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Trials of the Ivy League

 



By Michael Oren

“I think it’s fair to say that I am not a Zionist.” So proclaimed the renowned professor of Modern Arab History before a class of Princeton University undergraduates. The remark was accompanied by an ironic smirk signaling understatement. He was, in fact, rabidly anti-Zionist and made no attempt to hide it. At the department’s weekly brown bag lunches, the professor would kowtow to representatives of Syria’s Assad and other tyrants, questioning them about economic, agricultural, and other anodyne policies while obsequiously avoiding anything controversial. The poor Israeli visitor, by contrast, was publicly impaled. “You’re a spokesman for Israel?” the professor once shouted. “If so, I pity you!”

 

I, too, was accused of being a spokesman, and not only by the professor. I had only recently returned to the United States from service in the IDF, as a Lone Soldier in the paratroopers, and fought in a war. Citing that background, some of my classmates refused to interact with me, accusing me of complicity in war crimes. For the same reason, my former Arabic teacher at Columbia, a person I once regarded as a close friend, would not recommend me for the Ph.D. program in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. 

 

Feeling isolated and beset, at the end of my first semester, I was ready to quit. I wanted to go back to Israel—even an Israel still at war—where my studies would be regularly interrupted by long stints in the reserves. The atmosphere on campus was simply too anti-Zionist to endure.

 

The year was 1982.

 

The current wave of antisemitism sweeping many American campuses, most glaringly those of the Ivy League, is now national news. It is blatant, malicious, and woefully unchecked, even after the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and Penn. But it is hardly new. Neither is the cancel culture and the regime of microaggressions and intersectionality that has transformed some of the West’s finest universities into bastions of groupthink, Jew-hatred, and fear. 

 

That same year, 1982, I worked as a preceptor for a large undergraduate course on the history of the Middle East. According to Princeton’s Honor Code, the exams were to be graded blindly—that is, without my knowing their names. Any incident of cheating or plagiarism had to be reported immediately to a committee of students and faculty who would vote to suspend or expel the guilty. I never thought about the Code until the day I received a paper copied verbatim from the course’s textbook. Eager to comply with the rules, I submitted the case to the committee and quickly forgot about it. Much later that year, I was summoned to a hearing. Only then did I meet the committee members as well as the accused who, I suddenly learned, was Black. Hearing how he hailed from a poor Southern town and was the first person in his family to go to college, much less to Princeton, I felt terrible for him. But not as terrible as the committee which let the student off with a slight reprimand while excoriating me at length for heartlessness. Browbeaten, confused, I asked a friendly dean where I had gone wrong.

 

“You’ve got to play by the new rules,” he told me. “Things have changed.”

 

Things had indeed changed. Only a few years before, as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s, I sat beside and even befriended Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians in courses thoroughly free of politics. In Humanities and Contemporary Civilization courses, I studied a curriculum virtually unaltered for generations, that enabled students to understand the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence from their authors’ perspective, and to access the roots of Western thought. Now, suddenly, much of that was gone. Classrooms and quads had become battlefields. Many of the classic texts had not only been jettisoned but demonized, and the society they created reviled. Canon had become a bad word

 

How, in such a short time, had that happened? How would the long-held Soviet dream of instilling doubt, divisiveness, and self-loathing in American society be posthumously realized? The answer begins in the student rebellions of the 1960s. While successful in conquering campuses, the rebels failed to export their revolt beyond the university gates. So, they closed the gates behind them and focused on planting those ideas in the minds of the undergraduates who would eventually replace them. Others would convey those concepts into the halls of Congress and even the White House. 

As early as 2006, while a visiting professor at Harvard, I was warned by students to watch my language. Saying “mankind,” for example, instead of “humankind” could get me in trouble. At a faculty party, I innocently asked a doctoral candidate in the Art History Department if she had a chance of getting tenure.

 

“No way,” she replied. “I’m not a Marxist.”

 

Later that year, while returning from my class, I ran into an ad-hoc press conference with Harvard President Lawrence Summer. The internationally revered economist and former Treasury Secretary was announcing his resignation. The announcement came in the wake of protests over Summer’s attempts to explain the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. The phenomenon, he suggested, was the result of discrimination and other social impediments, but also possibly differing levels of ability. 

 

Nearly twenty years ago—forty years after the 1960s—art at Harvard could only be viewed through a Communist lens and the mere suggestion that women and men might, in certain fields, display different levels of aptitude, could cost its president his job.  But the youth rebellion’s success was not merely confined to political correctness and the humanities. It had an immense impact on attitudes toward Israel. 


Though many of them were Jewish and belonged to a generation that remembered the Holocaust and Israel’s struggle for independence, the rebel leaders were outspoken in their opposition to the Jewish state. “I am violently anti-Israel and no longer believe they have a right to exist,” declared counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman. “If Moses were alive today,” surmised Hoffman’s fellow Yippie, Jerry Rubin, “he’d be an Arab guerrilla.”

 

Ostensibly, Larry Summers was ousted because of a remark he made about women, but the real reason many on campus believed was his strong defense of Israel.  Criticism of the Jewish State, he averred, could be “antisemitic in effect if not in intent.” Among those critics, presumably, was Harvard professor Cornell West, an outspoken anti-Zionist who associated Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the oppression of Black Americans. When Summers assailed him for missing classes, abjuring research, and engaging in non-academic campaigns, West claimed the charges in fact derived from his opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause. He called Summers, a Jew, “the Ariel Sharon of American education.”

 

From Harvard, I went on to spend two academic years teaching at Yale. My lecture, “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East from 1776 to the Present,” was among the university’s largest and most popular. But the Department of Modern Middle East Studies would not award credits for the course. Students could only take it for American History credits. Though I had never taken an American History course in my life, absurdly, I found myself teaching it at Yale. 

 

My time in New Haven was lonely. Among the profound changes that occurred since my college days, the field of American Studies had become one of anti-America Studies and anti-Israel as well. Not too many years later, the American Studies Association would vote to boycott all Israeli educational institutions. The same self-hating process pervaded Jewish Studies and even Israel Studies. In the wake of the October 7 pogrom, hundreds of professors from these disciplines would sign a petition condemning Israel but barely mentioning Hamas. Yet all of these trends were already evident at Yale where a proud Israeli professor teaching American history was unlikely to feel welcomed.

 

Not surprisingly, then, the American History Department never invited me to give or even listen to a single lecture. Nor did the Jewish Studies Department, several members of which I’d regarded as colleagues. The Slivka Center for Jewish Life, then headed by a progressive rabbi, similarly refused to host me until a group of pro-Israel students insisted that it did. While I had an option of remaining at Yale for additional semesters, I declined and happily returned to Israel.

 

Years passed and the situation on campuses only deteriorated. It’s hard to imagine that “The History of Zionist Diplomacy” seminar I once taught at Harvard and Yale could still be given today. In 2017, Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life disinvited Likud Knesset Member—currently Israel’s ambassador to Britain—Tzipi Hotovely to speak, claiming that her views were too rightwing. Tzipi’s politics were not my own, but I’d sat next to her in Knesset for years, liked and respected her, and believed that Princeton had to host a representative chosen by Israelis at the polls. I interceded with the Center and worked out a compromise plan in which six Israelis from different parts of our political spectrum would lecture there throughout the following year. The Center never honored the agreement.


Finally, in somewhat of a closing circle, in March 2021, I received an email from the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies inviting me to return as a visiting professor in the fall. Despite knowing the difficulties I would encounter, I accepted and suggested that, in addition to lecturing in the college, I also offer a seminar on Israel at the Kennedy School. The Center enthusiastically received my suggestion, and I began to make my plans.

 

A month later, the director wrote back to me apologizing. The offer had been rescinded. The Kennedy School objected to the appointment. So, too, did the college, which also withdrew its invitation. Repeated attempts to receive an explanation proved futile. A request for clarification sent to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, the son of a Holocaust survivor, elicited a reply from Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, asserting that, since no formal invitation had been issued, none could be retracted. Curiously, in January of 2023, the same Dean Elmendorf reversed his decision to deny a fellowship to former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth, a notorious anti-Zionist, who subsequently taught at Harvard.   

 

In describing these trials in the Ivy League, I can’t help recalling that classic examination of British antisemitism, Trials of the Diaspora, by attorney Anthony Julius. Hailed as “strong” and “somber” by famed Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, and by The New Republic as “magisterial and definitive,” the book was nevertheless lambasted by The Guardian for equating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. “This strident tub-thumping is unworthy of such a learned author,” concluded ardent Israel-critic Dominic Sandbrook in The Daily Telegraph. But, of course, Julius was right. He saw nearly fifteen years ago what is incontrovertible today and in no place more patently than on Ivy League campuses.

 

Since October 7, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Jewish students at these universities. They have shared their trauma, their frustration, and their profound disappointment with the antisemitism disguised as anti-Zionism they encounter almost daily both within and outside the classroom, while administrators and faculty members look on impassively. Many told me that, had they’d known in advance of this atmosphere of Jew-hatred, they never would have applied to their school.


They, like me, no doubt worked intensely hard to get accepted to their college. Some, like me, had to overcome disabilities and failure. In view of those efforts, the regret they now express is even more tragic. So, too, are the statistics showing the radical shrinking of the percentage of Jews attending virtually all these institutions. Today, only one question remains: is there a Jewish future in the Ivies? Does the crisis have a solution or are the hallowed gates that generations of American Jews once viewed as the pathway to success irrevocably closing? 

 

The process that led to the current morass was more than half-century in the making, beginning in the 1960s, and may take at least as long to reverse. That turnaround, moreover, will prove near impossible due to the tenure system in which professors choose those candidates who most dependably perpetuate their views. Rather than wait, pro-Israel students may prefer to attend one of the many excellent universities—Michigan or the University of Miami, for example—that have been more accommodating. They may also consider attending the University of Austin launched by author Bari Weiss and dedicated to the “fearless pursuit of truth,” now enrolling its first four-year class. Another option would be to attend one of Israel’s globally-ranked universities where a first-rate education is available at a fraction of the American cost, and a Jewish-friendly environment is assured.

 

Finally, Jewish students, knowing full well what they’ll face, can choose to study at one of those ivy-draped schools. They can prepare for taking, along with final exams, a tremendous amount of obloquy and prejudice. They can stay and fight with no guarantee of winning, just the satisfaction of standing up for Israel and the Jewish people, causes vastly more valuable than any Ivy League degree. 

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