Are You a Self-Made Job Market Kryptonite? Develop Some Common Sense or Suffer the Consequences. Also, a First Amendment Primer Tailored for Your Campus Needs

Since writing this, and reading this, I expected things to deteriorate, and of course, they have: students who have publicly supported terrorists are suing private law firms that rescinded their job offers. This is absurd for reasons I’ve explained in a prior post:

It is also important to distinguish the right to free speech from the consequences of putting oneself out in public espousing horrendous views. Several law students in fancy schools are finding out, to their shock and surprise, that law firms are not all that keen to hire people who publicly extol the virtues of slaughtering, raping, maiming, burning alive, beheading, and kidnapping people. That being an antisemitic idiot with repugnant views is not a professional asset and has consequences in the job market shouldn’t be particularly surprising, unless you spent your undergraduate years under the tutelage of morally bankrupt people for whom espousing these “edgy” and “interesting” views was a calculated career strategy that catapulted them to prominence in fields like ethnic studies (read here a courageous letter by a UC Regent calling out the Ethnic Studies faculty council letter for what it is.) No wonder these students think they can spew horrid opinions in public and face no consequences whatsoever. What I find most amazing about the whole thing is that some of my colleagues are surprised by what they see on the campus quad. How is any of this surprising? Academic institutions, including the ones I work for, have breathed life into this Golem for years, and the last thing they should find astonishing is when it comes for them. They taught these people, but they didn’t educate them, and the proof’s in the rancid pudding.

But the thing that really gets my goat about this ridiculous lawsuit is that I’ve spent years either representing, or consulting for, activists, direct action folks, civil disobedients, etc. Doing this kind of work hones one’s fine sense of smell for who is the real deal and who is a performative, egomaniacal joke, i.e., who truly wants to effectuate change in world and who wants people to applaud them online. One tell-tale sign is that people who truly and selflessly believe in what they are doing are willing to take the risk of harsh consequences for what they believe. The animal rights folks I helped defend did not believe they were committing a crime by saving animals and documenting animal abuse in factory farms, but they did know that the counties that house these farms and the Farm Bureau lobbyists that fund the justice system in these counties would consider what they did a crime, and the result could be arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration. They welcomed this eventuality, which would be very unpleasant for them, because they thought that criminal trials would be a way to raise the issues publicly whether or not they won and lost (of course, these are not all animal rights activists: many of them would rather make pig noises at Jewish speakers in City Hall than to do actual animal rights work, i.e., help the many animals who suffer from the war on both sides of the border. But that’s neither here nor there).

Anyone who thinks that a private lawsuit against a firm to protect one’s own bright future and pecuniary interests is going to move the needle on war in the Middle East is either disingenuous or an idiot (or both). Perhaps as disingenuous, or as much of an idiot, as the NLG clowns who advised law students that disrupting an event at someone’s private residence, which you are attending thanks to the owner’s personal generosity, somehow counts as consequence-immune free speech. Since it appears that all these supposed lawyers and law students have completely forgotten what they were taught in constitutional law, here are some reminders of the basics, complete with examples.

The First Amendment reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Like the entire U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment operates in the individual-versus-government space. It is the government that is forbidden from curtailing one’s free speech in public, not private entities–be they individuals, faculty members, students, student groups, etc.–and certainly not in private spaces. This is why suing a private employer who doesn’t want a shrill terrorism supporter to draw a salary from them is absurd. Here are a few other examples:

Also, odious as the “context” comments of the university presidents were at the hearing were, they were legally correct: when deciding whether something is protected or not, context does matter a lot:

Here are some recognized exceptions to the freedom of speech:

And here are the rules about some of the exceptions that come up most frequently in the context of student and faculty opinions about the war:

Fighting Words. These are defined, per Chaplinsky v. NH (1942), as words which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” The burden of proof is pretty high–Clear and Present Danger, per Termiliano v. Chicago (1949).

Defamation. I’ve seen examples of horrific maligning of people on social media. Insofar as these people are public figures, it will be hard to prevail on defamation. Per NYT v. Sullivan (1964), “[t]he constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Incitement to Imminent Lawlessness/Violence. Here, too, hyperbole doesn’t suffice to create the exception: “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” The example given in Schneck v. U.S. (1919) is the classic “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre.”

True Threat. It is not protected speech to “direct a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death” (VA v. Black (2003)), but most of the stuff that gets yelled around campus would not be classified as “true threat” but rather as “political hyperbole.” For example, to say during the Vietnam war, “If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” is the latter (Watts v. U.S. (1969)).

Solicitation to Commit Crime. In criminal law, at common law, the term “solicitation” applies to a scenario where a person requests or induces another person to commit an act that would amount to a felony. In the context of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has punted on opportunities to clearly define criminal solicitation. Again, judging from the other exceptions, specificity would be key here.

As you can see, this means that free speech is very broad in the U.S. context. Which doesn’t mean that using it incessantly is necessarily a good idea. Recently, a beleaguered Harvard concluded that the best policy is to stay away from statements and proclamations on matters that do not directly concern the educational mission of the school (Syracuse is following, and I expect other schools as well–my own workplace does this, and this letter from the Dean of Stanford Law makes the same point.) But this does not apply, obviously, to individuals within the university. I know very well what it’s like to work and study when surrounded by behaviors that are covered by the First Amendment, none of which on its own is beyond the pale, but whose cumulative effect is corrosive. Because, just like the people yelling and distributing terrible flyers, you are an individual with free speech rights, use them! Take a page out of Ron Hassner’s initiative. I joined him for one night at my office and it felt good to do or say something, too, not just remain mute in the face of upsetting things happening.

That said, you and your psyche come first, and we could all immensely benefit from stopping the ridiculous concept creep of the phrase “I felt unsafe.” Choose your battles, act accordingly, and shrug off any nonsense that will not move the needle one way or the other. If you think that this stuff will affect your actual safety (not just your job satisfaction), then I think you should act.

#FacultyVigil Tomorrow Night at My Office

My colleague and new friend Ron Hassner, who teachers political science at Berkeley, has been sleeping in his office for more than a week. Ron is protesting against the university’s failure to protect Jewish students from violent antisemitic behaviors, like the horrifying attack of last week. His list of demands is fairly modest: he wants Sather Gate opened, protection for speakers assaulted by students with opposing views, and campus-wide education on antisemitism and Islamophobia. Julia Steinberg reports for The Free Press:

“This is a campus known for its protest,” Hassner says. “Put up propaganda! Hang it everywhere! But don’t physically block students from walking. Don’t harass them. Please don’t strangle them. I think it’s possible to advocate for the Palestinian cause without strangling people.” 

I agree, which is why I will join Ron and several of my colleagues at the UC system to stage a #FacultyVigil tomorrow night. We all want to work and study safely. The boundaries of free speech in the US are wide enough to include lots of ways to disagree and express conflicting opinions without resorting to violence and terrorizing. If anyone wants to visit on Tue, I’ll likely be at the office (333 Golden Gate #320) from 7pm until my 9am class the next morning. If anyone shows up, maybe we can do a movie night (I propose Footnote) or we can just have a nice chat.

The Zero-Sum Game of Epidemiology

One of the problems of siloed reporting is that, in times of serious conflict, each side can remain isolated from news of suffering and horror on the other side. It’s understandable that parties to the horrific war in the Middle East can’t muster the attention, let alone the compassion, to read news from the “other side,” which explains why a San Francisco man telling of the slaughter of five family members by Hamas was met with jeers, horns, and pig noises, and why Matt Dorsey’s request that the sexual violence against Israeli women be similarly denounced yielded yells “liar” from my fellow San Franciscans. In my very institution, an educated, erudite, well-dressed man, a former colleague of many years, stood before an audience of 200 and ascribed facts of the massacre to “disinformation.”

But the problem goes both ways, and the Israeli press is not reporting on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza (nor is it easy for international orgs to do so). The Israeli’s public’s attention and capacity to feel for Gazans is pretty low. And, as Itamar Mann explains, if there’s anything good about the Hague tribunal taking place as I write, it is that it airs some of these realities, which we ignore at everyone’s peril.

There’s one particular aspect to this disaster that we cannot and should not ignore, regardless of where one stand politically: the war is unearthing a serious public health crisis, including diseases. And as Chad Goerzen and I explain in our forthcoming book Fester, seeing disease through a siloed zero-sum game framework is a horrific mistake. Here’s NPR covering the WHO report about this public health crisis:

MARTÍNEZ: All right, wow, so really bad. How have things gotten so bad?

DANIEL: Well, Gaza’s health infrastructure has really crumbled amidst Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive. The WHO says more than half of Gaza’s hospitals are no longer functioning. And that’s because Israel has accused Hamas of harboring fighters and weapons in and around those hospitals and under them in tunnels, putting them in the line of fire [H.A.: this wording implies the accusations were not true; they were, of course]. Plus, the conditions inside Gaza are a perfect storm for the spread of infectious disease. There is intense overcrowding, colder winter weather and a lack of clean water, sanitation and proper nutrition, which are services that are difficult to secure under Israel’s near-total siege of Gaza. Here’s Amber Alayyan, deputy program manager for Doctors Without Borders in the Palestinian territories.

AMBER ALAYYAN: It’s just sort of a cauldron of possibility of infectious disease. This really just is an infectious disaster in waiting.

MARTÍNEZ: And that brings us back, I suppose, to the World Health Organization’s prediction that disease could endanger more lives than military action.

DANIEL: Exactly. And it’s why global health groups are racing to ramp up disease surveillance efforts.

Anyone getting sick and dying from a preventable disease in the shadow of conflict is a tragedy. There are heartbreaking reports of Gazan children suffering from horrendous diarrhea and infections. But when one is overwhelmed with grief and rage it’s hard to see that. What should not be hard to see, though, is that viruses and epidemics don’t take sides.

I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see the zero-sum game mentality in action. In Chapter 4 of Fester we recount the public debate about vaccination priority. You’ll be able to notice the same thinking error problem right away:

Advocates were trying to combat disturbing news: kowtowing to public pressure not to prioritize prisoners, CDPH removed prison populations from tier 1B of vaccination. This misguided zero-sum thinking—based, of course, on the myth of prison impermeability—reflected similarly worrisome developments nationwide. In Colorado, for example, the first draft of the vaccine distribution plan prioritized the prison population, but the governor later backtracked, “sa[ying] during a media briefing that prisoners would not get the vaccine before ‘free people.’” His response caused public uproar and was reported in national media outlets.

Similarly, in Wisconsin, parroting the old law-and-order playbook, assemblymember Mark Born tweeted, “The committee that advises @GovEvers and his department tasked with leading during this pandemic is recommend- ing allowing prisoners to receive the vaccine before 65 year old grandma?”

And, in Tennessee, health officials placed the state’s prison population last in line, because a state advisory panel tasked with vaccine prioritization, which acknowledged that prison populations were high-risk, concluded that prioritizing them could be a “public relations nightmare.” Documents reported that the panel understood the problem: “If we get hit hard in jails it affects the whole community. Disease leaves corrections facilities and reenters general society as inmates cycle out of their sentencing,” the document read, adding that when inmates get the disease, “it is the taxpayers that have to absorb the bill for treatment.” But while corrections workers were bumped up to one of the earliest slots, incarcerated people—including those who met the state’s age qualifications for earlier vaccinations—were relegated to the last eligible group.

I knew this was public health idiocy even as it was happening, and wrote an op-ed about that for the Chron. In addition to the heightened mortality and supbpar healthcare in prisons, there was another important consideration that should have led everyone, bleeding-heart liberals and hard-line law-and-order folks alike, to clamor for prison vaccines:

Second, prisons must be prioritized because vaccinating behind bars protects everyone in the state. It is imperative to understand the role that prison outbreaks play in the overall COVID picture of the state. As of today, all but two CDCR facilities have COVID-19 outbreaks, and numerous prisons have suffered serious outbreaks with hundreds of cases. Months of analysis I have conducted, superimposing the CDCR infection rates onto the infection in California counties at large, show correlations between pandemic spikes in prison and in the surrounding and neighboring counties. Vaccinating people behind bars protects not only them, but also you and yours.

The result was disastrous but predictable. In Chapter 5 of Fester we show how prison outbreaks impacted the overall COVID-19 picture in California. Our epidemiological analysis, which relies on the Bradford Hill criteria, included a counterfactual model in which the outbreaks in prison were controlled. The results were striking:

Together, these show that due to the extraordinarily high prevalence of COVID-19 cases inside CDCR facilities, particularly during the year 2020, these facilities had a large influence on their regions, far more than their rela- tively small population and isolation would suggest. Note the difference between the total casualties in Marin County with and without the counter- factual—58 deaths, 22 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in Marin for this period—and the difference between the total casualties in California with- out CDCR facilities—11,974 deaths, or 18.5 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in California for this period. Furthermore, the outbreaks in San Quentin and CDCR occurred before vaccinations were publicly available and before effective treatments for COVID-19 were developed, making them particularly high impact on mortality.

That’s close to 12,000 preventable deaths in the state of California–outside prisons–that are causally attributable to the outbreaks in prisons. We point this out because even people who can’t find compassion for their fellow Californians behind bars should wake up to the fact that, if the incarcerated population ails, all of us are put at risk.

Israeli newspaper coverage does not feature the dire epidemiological threat, because people’s attention is focused on the more direct existential risk from the war (especially with the possibility of a northern front becoming more and more real every day.) In the overall noise of political partisanship we could forget how densely populated the Middle East is, and how soldiers go in and out of Gaza. We also forget how easily epidemics travel the world and could quickly spread beyond the Middle East. I realize I’m speaking to a wall of partisanship, rage, and fear. I worry that the halt in the process of releasing hostages and prisoners is going to make this as much of a quickening sand situation as Lebanon was, and that eventually the public health outcomes will decide this conflict, to the detriment of everyone.

BREAKING NEWS: In Blow to Netanyahu Government Agenda, Israeli High Court of Justice Restores Reasonableness Ground for Judicial Review

Today, the High Court of Justice published its 697-page decision (!), in which it granted the Movement for Quality Government and numerous other civil rights organizations a resounding victory against the Knesset and, especially, the Netanyahu government’s agenda to curb judicial review. By a 8-7 majority, the Court found that the amendment to the Basic Law, canceling the reasonableness ground for judicial review (a powerful tool for curbing government behavior that is technically lawful but makes no sense or excessively infringes on people’s rights), is invalid.

In a couple of days, I promise to provide a précis of the decision in English. For now, you can peruse the entire decision verbatim below.

Malcolm Feeley on the Universities’ Stammering on Antisemitism

(pictured above: architect Shari Mendes assisting military troops in handling female genocide victims.)

Prof. Malcolm Feeley, my legendary PhD supervisor and, for the last 25 years, my mentor, coauthor, and good friend, is one of the pioneering giants of the law and society field. He is universally admired and loved, and for good reason. Amidst the many characteristics that make him an outstanding researcher and thinker is his almost mythical ability to make sharp and revealing analogies across space and time. For example, in his amazingly creative address upon receiving the Paul Tappan prize, he compared convict transportation in the Early Modern era to electronic monitoring (I commented about it here). In his work on guilty pleas (Malcolm is the granddaddy of lower criminal court research) he made the paradigm-generating analogy between the prosecutor-driven generation of plea bargains to the transition from bazaars to supermarkets.

In an excellent opinion piece in The Hill, Prof. Feeley, who taught and researched at elite universities for fifty years (including a long stretch at Berkeley and respectable stints in academic administration, including as the President of the Law & Society Association and the Chair of the JSP program at Berkeley), draws on his formidable analogy powers to diagnose the reason for the stuttering university responses to the eruption of antisemitism on campus. It is a bitter, cutting analogy between the decisions faced by the university presidents and those faced by President Roosevelt during World War II not to save the Jews from the concentration camps. He explains:

Early in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt learned of Nazi plans to systematically murder European Jews. Later, advisors urged him to order the bombing rail lines leading to Auschwitz. He rejected their pleas. Actions to prevent these murders, he responded, would turn the war into a campaign to save Jews, and in so doing undermine American’s support for the war.

And now?

On Oct. 7, we witnessed the most deadly pogrom, excepting the Holocaust, against Jews in modern history, and thousands of people danced in the streets, not only in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran, but also on campuses in Philadelphia, New York, Cambridge, Ithaca, and Berkeley. At the time, no university official on a major U.S. campus that I know of unequivocally denounced this action as a pogrom against Jews and excoriated their students and faculty for celebrating the occasion.

Two months later, on Dec. 5, presidents of three major universities at which celebrations of the pogroms took place — Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania — were questioned at a hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Their collective responses were even feebler than those issued immediately after the pogrom. When called upon to say that the calls for the support of the pogrom of Oct. 7 were antithetical to Harvard’s institutional values, President Claudine Gay could only say, “I personally oppose this,” and then parse the speech/action distinction, defend speech, and announce that Harvard had beefed up security for its Jewish students. Nowhere did she say such views had no place on Harvard’s campus, and that she was ashamed to have such students and faculty at Harvard. President Sally Kornbluth of MIT and President Elizabeth Magill of Penn, fared only slightly better. All reacted defensively. None showed moral clarity, or demonstrated leadership. All obfuscated. At best, they seemed managers trying to cope rather than inspired leaders of noble institutions. At these universities, where almost all the students receive A’s, these educators failed.

This is not because they are anti-Semites or embrace the cause of Hamas. Rather, I think it is because they face the FDR dilemma: If they single out, and in no uncertain terms condemn, anti-Semites on their campuses, they run the risk of alienating a significant portion of the social justice constituency that they have helped to create and in part to whom they owe their positions.

You should read the piece in its entirety.

Malcolm also includes a factual tidbit I was unaware adds a piece of information that I didn’t know, but which doesn’t surprise me: a colleague of ours hired a survey firm to do a poll at Berkeley, and it turns out that 53% of the students enthusiastically shouting “from the river to the sea”–folks enrolled at the best public university in the United States–don’t know which river and which sea, along with much other breathtaking ignorance.

I deeply and fervently hope that the many thousands of academics around the world who admire and respect Malcolm will take the time to read his opinion piece and consider where they stand vis-á-vis the poison on campus. I also hope that they read the heartbreaking article in the New York Times about the horrific and systematic rapes perpetuated by Hamas terrorists during the October 7 massacre.

AJS Annual Meeting, Day 3

What a wonderful day I’ve had at the AJS meeting today! I highly recommend that every academic attend an annual meeting as if they were attending a science fiction or anime conference, and go to panels that strike their fancy and are interesting to them. Today I gave myself license to attend panels on topics that interest me deeply, including art and music, and learned a lot.

I arrived late this morning for the Jews Imagining Empire panel, and so missed Yaniv Feller’s presentation, in which he proposed to frame early modern Germany as a real or (after Anderson) imagined empire. I did, however, enjoy the Q&A, in which people asked whether there were features that distinguished empires from nation states, and in what ways are there empires without colonies. Yaniv said something interesting: empires support the nation state by defining the “other”.

Then, Roger Lernon talked about Franz Kafka’s writing about imperial scenarios from faraway lands (“The Great Wall of China,” “The New Advocate” about Grece, and “The Hunter Gracchus” about Rome), to express his ambivalence toward the Habsburg empire, as a Jew in the crux of emancipation and nationalism. Finally, Katalin Rac introduced us to two people I had never heard of before: the Turkologist Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913) and the Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), both of whom were Jewish and whose travels and studies raise interesting questions about the relative liberalism of different empires.

The next panel, Jewish Art and Architecture, opened with Daniel Stein Kokin’s presentation about Perli Pelzig‘s prolific artistic career. Pelzig was a sculptor and muralist, whose work can be seen all over Israel. I’ve seen his gorgeous mosaics in kibbutzim and also at the Dan Acadia hotel in Herzliya and it was so well integrated into the space that it didn’t occur to me to inquire after the artist! But it turns out that Pelzig also designed the wonderful Holocaust Memorial Wall at Los Angeles’s Temple Beth Am, which looks like thousands of fingers scratching, and its complement–Pelzig’s evocative sculpture for Yad VaShem, which features hands reaching upward.

This was followed by Carolyn Beard’s presentation about the crucifixion as a motif in Mark Chagall’s paintings. White Crucifixion (1938) is the most famous among Chagall’s 80 (!) crucifixion paintings and, interestingly, eight of them are self-portraits depicting Chagall alongside a Jewish Jesus, wearing a tallit and sometimes tefillin, and images of suffering Jews. Chagall’s Artist with Yellow Christ is a reference to Paul Gauguin’s picture of the same name (1890), and in Christ with the Artist (1951) he depicts angels on the left of Jesus and Chagall on the right. The cross bursts out of the canvas. In another image, Chagall depicted Jesus’ head as a clock, and replaced the INRI script with his own signature.

Then, Fani Gargova introduced a new framework for analyzing women’s contributions to European Synagogue Design. The tendency among scholars of historical architecture is to regard women’s contribution to synagogue architecture as marginal, considering their location (separate and removed) in the synagogue itself. But it turns out that women played an important role contributing essential artifacts, such as menorot and parokhot, to the synagogues, which have been (mis)analyzed as Judaica objects, rather than as what they are: part of what makes the synagogue a synagogue.

After lunch, I went to a fantastic musicology panel. Gordeon Dale introduced the emerging and wildly successful genre of “Pop Emuni,” presenting artists who are and present as Orthodox and engage openly with biblical themes. We listened to, and analyzed, four songs: Ishay Ribo’s Hine Yamim Baim , Akiva (Turgeman)’s Lekh Lekha, Hanan ben Ari’s Holem Kemo Yosef, and Narkis’ Avi Lo. Despite the sharp polarization in Israel, these artists have been able to break boundaries and enjoy wide public appeal.

Then, Ann Glazer Niren exposed the liturgical roots of Leonard Bernstein’s psalms work. Ann hypothesizes that Bernstein was deeply influenced by Solomon Braslavsky, a gifted musician, who was the cantor and musical director at Bernstein’s home temple Mishkan Tefila. Indeed, Bernstein returned to religious themes in many of his compositions, including Jeremiah, Haskiveinu, Mass, and Kadish. We got to hear excerpts from his Psalms–Psalm 148 (1935) and his Chichester Psalms–and learn about some of the wonderful musical devices he used: echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique and text pairing (which is a huge part of Bernstein’s genius and which I’ve appreciated every time I’ve sung or listened to his work.)

Finally, Amanda Ruppenthal-Stein introduced us to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, sharing and analyzing the wonderful polyphonic interpretation of “Ha’Azinu” (Deuteronomy 32).

A great coda to the conference was a panel about gender and queerness in Jewish ritual spaces, which opened with Morey Lipsett’s analysis of the “Agaddic element” in the liturgy at my local synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (CSZ). I’m an occasional visitor there (one of my goals in the new year will be to become a more regular attendee) but Morey grew up in the congregation and, relying on Walter Benjamin and Judith Butler, he looks at how the synagogue’s founders and leaders have transformed the Kabbalat Shabbat ritual to encompass dynamic ideas of gender and sexuality, beyond just pointing out the patriarchal aspect of orthodox tradition, and toward creating an affirming and accepting space.

Then, Shlomo Gleibman led us through an investigation of the havruta (a long-term committed religious study partnership) as a queer space, starting with one of my favorite pair: Rabi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, from their erotically charged encounter in the river to what is arguably the most epic, dramatic breakup ever. We followed other havruta queer pairings, in the literature of S. An-sky, I. B. Singer, S. Y. Agnon, Tony Kushner, Michael Lowenthal, and Evan Fallenberg.

Finally, Isabel-Marie Johnston surveyed and interviewed Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews about their mikvah immersion practices. Her data indicates that the Mikvah offers relief and healing properties to many of the respondents, but especially to those with complicated micro-minority identities: people in intermarriages, people of color, people of complex sexuality, etc. But it turns out that exclusive practices in many Orthodox-run mikvaoth, including innocuous-seeming screening practices, are a real turn-off to these people.

I learned a lot and have tons of wonderful ideas for future research, and feel professionally energized for the first time in many months.





AJS Annual Meeting: Day 2

Another fascinating day at the AJS Annual Meeting, in which I learned a lot – including about issues surprisingly close to home.

The first panel, Holocaust in Art and Literature, opened with Roy Holler’s talk about Yoram Kaniuk’s book Adam ben Kelev and its film adaptation starring Jeff Goldblum. Of all Israeli authors, Kaniuk is one of the most difficult and least accessible for me, so I was grateful for Roy’s take: rather than seeing the book as a story of human-animal transition, he reads it as a story of “passing” across species and of a commitment to avoid joining a species capable of atrocities. As Roy said, “Instead of ‘God created man’, it’s ‘man created himself in the image of a dog.'”

Next, we heard from Angelica Maria Gutierrez  Ravanelli, who studies Argentinian holocaust remembrance and spoke of a graphic anthology called Camino a Auschwitz y Otras Historias de Resistencia. It’s a controversial, edgy, and sometimes queer take on holocaust survival, which draws inspiration from both Maus and Fun Home: the story of a prostitute who dies in the gas chambers; the exploits of a gay partisan and his sexual escapades in the forest; and an ambivalent, conflicted story about Eichmann’s capture. Angelica walked us through the timeline and plot of the stories, the graphic motifs, and the controversy that their publication stirred in Argentina.

The panel ended Anne Rothfeld’s talk about a fascinating investigation conducted by Evelyn Tucker into several wonderful paintings by Egon Schiele. It turned out that Egon Schiele was treated by a dentist called Rieger and, short on cash, paid him in fantastic paintings, including Wayside Shrine, Cardinal and Nun, and Harbor of Trieste (all of which can be found now in the Dorotheum). Welz, a member of the Nazi party, got the paintings from Rieger. Tucker suspected that Welz had flourished by spreading a tale of benefitting from American looters. Welz’s version was that he helped Rieger escape (he had not; Rieger died in Theresienstadt.) Eventually, Tucker was relieved of her position after a conflict with the army. The whole thing was fascinating.

The second panel, Negotiating Danger, Difference, and Death, had assorted rabbinical commentary that I found interesting. The highlight for me was Mika Ahuvia’s talk about Angels in Late Antique Conceptions of Death, because some of the images she analyzed came from sarcophagi in Bet Shearim, which is right next to my home town and where I run when I visit my mom. While rabbinic texts identify only male angels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Bney ha-Helohim from Enochic texts), piyyut and midrash (Bereshit Raba) identify some feminine angels. And, a sarcophagus image depicts a winged female figure. In addition, murals in the Dura synagogue depict a similar figure descending to the underworld.. Where did it come from? Mika identifies the similarities between the figure and the Greek figure of Psyche (Suke in Greek) and investigates artistic copying and common influences.

Shulamit Shinaar uses lenses from critical and queer disability studies, as well as from medical sociology, to examine biblical and rabbinic prohibitions on, and dispensations for, people with disabilities and their caregivers. She relies on Mike Bury’s concept of “biographical disruption”–the impact of a diagnosis on the person’s now threatened identity, their plans for the future, and their daily life. In light o this framework, Rabbinnical literature views people’s lives as disrupted, including their ability to work, dependency on others, and illness impacting witnesses and legal proxies. This lens explains the exemptions for sick people and for their caregivers: Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and seeking healing using objects that are prohibited (except for the “big three”: avodah zarah, incest, and bloodshed).

Finally, Gal Sela turns to Ta’anit 24a-b to discuss theurgic perceptions in the Babylonian Talmud. The story has to do with Rava, who unsuccessfully tries to bring rain through a fast, and when people complain that in the days of Rabbi Yehuda this was easily done, recurs to explain that the more rigorous learning of this generation is insufficient and that the previous generation had a more direct connection to the divine. We talked about the power of the sage, through the ritualistic act of removing his shoes.

The methodologies that were most familiar to me were in full display at the Haredi sociology panel. I learned a lot! First we heard from Dikla Yogev and Nomi Levenkron, who have studied the Meron disaster using information from government meetings, observations and interviews with the police and the public, and an “urgent ethnography” of online data collection (WhatsApp groups and a website.). The Meron celebration, which became Haredi-dominated from around 2000, raises various problems involving transportation, site management, lost children, and the like. Social network analysis shows that the most prominent people to discuss and address the event were the haredim themselves, including the Meron Committee head and the Holy Sites CTO. Dikla and Nomi conclude that Meron suffers from government instability; the police struggle to establish public safety, which is low on the priority list and managed through a network of informal connections that prioritize Haredi brokers and deprioritize the police.

It was interesting to see this unfold in light of Nomi’s other paper on the panel, hilariously titled “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and recounting the regulation of the 1956 Meron celebration. Her point of departure is that police work in holy places calls for negotiation, which has both symbolic and practical aspects. The three parties to the negotiation wanted different things out of it. The father was Ben Gurion, the prime minister, whose establishment of Israel was accomplished through difficult compromises with the Haredim, and therefore needed to give in to them on the celebration; his son, Amos Ben-Gurion, who was a senior police officer, was concerned about the site’s safety risks and demanded to cancel the event; and the Holy Spirit, the Ministry of Religion, needed the Ultra-Orthodox as part of the coalition. To some extent, the 1956 paper provides an omen/explainer of the 2020 paper.

Miriam Moster talked about the ocioeconomics of Haredi Divorce in New York, which used to be fairly common but is now extremely rare. By contrast to divorcées in the general population, among Hasidim, education and home ownership actually make leaving the marriage easier. Miriam also pointed out that finances tied to the husband, especially in cases where the whole extended family is financially entangled–and especially in illegal/under the table dealings–make leaving more difficult. The fallout of divorce can be harsh from an informal social control standpoint.

Finally, Hannah Lebovits discussed the housing patterns of Haredim in American municipalities, showing how leadership deals with housing and contrasting two models: “housing at all costs” (cutting corners, informal economic workarounds) versus “pragmatic skepticism” (representation, legal cases, civil rights action, etc.) She used the term “ritual urbanism” to describe, among other factors, how some spiritual leaders (“rebs”) of the community present themselves as messengers of God when advocating for spatial design or land use.

I was going to stay for more, but instead opted for catching up with Dikla and Nomi and then had to replace all my bicycle gear, which was filched from my pannier by someone who probably needed raingear and a Narcan kit more than I did (but did he really have to steal my helmet and gloves, too? Grrrr.) Very eager to return to the conference tomorrow!

Association of Jewish Studies, Day 1: Dreyfus Postcards, DEI and Antisemitism, and Daughters’ Inheritance

As hinted in various posts, my big professional pivot has been in the works for a while. This year I started my rabbinical studies at the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ). IISHJ requires all its rabbis to complete an advanced degree in Jewish Studies, which brought me to the Graduate Theological Union’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies. In addition to my full-time work, I’m studying full time for a masters degree, and this week I finished the first semester. My plan is to pivot my scholarship at UC Law SF toward Jewish law and Jewish studies, and I have big plans for fostering and encouraging a vibrant academic Jewish legal experience on campus. After retirement from legal academia, I plan to turn to rabbinical work full time.

Today marks an important milestone: I attended my first-ever annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies which, conveniently, is being held in San Francisco. I’m not presenting anything–my two brand-new papers haven’t been submitted for publication yet–and it’s been a great experience to listen, rather than talk! Getting into a new field requires quite a bit of humility, and I confess to being overwhelmed when I visited the huge book exhibit and saw the vast wealth of knowledge and original research. It’s daunting and, at the same time, exciting to join such a prolific enterprise, and I wonder what I can contribute to this flourishing field.

I started my day with a panel on visual representations of violence, in which Louis Kaplan introduced us to the work of photographer John Guttman. Trained as an expressionist painter, Guttman switched to photography when he figured that he would not be able to leave Berlin with money, but would be allowed to take expensive equipment out of the country. He bought a wonderful camera and somehow persuaded a German news agency to be their foreign correspondent in San Francisco… and ended up in a gorgeous apartment in Russian Hill. From Tara Kohn we learned about how archival gaps and absences affect our ability to learn about photography–in this case the work of Alter Kacyzne, who documented Jewish life in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s. Only 700 of Alter’s many photographs are in existence–but evidence of their existence exists in copies and references, as if they were fossils. But the most interesting bit, to me, was Karine Macarez’s presentation of… postcards, posters, and trading cards about the Dreyfus Affair! In my work on true crime podcasts, I always think about Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message reminder, but here is proof that participatory, sensationalist true crime engagement–complete with wrongful conviction activism–existed through the creation, sale, and exchange of these postcards, which are rife not only with antisemitic tropes (used both straightforwardly, as in the case of Dreyfus’s maligners, and ironically, by the Dreyfusards) but also with actual forensic evidence: people would buy and collect postcards bearing Dreyfus and Esterhazy’s handwriting.

After lunch, I attended a panel in which Amy Simon (Michigan State), Greg Drinkwater (Berkeley), Nathan Paradise (Minnesota), and Lauren Strauss (American) spoke of their activism–unpaid, emotionally taxing, and exhausting work–to include Jewish concerns and marginalization in the academic curriculum, especially after the Hamas massacre and the eruption of the war. The session was very well attended–standing room only–and offered some thoughts about whether, and to what extent, Jewish issues (including antisemitism) can and should fit in a DEI framework. Lots of useful takeaways, including the huge variation among campuses not only in policies and curricula but also in the interpersonal relationships between the different personages: campus administration, ethnic studies folks (often, but not always, a department devoid of Jewish voices), Jewish studies departments (which are not supposed to be advocacy centers but sometimes become such), Islamic studies departments and colleagues (who sometimes form great coalitions) and the student body (including a big conversation about the extent to which TikTok and the like shape young minds before they even come to college.) It was a great conversation which, while not offering a ton of hope, offered some interesting perspectives and ideas to try, and made me feel a lot less alone than before. I also plan to read Kenneth Stern’s The Conflict Over the Conflict (and will post a review soon.)

I then got to hear a fabulous roundtable about women and biblical law, featuring several interesting projects. Yael Landman, who uses a law-and-literature lens, discussed women’s property rights, especially regarding daughters’ dowries and inheritance; Samantha Rainford, who also studies inheritance roles, highlighted how the the daughters of Zelophechad had to be legally “made into men” in order for their inheritance to fit into the patriarchal lens. GTU’s very own Jennifer Lehmann studies maleness and masculinity in the Bible; as she explains, while men have been the focus of Biblical literature, only recently have they been studied through a gendered lens. She discussed two fascinating examples: Jacob’s sexuality in the Leah/Rachel bait-and-switch, and Joseph’s sexual victimization at Potiphar’s house (including issues of sexual servitude–and comparisons with Hagar.) And Sarah Shechtman discussed embodiment in biblical ritual.

I learned a ton, bought a heavily discounted set of the Bavli with English translation, and I hope made some new friends. Back tomorrow for more!

The Israeli “Brain Drain” Will Not Reverse Itself Anytime Soon

Yesterday I read an op-ed by Aaron Ciechanover, Chemistry Nobel Laureate for 2004, in which he addresses the growing antisemitic crisis in American universities. Opining about the Harvard/MIT/Penn presidents’ hearing, he has many harsh words for these universities not only as morally compromised, but also as poor places for research to flourish. Unfortunately, the Ha’aretz website does not offer a translation to English, but I’ve translated a relevant part:

A university’s duty is to protect the truth. Nobel Prizes cannot serve as a cover for lying, incitement, and calls to destroy a people and a country. The truth they represent cannot replace the demand for social, historical, and geopolitical truth, for equal morality, and especially for truth, which is a cornerstone of education. Education, not studying. On the difference between the two, which these administrations failed to understand, Einstein said, “education is what remains when we forget all the things we studied in school.”

We must not ignore the problematic aspect of these protests, which radiate to the international scientific collaborations of Israeli academy and, from there, to a negative influence on U.S.-Israel relations. Israel is becoming a cultural pariah. It is essential to use every measure to fight the protests–through Jewish donors and economic institutions led by Jews, or through dialogue with university leadership.

In other words: antisemitism is bad for science. But Ciechanover goes on to hypothesize about Israeli scientists and academics:

By the same token, an opportunity for Israel has opened. Israeli researchers who planned to return during the judicial overhaul sat on their suitcases or tried to look for jobs in the United States. The trend has reversed itself. Many want to come home. Moreover, senior Jewish scientists are looking, today, for a home in Israel–fleeing the rising tide of antisemitism, which hurts them and their children. If positions are found for them in Israeli research universities and in the Israeli tech industry, they will change the course of science and industry in Israel. “Amidst the hardship lives opportunity,” Einstein said. It must be used.

Even though Ciechanover is a gifted, eminent scientist, I have a sense that he is not basing this assumption on data. To be fair, I don’t have any solid data either (though I plan to collect some–I’ll share more as I get to work). I’ve had conversations with dozens of Israeli-American colleagues, many of them with kids, who are deeply distressed and keenly aware of the fact that, antisemitism-wise, things are not looking up for them or their families. I hear of several people in my immediate surroundings who flew home to visit and comfort family and friends and even to volunteer for the reserves or for much-needed agricultural work. But there’s a big difference between that and deciding, or even seriously considering, to permanently return to Israel. There are three main considerations against it, which Ciechanover probably knows all too well:

Personal and family safety. It used to be that the message marketed to diasporic Jews was that their “safe place” was Israel. Who, among those following the news, can still say that with a straight face? Not only has the horrific Oct. 7 massacre shattered any illusions that the government was properly and responsibly protecting its people, but the war is continuing to demand sacrifices (and take a huge toll on human life on both sides) and is anything but safe. Israel is a small country. Everyone I know knows people who have been murdered, raped, kidnapped. Everyone I know has close family members serving in the army. And many Israeli academics have children; the last thing they want for their kids is to be drafted into an irresponsible army, commanded by people their parents do not trust. It’s hard to convey how desperate this dead-end sense feels because public discourse in America has muddled the concept of “feeling unsafe” by equating it with “being upset because someone said something that didn’t sit well with me.” Believe me, Israelis know the difference. Going to work in American universities is supremely shitty these days, I grant you that, and I don’t mean to make light of people’s very real distress that they are losing not only [people they thought were] friends, but entire research networks. I feel the same way and am in the process of a fairly aggressive academic pivot for this very reason: I can no longer breathe the same air with many of the people in my field. But that is a tragedy of the soul, not a serious risk to the flesh, and people will put up with a lot of unpleasantness to provide for their families. Israeli scientists are keenly aware of the gaping chasm between being deeply unhappy at work and being slaughtered by homicidal monsters or sent to fight by a psychopathic career criminal and his trigger-happy messianic government, without a real sense that the people in charge have any idea what they are doing or care about their people. No one wants this for their kids or for themselves.

Political problems. This is of course closely related to the deeply worrisome collapse of Israel as a free, democratic country, a long process decades in the making, which intensified in the months before the massacre and the war through the frightening actions of Israel’s 37th government. I’ve written plenty about why hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including my mother and my late father, protested daily in the streets. Academics were a huge part of these protests; in every march I attended there were big contingents wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “without democracy there is no academy.” As one of the most prominent academic protesters, Ciechanover knows this all too well: he was one of the signatories on the Nobel Prize Winners letter against the regime overhaul, warning Netanyahu and his cronies that countries with no separation of powers or freedom of thought end up wrecking their research infrastructure. On one occasion, Ciechanover himself led 50,000 protesters in a march for democracy in Haifa (see image above). Political polls consistently show that academics in Israel were, and still are, among the staunchest resisters to Netanyahu’s agenda. Here in the U.S., academics, scientists, and tech workers are leading UnXeptable, a grassroots movement of expats supporting the Israeli protest movement. Not only have these problems not gone away; many of us see them as the cause for the military and intelligence failures that allowed the massacre to happen, clamor for Netanyahu’s resignation (shameless, despicable man; the buck never stops with him) and are deeply horrified by the atrocities that Ben Gvir’s goons are performing in Gaza and elsewhere, including the appalling murder of Yuval Castleman and a home-grown pogrom at a peaceful village. For many of us, the war has not quelled the spirit of the protest; au contraire, it has intensified its urgency.

Personal growth and prosperity. And all this is related to the fact that, for decades, Israeli governments did very little to encourage promising scientists to remain in the country. My colleagues and I were part of a huge brain drain. Lots of good people who are flourishing, publishing, winning grants and awards, and well respected in their fields, came here after years of subsisting on meager pay as postdocs without prospects in Israeli universities. A disproportionate number of PhDs in many areas, including STEM, means that most people cannot find a job in Israeli universities right away (or ever). University pay, for better or worse, is governed by a collective labor agreement that does not allow universities to pay competitive salaries or match competing offers people receive from universities outside Israel. Back in 2013, the New Yorker ran an explainer story showing that the growing economic distress in Israel–the fruit of Netanyahu’s systematic dismantlement of the welfare state and destruction of the middle class–mean that many people in their thirties and forties (such as academics with young families), in the face of stagnated wages and rising costs of life, were still being financially supported by their parents at an alarming rate. A study conducted in 2007 found that the migration rate of highly educated Israelis to the United States was among the highest of 28 countries examined – more than three times the average. The trend continues: according to this report from i24 News, as of 2022, academics had the highest rate of emigration from Israel at 7.8 percent, followed by physicians at a rate of 6.5 percent. Numerous people I have talked to lately, including folks of serious caliber and international renown, are still looking for the way out.

In other words, I suspect that the growing isolation of Israeli academia and academics abroad is an unmitigated problem, which does not harbor an opportunity to reverse the brain drain. Many of us feel patriotic sentiments, which are bolstered by the ugliness we experience from our surroundings. I don’t mean to belittle that. But we also have a responsibility to our families, and we also understand that living under this government in the aftermath of this horror–if there will ever be an aftermath–is not sustainable. Colleagues working in Europe in the 1930s felt the creeping limitations, followed by expulsions, that we feel; but the alternative they had was to flee to America, whereas our alternative would be to flee–where exactly? One of Ehud Manor’s most beloved songs, written about the War of Attrition (in which my father was injured), is called “I don’t have another country.” For those of us living in diaspora, I don’t feel like we have any country.

Digging Wells and Finding Fresh Water

This week’s parashah has some famous stories: the sale of Esau’s birthright for a stew; Jacob’s deceitful procurement of his father’s blessing. But I found something that spoke to me in a less-known wrinkle in the plot: the story of Isaac and the wells. Isaac lives near Gerar, in proximity to Avimelekh’s people, and to avoid being killed by people who might lust for Rebecca he does the same trick his father pulled twice: he pretends Rebecca is his sister. The jig is up, eventually, and Avimelekh orders his people not to touch Isaac. But people living in proximity and fighting over scarce resources during a famine is not a recipe for peace and harmony. Here’s what happened next (Genesis 26: 12-22):

Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. יהוה blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him.

And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.

And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled.

Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,

the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.

And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.

He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last יהוה has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

Genesis 26: 12-22

Shortly after Trump was elected, I remember talking to two of my neighbors. They’ve been together forever, through the fight for gay rights and AIDS widowhood and the horrid deaths around the Castro and the murders of Milk and Moscone and the fight for equality. Tough guys, and at the same time full of joy. And what they said was, “we’ll just have to do all that…. AGAIN.”

I found their courage and perseverance inspiring–just as I find Isaac’s tenacity in digging wells, again and again. He didn’t sit by the well and bemoan his victimization. He didn’t deconstruct Philistine supremacy. He got to work. And I think those of us in the diaspora, encountering noxious views, hatred, ignorance, and violence, have to resign ourselves to the same task: unclogging old wells, digging new ones, and finding fresh water.

Apparently, my essay about antisemitism in academia has been making the rounds, and I’m getting lots of supportive reactions, but to my dismay many of them are compassion for my supposed victimization. This was not at all my intent when writing it. It’s natural for my Israeli and Jewish students to complain that the endless compassion for, and alliances with, any oppressed group have passed them by. But I would be very upset if the upshot of all this, the measure of success, were to be an inclusion of this additional voice in the petulant choir of victims.

Isaac didn’t sit and cry to God about how he was a victim of oppressive well-clogging. He didn’t petition the Philistines to recognize his disenfranchisement. What he did do was fight like hell. Some of those fights he lost, and he called those wells what they were: monuments of hatred. But he got straight to work and unclogged other wells, or dug up fresh ones. He and his servants took the trouble to dig deep, until they were sure they were provided for.

I’m already dreaming up ways to dig wells and keep their waters from getting rancid. I want to invite you, readers, to do the same. Here are some things I have found inspiring this week along these veins.

First thing, rather than sit and weep as people clog your wells, is to stand up to them and refute their claims to the water. Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s excellent essay The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False is an excellent, historically informed rebuttal to the usual claptrap one hears on campuses these days. Only last week, a grown, educated man stood up in an auditorium at my workplace and, in front of 200 people and apparently completely unashamed, chalked up the horrid, irrefutable facts of the horrid massacre to “Israeli disinformation.” He also regurgitated the usual ideological package, which Sebag-Montefiore’s summarily dismisses as follows:

This ideology, powerful in the academy but long overdue for serious challenge, is a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century. But its current engine is the new identity analysis, which sees history through a concept of race that derives from the American experience. The argument is that it is almost impossible for the “oppressed” to be themselves racist, just as it is impossible for an “oppressor” to be the subject of racism. Jews therefore cannot suffer racism, because they are regarded as “white” and “privileged”; although they cannot be victims, they can and do exploit other, less privileged people, in the West through the sins of “exploitative capitalism” and in the Middle East through “colonialism.”

This leftist analysis, with its hierarchy of oppressed identities—and intimidating jargon, a clue to its lack of factual rigor—has in many parts of the academy and media replaced traditional universalist leftist values, including internationalist standards of decency and respect for human life and the safety of innocent civilians. When this clumsy analysis collides with the realities of the Middle East, it loses all touch with historical facts.

Simon Sebag-Montefiore, “The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False”, The Atlantic, October 27, 2023

Montefiore proceeds to unpack the roots of the crisis. He does not shy away from strident critique of Israel’s policy, of the occupation, and especially of the disastrous Netanyahu government. And he also does not shy away from taking apart, and disproving, both the “settler colonial” idea and the “genocide” tag.

The concept of “partition” is, in the decolonization narrative, regarded as a wicked imperial trick. But it was entirely normal in the creation of 20th-century nation-states, which were typically fashioned out of fallen empires. And sadly, the creation of nation-states was frequently marked by population swaps, huge refugee migrations, ethnic violence, and full-scale wars. Think of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921–22 or the partition of India in 1947. In this sense, Israel-Palestine was typical.

At the heart of decolonization ideology is the categorization of all Israelis, historic and present, as “colonists.” This is simply wrong. Most Israelis are descended from people who migrated to the Holy Land from 1881 to 1949. They were not completely new to the region. The Jewish people ruled Judean kingdoms and prayed in the Jerusalem Temple for a thousand years, then were ever present there in smaller numbers for the next 2,000 years. In other words, Jews are indigenous in the Holy Land, and if one believes in the return of exiled people to their homeland, then the return of the Jews is exactly that. Even those who deny this history or regard it as irrelevant to modern times must acknowledge that Israel is now the home and only home of 9 million Israelis who have lived there for four, five, six generations.

Most migrants to, say, the United Kingdom or the United States are regarded as British or American within a lifetime. Politics in both countries is filled with prominent leaders—Suella Braverman and David Lammy, Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley—whose parents or grandparents migrated from India, West Africa, or South America. No one would describe them as “settlers.” Yet Israeli families resident in Israel for a century are designated as “settler-colonists” ripe for murder and mutilation. And contrary to Hamas apologists, the ethnicity of perpetrators or victims never justifies atrocities. They would be atrocious anywhere, committed by anyone with any history. It is dismaying that it is often self-declared “anti-racists” who are now advocating exactly this murder by ethnicity.

Those on the left believe migrants who escape from persecution should be welcomed and allowed to build their lives elsewhere. Almost all of the ancestors of today’s Israelis escaped persecution.

If the “settler-colonist” narrative is not true, it is true that the conflict is the result of the brutal rivalry and battle for land between two ethnic groups, both with rightful claims to live there. As more Jews moved to the region, the Palestinian Arabs, who had lived there for centuries and were the clear majority, felt threatened by these immigrants. The Palestinian claim to the land is not in doubt, nor is the authenticity of their history, nor their legitimate claim to their own state. But initially the Jewish migrants did not aspire to a state, merely to live and farm in the vague “homeland.” In 1918, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met the Hashemite Prince Faisal Bin Hussein to discuss the Jews living under his rule as king of greater Syria. The conflict today was not inevitable. It became so as the communities refused to share and coexist, and then resorted to arms.

Sebag-Montefiore also persuasively argues that this “decolonization” narrative is the worst thing that can happen to this conflict now:

Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has used the murder of civilians to spoil any chance of a two-state solution. In 1993, its suicide bombings of Israeli civilians were designed to destroy the two-state Oslo Accords that recognized Israel and Palestine. This month, the Hamas terrorists unleashed their slaughter in part to undermine a peace with Saudi Arabia that would have improved Palestinian politics and standard of life, and reinvigorated Hamas’s sclerotic rival, the Palestinian Authority. In part, they served Iran to prevent the empowering of Saudi Arabia, and their atrocities were of course a spectacular trap to provoke Israeli overreaction. They are most probably getting their wish, but to do this they are cynically exploiting innocent Palestinian people as a sacrifice to political means, a second crime against civilians. In the same way, the decolonization ideology, with its denial of Israel’s right to exist and its people’s right to live safely, makes a Palestinian state less likely if not impossible.

Some sources tie these narratives to the flow of Qatari money into U.S. universities. A new NCRI report follows the money and correlates its sources with (1) the erosion of free speech and (2) the increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses.

Second order of business is to see who is actually unclogging wells, as opposed to shifting blame and whining, and support them. Unsurprisingly, these are the folks who stood day after day, shoulder to shoulder with my parents to protest the decay of the country. Since I mentioned the Netanyahu government, it is worth shining a light on the fact that, in the same way that Hamas is not Gaza, Netanyahu is not the Israeli people, and support for his government, which was already tenuous, has plummeted. Yair Rosenberg has a superb article in The Atlantic in which he unpacks what happened, and how the scorned, maligned lefties who led the anti-government protests in the last few months and proving to be more capable, dependable, and courageous than the government, to the point of supplanting it:

As Israel’s crony-filled Netanyahu government flailed and its security services faltered, ordinary citizens—many of them dissenters against the current ruling coalition—took charge. Crisis tends to separate the poseurs from the professionals, and the deadliest day in Israel’s history did just that.

Rosenberg gives some examples: the heroism of Yair Golan and Noam Tibon, who, as the army dawdled, were already on the ground rescuing people; Eylon Levy, who stepped up to do international outreach after the official minister of outreach, who is a nincompoop, quit her job just when she was actually needed. In general, he says,

Within Israel, relief efforts have been dominated not by government officials but by volunteers, many of whom come from the organized anti-government protest movement. Hamas’s massacre left thousands of southern Israelis traumatized, orphaned, and homeless, in need of food, shelter, and mental-health care. The subsequent Hezbollah attacks in the north have forced entire towns to evacuate. In total, about a quarter million Israelis have been displaced. Many others are struggling to cope after family members were called up to join the fighting.

Faced with these gaping social needs largely unaddressed by the government, the largest civil-demonstration movement in Israeli history repurposed itself overnight. Working out of the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, 15,000 volunteers began distributing food and supplies to refugees, finding accommodations for thousands of families, and matching psychologists with patients. Some, led by the information scientist Karine Nahon of Reichman University, used AI tools to identify victims and hostages, sorting through hours of video footage from the assault. Others helped rescue 120 pets. In Jerusalem, another group of 4,000 protesters, overseen by Michal Muszkat-Barkan, a movement leader and professor at Hebrew Union College, has provided 30,000 hot meals, run daily blood drives, and recruited 200 mental-health professionals. Across Israel, the activists derided by Netanyahu and his hard-right ministers as leftist traitors have become the country’s rapid-response team.

Yair Rosenberg, “The Day After Netanyahu”, The Atlantic, November 10, 2023.

Finally, here’s a dose of tough love as we pick up the shovels. I know my students are grieving and shocked–not only about the horrid massacre and the unfolding outcome, which is disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians, but also about the loss of their friendships and footing in the world. It feels like gaslighting–one loses grasp of reality and of one’s own convictions. But as I said to a couple of people this week, “people your age have left families at home and gone to serve in the reserves. You found out you have shit friends? Make better friends.” I was comforted to read similar words from Batya Ungar-Saron:

So do not cast your lot as a competitor in the oppression Olympics. Instead, reject that entire way of looking at the world.

Here’s the thing: it’s good to be unpopular with a mob whose worldview has done away with the concept of right and wrong and decided, with a Nazi-like commitment to racial ideology, that you are Jewish and therefore you are white and therefore you are bad. It is good to be unpopular with people who spent the weeks after October 7 on the hunt for Jewish exaggeration, Jewish lies, Jewish crimes. It is good to be unpopular with people who cannot separate evil from power and virtue from skin color. (Unpopularity, for now, is your fate, unless you are willing to cosign your own humiliation and join the left’s token “good Jews” who advocate against Zionism from the comfort of the diaspora for plaudits from the Squad.) We don’t answer to them; we answer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.

The good news is: it may not feel like it, but this country is on your side. College students are in one of vanishingly few spaces in America that sides with Hamas. Your professors will live and die in irrelevance, signing their names to their silly little letters and coming up with new jargon with which to defend terrorism while nurturing their grandiose hero complexes. Most of your peers will grow up and abandon their radical chic commitments. The progressive movement has taken a big hit, having shown its true colors to a nation that knows what is good and what is right, that can separate barbarism from civilization. 

But for now, remember this: to be a Jew is to refuse to kneel and refuse to bow. The stakes of standing upright have never been clearer than they are today, in this post–October 7 world. It’s good to have these people as your enemies, because the world will always have people who oppose what’s right and what’s good, and it is our destiny to fight them. Do it with pride.

Batya Ungar-Saron, “The Antisemites Scream. And I Stiffen My Spine.” The Free Press, November 7, 2023.

Dig up the clogged wells and name them what your ancestors named them. Dig fresh wells. Fight for them. If you win, drink deep. If you lose, dig new wells.

Shavua Tov.