers whose names have been culled from the mailing lists of other publications as well as some academic associations. It contains about 50 pages of reviews and essays, as well as a page of comics written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Tara Seibel. And this is, in fact, news; for, given the economy, these are not ordinary circumstances. For that matter, the world of book reviewing was in crisis well before the financial turbulence hit.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a librarian to search Nexis (a digital database covering numerous major newspapers and magazines) for reviews of some books published last year by large trade presses. This yielded results that proved awfully thin, both in page-count and substance. The librarian told me that at first she had restricted the search to pieces that were at least 800 words long. This yielded so few of them that it was necessary to try again -- now accepting anything that came back.

Many of the reviews were one or two paragraphs long. The ability to condense critical insight into a format resembling haiku is rare. For the most part, these “reviews” were glorified press releases. A great deal of the discussion of books now takes place in online forums, of course -- but seldom with the benefit of editing. Then again, books themselves are often not edited, so perhaps this is appropriate.

The notion of that readers might benefit from an infrastructure of assessment now begins to look anachronistic. Writing is disintermediated. From this point on, it’s every mind for itself.

“This is," writes Abraham Socher, the editor of JRB, in his inaugural editorial, "an especially good time to launch a Jewish magazine of ideas and criticism." My tiny smattering of Yiddish includes the word chutzpah, but this may require a Greek prefix: meta-chutzpah.

“Perhaps,” he continues, “it has always been a good time: the history of Jewish thought over the last two hundred years could be charted through a dozen periodicals in half a dozen languages. But we live at a moment in which more Jewish books, and books of particular Jewish interest, are being published than ever before. Of the making of such books, it seems, there is no end. But of real criticism, considered judgment, rendered in graceful, accessible prose, there is something of a scarcity.”

Well, that’s more like it. It was King Solomon, or at least his ghost writer, who first complained about the struggle to keep up with all the new titles coming out. And in the 20th century, it was Jewish critics (Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe) who set the standard for reviewing as something like a minor literary form in itself, at least in the United States. It is difficult to feel optimistic about this tradition reviving -- but all the more reason to welcome any sign that it might.

I got in touch with Socher, who is a professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin -- in part to express appreciation for the effort, but also to ask whether it was not problematic. While reviewing a book on modern Jewish philosophy, Socher himself had once pointed out that each of those terms tended to create problems of definition. So what did the word “Jewish” in the title of his journal designate: Religion? Ethnicity? An accident of the author’s, or reviewer’s, or reader’s birth? All of the above?

And isn’t the Review entering what still seems, even in these times, a crowded niche? After all, The New Republic, Commentary, and Tikkun all cover Judaica pretty thoroughly.

“The primary identity of the magazines you mention is really political,” Slocher told me. “We will address politics on occasion but you will never find us proclaiming the ‘Jewish position’ on, say, health care. We’re betting that Jewish literature, history, thought, and cultures are interesting in and of themselves.”

As for how to define his journal’s mandate, he joked: “Well, I have identified the essence of Judaism in my historical laboratory and... No, really, I think Wittgenstein’s talk of ‘family resemblance’ concepts is useful here. If you saw the articles and asked what kind of magazine they all appeared in, you’d probably say that it was a Jewish one. The magazine expresses a set of interests and sensibilities that are recognizably Jewish. That’s enough.”

The first issue had a print run of 32,000 copies, most of them sent out in mid-February to potential subscribers. As of the start of the new month, Socher told me, they had about 500 subscriptions, and the Web site had attracted more than 21,000 distinct visitors after being up for just over a week. Planning for the journal began about two years ago, with support from The Tikvah Fund, which has made a five year commitment to the journal; the fund also sponsors projects in Jewish studies at Princeton, NYU, and the University of Toronto.

Socher has been released from all but a very few duties at Oberlin for the present academic year, and will mostly be concentrating on the journal next year as well. I asked if he expected to remain at the helm for the long term, or if instead he anticipated handing it over to another editor once it had been established. The question seemed to surprise him. "I have no idea," he said. "I love teaching and don't want to give that up, but honestly haven't had time to think that through."

But he indicated that his introduction to the debut issue would be his first and last editorial. The opportunity to hold forth does not appeal to him. By e-mail and in conversation, I tried to determine whether Socher might have some polemical instincts there, under the surface. But while it seems a fair guess that members of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network won't be contributing very many reviews, I didn't get the sense that he has any aspiration to be the next Norman Podhoretz, either. (A good thing, too. One is more than enough.)

"I want to insist," he said, "that most of what we'll have in the Review -- religion broadly defined, theology narrowly defined, philosophy, history -- isn't reducible to political positions. There is already a fair amount of that kind of argument taking place in the Jewish intellectual world. And I have to say that I find the drafting of premodern religious traditions into modern political projects to be profoundly uninteresting."

Which is not to say that the journal is going for dull. As a longtime devotee of Isaac Rosenfeld, I found Dara Horn's discussion of him in the first issue to be deeply irritating. Jon Levenson's essay "The Idea of Abrahamic Religions" is an instructive look at why the patriarch claimed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims is not necessarily a figure able to bring the monotheisms together on common ground. Ron Rosenbaum considers the enigmatic question of just how Jewish Bob Dylan really is. (His meditation benefits from being uncharacteristically non-digressive.)

Having Harvey Pekar review, in comic format, his longtime collaborator Robert Crumb's illustrated edition of the book of Genesis was an inspired idea. And Michael Weingrad's reflections on the relative lack of Jewish fantasy literature -- the dearth of hobbits keeping kosher, if you will -- has certainly proven provocative.

It's an auspicious start, at a time when endings are much more common.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

A Rebuke for Brandeis Administrators

Smart Title: 
Faculty panel rejects phasing out the teaching of ancient Greek -- and sees "incalculable" damage from the way cuts were proposed.

Ancient Greek Survives at Brandeis

Smart Title: 

For months now, Brandeis professors have been riled by the possibility that key liberal arts programs -- including instruction in ancient Greek -- would be eliminated. Now the dean who put those ideas up for consideration has withdrawn them.

Adam Jaffe, dean of arts and sciences, recently told faculty members that they no longer needed to view these ideas as being under active consideration. Linguistics and a music composition program also faced elimination and several other departments faced possible reductions in size.

First Amendment Furor

Smart Title: 
University press book sets off debate involving Alan Dershowitz, Arnold Schwarzenegger and charges of plagiarism and anti-Semitism.

The New Jewish Studies

Smart Title: 
Scholars from growing, changing field gather to consider what's hot, how to study Israel, and how they fit into multiculturalism.

Faith on the Quad

Smart Title: 
Scholars issue draft "declaration" calling for expanded role of religion in curriculum and student life -- at religious and secular colleges.


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