Hysteria Over Wellesley Firings Is Cover for Denial and Delusion

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Wellesley CollegeCredit: Jared and Corin, via Wikipedia Commons

More decades than I care to count have elapsed since I left Wellesley College to come to the Hebrew University for my "Junior Year Abroad." That year turned into a lifetime in Jerusalem. Of late I have been the reluctant recipient of a flurry of emails on the list of Wellesley Alumnae in Israel, sparked by the announcement on November 12 that two Hillel advisers had been summarily dismissed and that the college was looking for a full-time rabbi.

On its face, this appears to be an internal matter regarding the needs of a small college community for a Jewish chaplain. But like so many other issues that may seem irrelevant to the politics swirling around campuses, this quickly morphed into ill-informed mud-slinging: the dismissal was conflated with the presumption of rampant anti-Semitism, and some controversial posters that had been put up on campus by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were conflated with widespread Israel-bashing. You can fill in the blanks.

If I hadn’t known it already, what I learned from participating in the exchanges among Wellesley alumnae in Israel and the "viral" effect of a few press reports was how quickly incendiary language prevails over sensible fact-finding and debate. The eye-catching headlines of the reports in Haaretz, which recorded the growing hysteria of a few students and some alumnae – “Wellesley College fires Hillel staff as Jewish students face upped anti-Israel activity,” November 21, and “Wellesley Jewish alums stop Jewish donations after Hillel firings,” November 24 – became hardened facts, despite the nuanced explanations of people involved in the actual events.

Versions of the drama that has engulfed Wellesley are being played out on campuses throughout the United States and Europe. The real question to be addressed here is: why the hysteria? What are its roots and, more important, what is its impact? And why are so many Jews in Israel and America quick to point fingers and replace civil discourse with mud-slinging?

I reached some of my Jewish colleagues at Wellesley who had been involved in the complex deliberations that led to their decision to dismiss the Hillel advisors and to look for a full-time chaplain. Some of their deliberations cannot be made public, and that is to be respected. But the atmospherics and events that led up to the scandal can be documented. Larry Rosenwald, professor of English, is also the director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program. He explained that it was “an unfortunate coincidence, but only that, that the layoffs were made at a moment of tension on campus over Israel-Palestine politics.” The “enthusiastic” Students for Justice in Palestine began a campaign that included provocative posters and a program on nonviolent resistance in Israel and Palestine. This was matched by a program sponsored by the Peace and Justice Studies Program. During these events, Rosenwald emphasized, there was “no verbal abuse of questioners, no rabble-rousing, and nothing I'd call anti-Semitic Since that time, one additional blank poster has been put up. It is headed, ‘What do you think about the Gaza War?’ Interestingly enough, it was put up not by SJP but by the Wellesley chapter of Amnesty International.”

The process of vilification that has characterized the Wellesley Affair is abetted by right-wing, xenophobic government representatives in Israel. Recently, Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) took up precious time in the Knesset accusing the National Hillel organization, along with J-Street, the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, for promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and fomenting anti-Israel sentiment on campuses across the country (“Israeli lawmaker warns ‘post-Zionist’ groups infiltrating Hillel around the U.S.,” Haaretz, November 25).

The sad paradox is that if there are any bodies that represent the human face of Israel and of Judaism today, they are the very ones vilified by the militant alumnae of Wellesley and the likes of Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset. Indeed, the issue of Israel/Palestine on the American campus is a microcosm of the subject in the broader American culture, where the conflation of Jews, Judaism and official Israeli politics is commonplace. For many of the uninformed or biased, this is not unlike the gross conflation of Islam with terror or of all Palestinians with Hamas. The effect of such inflammatory language is to drive intelligent, fair-minded people of all faiths away from the debate altogether and to leave the arena to the paranoid and the hateful.

Among those who remain engaged, there are many well-meaning supporters of the BDS movement who, disgusted with Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, regard boycott and divestment as of a piece with the successful campaign in South Africa. Whether the boycott eventually brought down the apartheid system in South Africa and whether it can be effective in Israel is a subject for serious and reasoned debate. As an academic who belongs to the peace camp but who is personally subject to the academic boycott, I know that it hurts everyone. But it is, essentially, a non-violent alternative to the violence that has defined this conflict for so long. There are certainly those among the supporters of BDS who are truly anti-Semitic, but that is a term so loosely applied to anybody who dares criticize the policies of the Israeli government that it has lost whatever moral value it once had.

In any case, the firings at Wellesley were clearly not a case of anti-Semitism and had nothing to do with BDS, but the reaction to the firings is another matter. Perhaps the hysteria over events at places like Wellesley is actually a cover for a profound process of denial and self-delusion? A number of the correspondents on the alumnae list, who matriculated at different times over the last half-century, mentioned having suffered from anti-Semitism when they were at Wellesley. I can attest that when I attended the college in the early 1960s, there was more than a whiff of polite Protestant condescension – but it was also directed toward anyone who was different. There were virtually no African Americans (with the exception of a few Africans of royal lineage), very few Asian Americans and no women of openly non-heterosexual identity. As a student who observed kashrut, I ate many privately-cooked meals with Professor Surama Dasgupta, a visiting lecturer in Indian philosophy, because even though she had been invited by the college, no more special arrangements had been made for her dietary requirements than for mine.

And yet, when I look back on my years at Wellesley, I remember them as among the most vibrant, intellectually stimulating and personally enabling years of my life. Today Wellesley is a campus like most other liberal arts institutions in the United States, where people of all creeds, colors, and sexual preferences are evident (see the cover story of the New York Times Magazine, October 15: “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”).

In my long sojourn as student and professor at the Hebrew University, I have encountered far more prejudice toward Arabs and "goyim" in general than I experienced anti-Semitism at Wellesley. Particularly on the eve of the so-called Jewish nation-state bill which, if passed, will be the most momentous change in Israel’s charter that will enshrine Israel as an ethnocracy and wipe away even the pretense of democracy, it is revealing that so many Wellesley alumnae in Israel prefer to cast aspersions on their Alma Mater instead of looking inward.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Guggenheim Fellow.

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