Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected president of Brazil, vows to reform his country’s educational establishment. In a recent tweet, he promised to "tackle the Marxist garbage in our schools head on. We shall succeed in forming citizens and not political militants."
Bolsonaro was voicing a concern common to right-wing populists across the globe. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán chased Central Europe’s most respected university out of the country.
The educational system, for them, is a nest of left-wing elitists, who poison the youth by spreading "ideology of gender, legalization of abortion and drugs, and encourage the Islamic invasion of Europe." That's Brazilian lawmaker and third presidential child Eduardo Bolsonaro’s assessment of George Soros, nemesis of the international populist Right.
Another Soros basher is Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government, too, looks unkindly at "leftist" education: Miri Regev, the fiery culture minister, advocates "freedom of funding" for the government, which would enable it to cut support to people and groups "disloyal" to the State. Like Bolsonaro, she considers leftist culture to be political, while her own stance merely represents common sense.
This espousal by the Israeli government of an anti-intellectualism traditionally more typical of the anti-Semitic Right is disconcerting in itself. But, sadly, its influence seems to have reached Jewish communities everywhere, including Canada, where I live.
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That false moral panic - hordes of professors filling their classrooms with radical left-wing, anti-Zionist propaganda - seems to now have been espoused wholeheartedly by Ontario Hillel, which provides comfort and support to Jewish students on the province’s campuses.
Recently I received a fundraising email signed by Marc Newburgh, CEO of the organization. It was dominated by a large blue headline, "Alex wanted to sink into the floor." Next to it was a picture of a movie screen showing flames engulfing a Star of David. A young woman, presumably Alex, was watching in a dark lecture hall, her loneliness emphasized by the empty seats around her.
Alex was "a first-year student at a well-known Ontario university," the message said, and "she attended her first art history class, where the lecture topic was Orientalism. The lights turned down, and class began with a video clip of the burning of an Israeli flag." Alex, a Jewish student, "felt ashamed, angry, and exposed."
I have had an opportunity to find out more about this episode from Marc Newburgh and his advocacy officer Ilan Orzy, to whom I am sincerely grateful for their willingness to meet me. Marc and Ilan were not prepared to name any names, but they convinced me that the email was inspired by a true story.
Yes what the email implies about the nature of the incident is problematic. Fair enough, Alex is not the student’s real name. But while it was true that it was "her" first art history class, it wasn't, contrary to what one might understand from the text, the first lecture of the course. My interlocutors said that "Alex" transferred into the class in November (classes generally start in September in Ontario.)
More importantly, it’s misleading to describe the video as a "clip of the burning of an Israeli flag." It was a film about Edward Said, which included some people, presumably in the Middle East, burning the flag. I was given no reason to believe that either the film or the professor actually approved of the action.
I was reminded of an old Soviet joke about a local call-in radio show in the USSR’s equivalent of Chelm. "Is it true," a caller asks, "that Boris Nikolaevich won 20,000 rubles in the lottery?" "It’s true," the anchor answers, "but it wasn’t Boris Nikolaevich. It was Nikita Vasilevich. And," he adds, "it wasn’t 20,000 rubles but 750. He didn’t win it but he lost it. And it wasn’t in the lottery but playing cards with his friends. But," the anchorman concludes, "otherwise the story is completely true!"
There is, to be fair, a lot more truth in the Hillel email than that. But its conclusions are exaggerated. Though you wouldn’t know it from the email, for example, the professor apologized to "Alex" once - counselled by Hillel - she brought her concerns to him. Her fears that her academic standing would be "jeopardized" were unfounded. Hillel and the professor can both take credit for this civil resolution, which was left out of the email.
In many university subjects, an apolitical approach is impossible. It is pedagogically sound for professors to sensitively expose their political stance, in order to encourage discussion in class. An "anti-Zionist" view is no more political than an "Israel advocacy" one, nor, one might add, does it hold more potential to intimidate if misused by an unprofessional educator.
But most professors at this province’s universities are interested in stimulating their student’s minds, not in hurting their feelings. There may be a few exceptions, but this professor, evidently, was not one of them.
The email goes on to declare loudly, in large blue letters, that "This has happened too many times, to too many students." No, it hasn’t.
Of course, even one time is too many, but clearly that’s not the point here. Nor is it the undeniable fact that Jewish students, mainly but not only Israel advocates, have been the subject of harassment by anti-Zionist students, particularly at political events outside the classroom. The email is about professional educators and their behavior in the classroom, and that is not the same thing.
This message has crossed the border from defending concrete cases of abuse by student organizations, to joining the right-wing chorus maintaining that academics as a group intimidate students who don’t agree with them.
My request for names and dates of examples other than "Alex’s" was met by a principled refusal by Marc Newburgh. However, Ilan Orzy did volunteer the case of a Ryerson University professor, who tweeted anti-Israel messages, using the derogatory term "Zio." "Zio" has been used as a slur against Jews indiscriminately, and although the Ryerson prof says she did not mean to do that, she should have known better. She is likely to have intimidated any Jewish students in her class - if they knew about her tweet.
This is bad, but it’s still not the same thing as if she used the slur in class, which, apparently, she did not. Outside class, professors in a free country are allowed to be as partisan as anyone. In class, they need to couch their convictions more carefully. In a few notoriously disputed cases across North America, some have failed to do so. There is no solid evidence that this is common, in Ontario or elsewhere.
To mix up cases of in-class abuse by academics with messy student protests outside is a questionable strategy. Its aim is to discredit segments of the academic community perceived as actually or potentially supporting BDS, and its effect is to align Israel advocacy with the anti-academic hysteria of the populist Right.
To drive home the point about academics, it’s not surprising that the authors of the email, who were in general rather selective, chose to mention that the lecture was on Orientalism.
"Orientalism" is a term associated today with the very Edward Said that the class video was about, who meant by it a largely negative portrayal of, essentially, the Arab Muslim world. He recognized, though, that "Hostility to Islam in the modern Christian West has historically gone hand in hand with, has stemmed from the same source, has been nourished at the same stream as anti-Semitism."
But Said was a Palestinian-American and, as such, an unyielding critic of Israel. That has been enough for some to condemn his imperfect, yet enormously influential and widely admired work, as a paragon of the kind of academic balderdash that Bolsonaro calls "Marxist garbage." Hillel’s message tunes into this evaluation of a scholar, whom some Israel advocates have mistakenly described as radically anti-Zionist, and even anti-Semitic.
This anonymous diatribe against an academic has all the structural hallmarks of a typical populist, fear-mongering conspiracy theory - unnamed victims and unnamed aggressors, plausibility (but only given certain assumptions on the part of the audience), lack of deniability due to lack of specifics, the intimation that this is happening everywhere and all too often. And then, just before the demand for a donation, the call for revengeful action: "We won’t let it happen anymore!"
This kind of presentation might inspire some right-wing donors to give to Hillel. It is likely to turn off those the money is meant for: Jewish students. They are far too smart to fall for such manipulation.
We see enough manufacturing of crisis and stoking of fear elsewhere, but Hillel has generally stayed within the bounds of reasoned argument before. I hope that they have not now decided to join a trend.
Ivan Kalmar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He co-edited, with Derek J. Penslar, the book "Orientalism and the Jews," and wrote "Early Orientalism: Imagined Islam and the Notion of Sublime Power." Twitter: @i_kalmar