The Question of Palestine at Brooklyn College, Then and Now

by Corey Robin on February 4, 2013

In 1942, Brooklyn College hired a young instructor to teach a summer course on Modern European history. Though academically trained, the instructor was primarily known as the author of a series of incendiary articles in the Jewish press on Jewish politics and Zionism.

An active though ambivalent Zionist, the instructor did not shy from scorching criticism of the movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine. She had already come to some unsettling conclusions in private. In an unpublished essay, she compared the Zionists to the Nazis, arguing that both movements assumed that the Jews were “totally foreign” to other peoples based on their “inalterable substance.” She wrote in a letter that she found “this territorial experiment” of the Jews in Palestine “increasingly problematic.” By the spring of 1942, she was more public in her criticisms. In March, she wrote that the Irgun—the Jewish paramilitary group whose most prominent commander was Menachem Begin—was a “fascist organization” that “employed terrorist methods in their fight against Arabs in Palestine.”

In the coming years, despite her continuing involvement in Zionist politics, she would grow even more critical of the movement. The very idea of the State of Israel, she would write in 1943, was “based on the idea that tomorrow’s majority [the Jews] will concede minority rights to today’s majority [the Palestinians], which indeed would be something brand-new in the history of nation-states.” In 1944, she accused a circle of Jewish fighters of believing “not only that ends justify means but also that only an end that can be achieved by terror is worth their effort.” By the end of that year, she had come to the conclusion that the extreme position within Zionism, which she consistently associated with fascism, was now the mainstream position of David Ben Gurion, and that that fascist tendency had been latent within Theodor Herzl’s original vision all along. By 1948, the year the State of Israel was founded, she would write: “The general mood of the country, moreover, has been such that terrorism and the growth of totalitarian methods are silently tolerated and secretly applauded.”

The name of that instructor was Hannah Arendt.

If Brooklyn College could tolerate the instructor who wrote those words in 1942—and would go onto write those words of 1944 and 1948—surely it, and the City of New York, can tolerate the co-sponsorship by the political science department of a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2013.

{ 43 comments }

1

Omega Centauri 02.04.13 at 2:22 am

I think the question presupposes that it is content of speech that matters, rather than the strength of political factions that might take issue with it. I think that’s where the difference comes in. In the 40’s the Zionist weren’t organized to apply severe political pressure against potential opponents. Today they are well prepared to make life uncomfortable for their potential enemies.

2

bt 02.04.13 at 3:26 am

What a stunning and pointed piece of history.

It is amazing how little people know of Israel’s early history, especially people in the US. At the time, in the 40’s, many influential American Jews thought that Zionism in Palestine was just a terrible, bad idea. Bad as in Bad for the Jews.

3

Harold 02.04.13 at 3:33 am

I can’t vouch for the reliability of this site, but this story about the Zionism of Henry Wallace seems plausible:

http://www.algemeiner.com/2012/11/18/former-vp-henry-wallace-forgotten-zionist-stars-in-oliver-stone%E2%80%99s-new-tv-series/

4

PGD 02.04.13 at 5:48 am

Great post, fantastic. Thanks Corey.

Arendt was far from the only German Jew who felt this way. There is a lost history of German Jewish opposition to Zionism and German anti-semitic (including Nazi) support for it. Essentially, many German Jews took their stand as a European people who were as fully members of their various nations as any other religion, and saw Israel as a ghetto writ large. During the pre-war period when Hitler at least ostensibly supported migration rather than full-scale extermination as the solution to the ‘Jewish question’ I understand that the Nazi regime supported migration to Israel for the Jewish population of Germany. (Although of course there were concentration camps for Jewish political enemies during this period too). As Arendt points out, the logic of Zionism is quite compatible with the anti-semitic idea that Jews have a racial / national essence that makes them incompatible with any majority non-Jewish country they live in.

Of course, this history was wiped from memory not only by active political propaganda, but by the reality of historical events — the terrible injury of the Final Solution, which lent creedence to the Zionist claim that Jews could never truly be at home in any state except an explicitly Jewish one.

5

LFC 02.04.13 at 6:10 am

PGD@4
During the pre-war period…I understand that the Nazi regime supported migration to Israel for the Jewish population of Germany.

You mean Palestine, since the state of Israel of course didn’t exist. And I’d be rather surprised if Hitler had “supported” this, as opposed to briefly considering it as one of various “solutions,” but it’s too late at night to start looking things up.

6

Phil 02.04.13 at 8:19 am

as opposed to briefly considering it

I think what we sometimes overlook is just how ‘brief’ the whole period of time was. Five years from 1933 to Kristallnacht; another year to the outbreak of war; two years to Barbarossa; a year to Wannsee; three years to the bunker. The Third Reich from beginning to end lasted less time than it took to record Chinese Democracy.

I think the belief in removing Jews from German lands was constant from the start, but within that framework there was a lot of improvisation and speculation. Eichmann fraternised with German Zionist groups, who he believed shared the Nazis’ conviction that the two races must be separated; at one stage he had a medal struck with a star of David on one side and a swastika on the other. If, some time in the mid-30s, Nazi Germany had somehow magically gained the agreement of the British authority in Mandatory Palestine to deport German Jews en masse to Palestine (after rounding them up and robbing them of everything they owned), I think it might have happened. But that was never a realistic possibility – and in any case, Germany and Austria together only account for about 200,000 of the six million. After 1939, the only way it would have been possible to deport anyone to Palestine (or Madagascar for that matter) was by first defeating Britain. And deporting people to land occupied by Germany could not be a permanent solution, by definition.

7

Harold 02.04.13 at 9:08 am

Was Arendt right and Wallace naïve?

8

Mao Cheng Ji 02.04.13 at 10:48 am

Hmm. Arendt was a scientist, and Wallace was a politician, a subject of her studies. Even though both were public intellectuals, their contexts, perspectives (especially back in 1948) must have been so different that “who was right/wrong” hardly applies here.

9

rf 02.04.13 at 11:56 am

“Of course, this history was wiped from memory not only by active political propaganda, but by the reality of historical events..”

I don’t think that history was wiped from memory, and indeed it’s well known by most Jews. The implication, I think, is that there’s now a uniform Jewish opinion vis a vis Israel, (whereas before there was division) which really isn’t true …. and indeed there’s evidence, (in the US at least), that ‘gentile’ support for Israel is much stronger than Jewish. Particularly, but not solely, among specific demographics, such as Evangelicals (who’s support seems to have some similarities to historical anti-Semites who weren’t so much concerned with the Jewish people than getting them out of their hair – In this case ushering in the end of days when, amongst other things, all none believers (such as Jews!) will be converted/destroyed)

This seems to be one of the reasons (but not the main) why opposition to Evangelicals/The Tea Party scores so highly in polls tracking the ‘Jewish vote’ in Presidential elections, and why Israel scores so, relatively, low. Afaict the US supports Israel in large part because US gentiles support Israel, and none Jews have always been central to the success of Israel, whose support was rarely the result of particularly noble reasons.

10

rf 02.04.13 at 12:21 pm

There’s also a story linked to on Dershowitz’s wiki entry of a time ten years ago in Harvard when, faced with a BDS campaign on campus, he ended up calling a meeting and debating ‘an empty chair’ ..

“The Harvard Law School professor had publicly challenged Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson to a debate over the Israel divestment petition that Hanson signed last spring. Last night, saying Hanson had turned down his offer, Dershowitz staged a solo debate in the Winthrop Junior Common Room.
Standing beside a chair with a copy of the petition taped to it, he said students and professors who had signed the petition were anti-semitic and knew “basically nothing about the Middle East.”
“Your House master is a bigot and you ought to know that,” he told the crowd of about 200 students. “Everyone else who signed that petition is also a bigot.”

Which makes his behaviour now particularly brazen..

11

Lurker 02.04.13 at 1:09 pm

Actually, the German Nazi government actively promoted the emigration of Jews in the 1930s, although in clearly bad faith. The Jews who chose to emigrate were given, after paying an exorbitantly large exit tax, passports with a large yellow “J” stamp, which meant that the holder was not eligible to return.

As a consequence, almost no country in the world allowed the holders of such passports to enter the country. (I think that Finland was a rare exemption.) Of course, this does not absolve Germans from any responsibility, but increases the responsibility of other countries as they not only passively but also actively contributed to the genocide.

12

LFC 02.04.13 at 1:56 pm

rf:
indeed there’s evidence, (in the US at least), that ‘gentile’ support for Israel is much stronger than Jewish

There are a variety of different views on the Palestinian-Israeli issue among American Jews. But most (with probably only a few exceptions) of the main American Jewish organizations support, either tacitly or actively, whatever the Israeli government of the moment does. In fairly recent years there have been some new American Jewish organizations set up which take a considerably more critical view of Israeli govt policy re the occupied territories etc., but these groups wield much less political influence than AIPAC and other orgs. that share its views.

13

Earwig 02.04.13 at 2:28 pm

And here’s where we are now:

Yesterday the NYC city Council Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler sent a letter, signed by nine further members of the City Council, to Brooklyn College’s President, Karen Gould:

“Among this City’s diversity – and the student body of Brooklyn College – there are a significant number of people who would, and do, find this event to be offensive.”

“A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State and City of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City — many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program — want their tax money to be spent on.”

“We believe in the principle of academic freedom. [sic] However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.”

So while it’s one thing to discuss the origins of Zionism, the history of Jewish critique of Zionism from within, and the state of political power regarding Israel and Palestine within the US — There is a perhaps more pressing immediate question of academic freedom so posed by this case: What is to be done?

14

Barry 02.04.13 at 2:28 pm

Rf: “Which makes his behaviour now particularly brazen..”

I would say that 9/11 drove him around the bend, but it really just made him more open.

15

Earwig 02.04.13 at 2:30 pm

13 retracted — I hadn’t seen the earlier thread.

16

Daniel S. Goldberg 02.04.13 at 2:50 pm

This post makes little sense insofar as it is almost wholly directed to the actual substance of the BDS movement and perspectives on Zionism & Jewish nationalism.

Such is utterly irrelevant to the actual issue at hand regarding the Brooklyn College fiasco, which of course is entirely about academic freedom and the signal importance of exposing all ideas — especially those with which one profoundly disagrees — to intellectual exchange.

Authoring a post that advances substantive historical views, from Arendt or not, on the merits or lack thereof of Jewish nationalism detracts from the robust points in favor of academic freedom. There are obviously many people who believed then and now that Arendt’s perspective or those like it are simply mistaken, and that the view that Jews will never truly be safe outside of a Jewish nation-state is an eminently grounded realpolitik perspective.

The merits of the opposing views have absolutely nothing to do with the Brooklyn College debacle, and this post does a disservice insofar as it links the debacle-making characteristics to substantive views on Israel and Jewish nationalism.

17

ezra abrams 02.04.13 at 3:21 pm

my mom always taught me that M Begin and irgun were thugs; this is common in liberal jewish american households, or used to be

most groups (ie jews) react differently from criticism by their own (arendt) or from an outsider; i suspect catholics wouldn’t be to happy if i pointed out the child protection deficiencys of hteir church.

imo, among american jews, there has been a big change since , at least, the 1960s: as a young man, I, and I think others, still believed that peace would come soon…

on counterpunch (www.counterpunch.org) there is a great piece by Diana Johnstone, about how the holocaust has become the go to event , and it is now useful, as countries like the us can make war look good by referring to genocide as the alternative (i paraphrase her argument, which is worth reading; about once a quarter, counterpunch has a decent article)

18

jonnybutter 02.04.13 at 3:24 pm

[Some said and say today that] the view that Jews will never truly be safe outside of a Jewish nation-state is an eminently grounded realpolitik perspective.

Do tell!

Professor Robin’s post is about as obviously about academic freedom as it can be. He is saying that Hannah Arendt probably couldn’t even be sponsored to *speak* at BC today, much less be hired to work there.

19

rf 02.04.13 at 3:39 pm

“But most (with probably only a few exceptions) of the main American Jewish organizations support, either tacitly or actively, whatever the Israeli government of the moment does…..”

I’m not necessarily questioning the ‘influence’ of the Israel lobby (though think it’s overstated at times and probably more a symptom than cause of US Middle East policy) just don’t think it’s necessarily representative of ‘Jewish voters’ (who, from polling, do support Israel on superficial aspects of the conflict – what side do you support etc (as do most/all US demographics) – but appear more disinterested, particularly across generations, on the specifics of the conflict and votes overwhelmingly (in Presidential elections anyway) on domestic issues.)

20

rf 02.04.13 at 3:47 pm

“Such is utterly irrelevant to the actual issue at hand regarding the Brooklyn College fiasco….”

Yeah I agree, it’s completely irrelevant.

21

Jerry Miner 02.04.13 at 3:50 pm

How passports of German and Austrian Jews came to have the letter J stamped on them also involves the Swiss. The following is from the Univ of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies:
The number of visas available to Jews was reduced by the anti immigration policies of most countries, including Canada and the United States. Quotas, which specified the maximum number of immigrants and refugees to be admitted, were low and in some years not even filled. One of the most blatant examples of this antiimmigrant sentiment, motivated by a combination of xenophobia, indifference and antiSemitism, was the request made by Swiss officials in the fall of 1938 that all German and Austrian Jews’ passports be stamped with the letter “J”. Switzerland’s request, which was granted by the Germans, sought to identify potential immigrants as Jews and thereby restrict their entry.

22

Corey Robin 02.04.13 at 3:54 pm

Daniel Goldberg at 16: I think you’ve entirely missed the point of this post. I’d say the point is to, which is to be found in the very last paragraph. If you think I’m trying to advance Arendt’s views — as opposed to what I clearly state at the end (if BC could tolerate her then, it can tolerate a discussion of BDS now — you’re seriously mis-reading this.

23

rf 02.04.13 at 4:04 pm

“i suspect catholics wouldn’t be to happy if i pointed out the child protection deficiencys of hteir church.”

Depends on the Catholic. A number would probably agree with you, and anyway ‘this is none of your business’ isn’t exactly a convincing/particularly sophisticated response. Also Judith Butlers Jewish, so….

24

Daniel S. Goldberg 02.04.13 at 4:27 pm

Corey (if I may),

I neither said nor implied that you were trying to advance Arendt’s views; I simply said that I found them irrelevant to the academic freedom issue.

That said, mea culpa for skimming over the last paragraph of your post, which, I admit, does make more of a connection. I apologize for missing that.

I still do not think the substance of Arendt’s views matter any more than the substance of the speakers at the BDS.

25

Mao Cheng Ji 02.04.13 at 5:34 pm

“Such is utterly irrelevant to the actual issue at hand regarding the Brooklyn College fiasco, which of course is entirely about academic freedom…”

That’s just not right. If they invited a speaker to argue that the world is flat and stands on the back of an elephant, no one would’ve cared. This thing is political, wholly political. It has little to do with academic freedom, and everything to do with Arendt, Herzl, and fascist tendencies. Academic freedom is a minor detail.

26

LFC 02.04.13 at 5:50 pm

rf @19
just don’t think it [the 'Israel lobby']‘s necessarily representative of ‘Jewish voters’

It’s definitely not representative of all Jewish voters, but presumably some Jewish voters support it. (The size of that portion has probably been the subject of analyses; I don’t have time to track them down.)

27

rf 02.04.13 at 6:18 pm

Yeah I think I agree with you, and probably overstated the case earlier .. Would just think that it’s primarily elite (rather than consituent) driven

28

Jerry Vinokurov 02.04.13 at 7:52 pm

@jonnybutter, 18:

[Some said and say today that] the view that Jews will never truly be safe outside of a Jewish nation-state is an eminently grounded realpolitik perspective.

Do tell!

I can tell you that this is not an uncommon view among Jewish immigrants from the former USSR residing in the US; though most of them have no wish to actually move to Israel, they repeatedly invoke its existence as a refuge of last resort.

29

ChrisB 02.05.13 at 12:37 am

“At the time, in the 40′s, many influential American Jews thought that Zionism in Palestine was just a terrible, bad idea. Bad as in Bad for the Jews.”

An opinion, surely, that has a more than reasonable chance of being confirmed by history.

30

js. 02.05.13 at 12:47 am

This thing is political, wholly political. It has little to do with academic freedom, and everything to do with Arendt, Herzl, and fascist tendencies. Academic freedom is a minor detail.

This is surely overkill. Yes, of course it’s completely political—in the sense that the concerted campaign of threats and intimidation is being carried out only because of (what’s expected to be) the political content of the panel discussion. Also in the sense that there’s a specifically political campaign of intimidation.

But it’s still very much about academic freedom as well. The threats etc. are directly aimed at shutting down a student-group invited panel discussion at an academic institution. Indirectly, the threats and intimidation are meant to send a clear signal of what kinds of political opinions and positions will or will not be allowed a fair hearing (or any hearing!) within the academy. How could it not be about academic freedom? Or how could the latter be “a minor detail”?

31

jonnybutter 02.05.13 at 1:51 am

I can tell you that this is not an uncommon view among Jewish immigrants from the former USSR residing in the US; though most of them have no wish to actually move to Israel, they repeatedly invoke its existence as a refuge of last resort.

I’m sorry – in many ways – to hear that. I think calling it ‘realpolitik’ is a misnomer since realpolitik is supposed to be rational, but that’s not a quibble with you, #28.

32

Hélène Gélinas 02.05.13 at 2:09 am

@ChrisB (29)

“Bad as in Bad for the Jews.”

An opinion, surely, that has a more than reasonable chance of being confirmed by history.

More in a long history of gentiles (I presume) telling Jews what’s good for them, eh? The polite term for that on the Internet is “concern trolling”.

33

Mao Cheng Ji 02.05.13 at 7:14 am

“How could it not be about academic freedom? Or how could the latter be “a minor detail”?”

Well, bullying is widespread, not specifically directed at academia; look, for example, at that Hagel’s confirmation hearing, just a few days ago. Academia is a part of society where this is happening, so it can’t be addressed in isolation, as an issue of academic freedom.

34

Raanan Geberer 02.05.13 at 4:01 pm

Even though Ms. Arendt was somewhat hostile to Zionism, once the state came into being, she never, I’m sure, advocated its destruction or dissolution. She may have been critical of Israel, but she didn’t work toward its destruction. At any rate, her voice was very much a minority voice in American Jewry at that time, and in case you’re interested, the hard-core left (Communsits, Socialists, Trotskyists) was, almost to a man, very pro-Israel.

35

bt 02.05.13 at 8:00 pm

“Standing beside a (empty) chair with a copy of the petition
taped to it, he said students and professors who had signed
the petition were anti-semitic and knew “basically nothing
about the Middle East.””

Now we know where Clint Eastwood drew inspiration for his performance at the convention.

36

rf 02.05.13 at 10:21 pm

That empty chair has been surprisingly effective at trolling conservatives this past decade..

37

Anon. 02.05.13 at 11:15 pm

“It is amazing how little people know of Israel’s early history, especially people in the US. At the time, in the 40′s, many influential American Jews thought that Zionism in Palestine was just a terrible, bad idea. Bad as in Bad for the Jews.”

In practice this seems to have been correct. The apartheid government of Israel, together with its illegitimate claim to represent all Jews, is now the main excuse used for anti-Semitism worldwide. It’s doing for Jews what the brutal, corrupt Wahabbi rulers of Saudi Arabia do for Muslims, and what the child-abuse-promoting bishops of Vatican City do for Catholics: providing a bad reputation.

38

js. 02.06.13 at 12:20 am

Well, bullying is widespread, not specifically directed at academia;

Maybe it’s a case of bullying, I don’t know. But even if it is, it is very much a case of bullying directed at an academic institution, and specifically aimed at denying the institution a set of freedoms essential to that sort of institution. So the issue of academic freedom is hardly a minor detail here.

In any case, I don’t see what you gain by ignoring highly salient features of the case. On the other hand, no one’s saying the phenomenon can or should be “addressed in isolation”. (Well, someone somewhere probably is, so let’s just say, no one half-way sane is saying this.)

39

bianca steele 02.06.13 at 1:32 am

I know I shouldn’t, I almost didn’t reply to “mud man” because the quality of his/her/its anonymity is so annoying, but:

[the Israeli government's] illegitimate claim to represent all Jews

What?! I have met some Israelis, and I’m pretty sure they do not think Israel represents all the world’s Jews.

40

GiT 02.06.13 at 2:11 am

Well, this isn’t post-48 American Jewry, but I liked this slice of history:

http://972mag.com/remember-the-jewish-labor-bund/60337/

41

Mao Cheng Ji 02.06.13 at 11:15 am

js, 38

Of course you can frame it any way you want, but if Omar Barghouti was invited by PBS or CNN, or NPR, or offered an adviser post at the state department, every one of those institutions would’ve been attacked just the same. So, it seems to me, academic freedom is involved only indirectly.

Besides, as long as academic institutions are financed by politicians and rich individuals, there isn’t really much to defend there; it’s already a fiction. This time it wend public, but surely there must be plenty of cases where administrators’ decisions are affected by a simple phone call.

I think what you have here is something similar to a red scare, a witch-hunt. And I don’t think framing, for example, McCarthyism as an attack on artistic freedom would be all that productive.

42

JW Mason 02.06.13 at 2:26 pm

as long as academic institutions are financed by politicians and rich individuals, there isn’t really much to defend there; it’s already a fiction.

This is wrong. Academic freedom has substantial content as long as a large number of people in academia believe in it strongly enough to defend it collectively. As is clearly the case here.

We think too much of rights in terms of formal restraints on those on the top, as opposed to forms of collection action of those below. But in cases like this, it’s the latter that really counts.

43

Mao Cheng Ji 02.06.13 at 3:19 pm

Certainly, if the rank and file are apathetic, then all is lost. Nevertheless. This one is a high-profile case, but don’t you think a quiet phone call from the city hall or a major donor might affect various decisions, without anyone knowing? And if rallying the righteous is such a great solution, why do you need tenure?

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