Hi. Our guest this Friday at noon EDT, our normal time, will be with Samuel Moyn. Our conversation will be with Samuel Moyn. Samuel is a professor of law and history at Yale. He’s written a really important new book, which has gotten a lot of attention, called Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. It’s a portrait of a series of influential thinkers like Lionel Trilling and Isaiah Berlin, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Judith Shklar, whose discourse he argues has had really profound and negative effects on the way Americans think about politics and liberalism in particular today. But for our purposes, it’s also interesting because he talks about the way they thought about Zionism, and the relationship between Cold War liberalism and Zionism. And so, the book, I think, has a lot to say also about the way that period in the middle of the twentieth century has influenced, shaped discourse in the US about Zionism too. So, that’ll be Friday at noon for paid subscribers who also get access to our library of previous calls with people like Ilhan Omar, Bret Stephens, Thomas Friedman, Noam Chomsky, and others.
I wanted to say something about this literary festival that was held this weekend the University of Pennsylvania. It’s the only North American Palestinian Literary Festival. And it elicited this letter from alums of the University of Pennsylvania, basically calling on the university to denounce it, and not saying it should be shut down, but basically saying that Penn and other institutions like that should basically make it harder for these kinds of things to take place. And I looked at the names of those folks and I thought, you know, I bet I know some of these people, and if not, they’re only one degree of separation away from me. We’re probably roughly the same age, me and these alums. I’m obviously Jewish too, and I went to a similar kind of university. And I feel like I wish I could speak to the folks who wrote that letter, and so this is kind of my effort to do so. And if you are one of those people, thank you for listening. And if you know some of those people, maybe consider passing this on to them.
And the question I would ask the folks who signed the letter is: how many novels by Palestinians have you read? How many books in general about Palestinians have you read? How many lectures have you heard Palestinians give? How much time have you spent talking to Palestinians about their experience, seeing their experience in the West Bank or even inside Israel proper? Now, there may be some folks on that letter for whom the answer is they’ve done that a lot. Good for them. But my assumption is going to be that for the vast majority, the answer is very little or not at all. Because that’s the norm in the organized American Jewish community is that listening to Palestinians is very unusual. Jewish organizations in general don’t expose their communities to Palestinian perspectives. And so, it seems to me, if that’s the case, there is a really sad, even tragic, irony in this, right? Because a group of people who have not exposed themselves to Palestinian cultural and literary production are basically going out to try to make it hard for Palestinians to speak publicly about Palestinian art, culture in the public square. And I really believe that if more of those folks who signed the letter actually had had the very experience that the Palestinian Rights Literary Festival is trying to create, they would not be trying to demonize it and trying to get the University of Pennsylvania to make it harder for it to operate.
And the reason is this. The discourse in this letter, which is typical of American Jewish discourse, is that the speakers in this literary festival, or at least some of them, are antisemitic and hateful because of what they say about Israel and Zionism. And generally, what they say about Israel and Zionism that people claim to be antisemitic and hateful is that a Jewish state is inherently immoral, and unjust, and it’s settler colonial, and it practices apartheid. These various kinds of things, right? These very hostile and fundamental critiques of the very notion of Israel and Zionism, and even some speakers have said that they support armed resistance against Israel. So, this is interpreted as antisemitism.
But if you listen to Palestinians talk about their own experience, then you have a fundamentally different context from which to understand these kinds of comments, right. Because Palestinians suffer brutal oppression at the hands of the Israeli state. And that’s not new, right? They have for a very, very long time. And so, if you understand that context, then these statements of hostility towards Israel and Zionism don’t necessarily seem antisemitic and pathological, they seem like a response to the Palestinian experience. But what happens in American Jewish discourse is the question of what has actually happened to Palestinians—what happened to Palestinians when most Palestinians were expelled in the Nakba in 1948, what it’s like for Palestinians to live today in the West Bank without the most basic rights, the right to be a citizen of the country in which you live—all of that is pushed to the side, not discussed at all. Or if it’s discussed, it’s discussed in a way that basically suggests that Palestinians are to blame for their own dispossession. And once that’s shunted to the side, there’s this claim that these statements of hostility to Israel and Zionism are antisemitic and endanger Jews.
But if we were to think about another group of people who experience oppression and the way they talk about their oppressors, we would immediately understand that this interpretation doesn’t make sense, right? So, if you were thinking about a Ukrainian literary festival, and the way they would talk about Russians, or a Uighur literary festival and the way they would talk about the Chinese state, right, and you saw that those literary festivals had speakers who had said, these states are fundamentally unjust. They’re fundamentally discriminatory. They are committing horrific acts of violence, right? And they use terms like colonial, or settler colonial, or apartheid, or racist, or whatever, or even a Nazi analogy, right? We might not agree with every particular statement, right? But we would recognize that it doesn’t come from pathological hatred. It comes from the experience of oppression. We would understand that that experience of oppression is central, right, to the hostility that you would see among Uighurs towards the Chinese state or Ukrainians towards the Russian state. And if somebody Ukrainian said they supported armed resistance against the Russian state, we would say we understand the reasons for that. And if they supported armed resistance against Russian civilians, I would say I oppose it just like I oppose armed resistance against Israeli civilians. But I would also understand that it comes out of a context in which these people are themselves the subject of tremendous violence. All of this would be kind of obvious, right? Because in American public discourse and Jewish public discourse too, it’s taken for granted, it’s accepted that Uighurs and Ukrainians are being denied basic rights. But when it comes to Palestinians, that central fundamental, foundational fact, right, is basically treated as irrelevant, or denied all together.
And so, I think that we have in this situation a kind of an effort by people inside the Jewish community to essentially reproduce our own ignorance. Because it is the ignorance of the Palestinian experience that I think leads people to not understand that there are very good reasons for Palestinians to have hostility to Zionism and Israel. Doesn’t mean that you have to agree with every particular statement that any particular person has made, but that you have to understand that that’s the foundational context, right? Just as you would understand that if you’re dealing with essentially discourse of Black Americans vis-à-vis white Americans, or any group of people that’s oppressed—or, you know, the way Jews thought about Polish or Ukrainian people a hundred years ago—that a context comes out of that. That there’s a context of oppression that you have to have to understand this discourse.
And so, instead what you see from this letter is this idea that Jewish students are endangered by this discourse, which I think is really nonsense. In fact, if you look at the best data that we have—and I’ve said this time and time again about antisemitism United States, antisemitism defined the old-fashioned way like statements about Jews as Jews, you know, are they disloyal? Are they dishonest, etc., etc.? It’s vastly, vastly higher on the right. In fact, I think there’s pretty compelling evidence that anti-Zionists in the United States have lower levels of antisemitism than do Zionists. And I’ll link to some of the stuff I’ve written about this. But instead, what we have is this fervent effort always to connect Palestinian critiques of Israel and Zionism with assaults on Jews, right, even though the data shows that in fact—and I’m quoting Hersch and Royden’s paper here, which is the best thing we have on the subject, that ‘antisemitic attitudes are rare on the ideological left but common on the ideological right.’
Despite that, we had this constant discourse of keeping Jewish students safe, which really, actually mirrors the kind of worst, most caricatured version of ‘woke’ safe space discourse. Jewish students at Penn are not threatened by Palestinian speakers talking about their experience. And the language of safety in this case is actually an effort to try to keep them ignorant of the Palestinian experience, right, and to try to get the university to make it less likely that they will actually listen to Palestinians. Which is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of a university. What we should be doing is encouraging these Jewish students to go outside of their comfort zone and listen to Palestinians even though it’s going to be difficult, and produce cognitive dissonance for them, and be painful in some ways for them to hear that the state that they have been raised to love has actually done these terrible things to Palestinians. That’s not violence. That’s not a threat to someone’s safety. It’s education. This is what we should want all students to be experiencing while they’re at university. And it drives me crazy that many of the people who understand that point the most clearly and make it so often when it comes to the safe spaces of Black students or LGBT students or whatever. When it comes to Jewish students, they actually want to prevent that process of education because they describe the process of education vis-à-vis the Palestinian experience, as an experience of threat to the safety of Jewish students. It’s not. It’s actually an experience of education that we should welcome. So, again our call on Friday is going to be with Samuel Moyn at noon. I hope many of you will join us.