I was first introduced to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s “Dignity of Difference” in an undergraduate course taught by the chair of Islamic studies at my alma mater.
Rabbi Sacks, the former chief rabbi of England, wrote his famous book in response to those who felt that Muslims and the West could never live side by side in a peaceful world. Attending the lecture, you would never imagine this charming, soft-spoken scholar of Islam came with an anti-Israel agenda. After all, incorporating rabbinic thought into the curriculum certainly came across as open-minded and progressive.
What’s happening today on our university campuses? How did they become hotbeds of antisemitism? When did supporting terrorism become acceptable? Is severing philanthropic ties the answer?
My “enlightened” professor was brought to the university to lead the Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. While it would be nice to imagine the institute as an unbiased space for academic inquiry, the name belied the fact that it offered zero courses on Israel. The sole Israel-related instruction came from his Politics of the Middle East undergraduate course, where he would dedicate four lectures to screening a YouTube “documentary” (read: conspiracy theory) describing how the neocons convinced President George W. Bush to attack Iraq. The undercurrent of the series is that most of these advisers were Jewish and coopted America to protect Israel. Later in the course, John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby” was taught as uncontested fact, presenting no alternative viewpoints. (Not even Noam Chomsky!)
Let’s discuss funding for the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program. The professorship was endowed by the city’s Council of Muslim Communities. That basis alone undoubtedly came with certain spoken or unspoken expectations regarding messaging. And while the original source of the endowment is unclear, it is well known that in the early 2000s Saudi Arabia made large donations to several universities to establish Islamic studies programs. Rest assured that the professors installed to head these programs were handpicked to toe the party line. In fact, in recent years, the Saudis have further invested millions of dollars in North American universities, providing scholarships specifically for Arab and Muslim students.
As an important aside, if those same donations were directed toward political campaigns, they would be illegal, on the grounds of foreign election interference. But our educational institutions — the building blocks of our national values and identity — are up for sale to the highest bidder.
Returning to the campuses, the next historical steps taken should come as no surprise. These Muslim professors — now firmly planted amongst the different faculties with a pool of funds available to attract students of specific ethnicities — joined the acceptance committees and became essential to the decision-making apparatus of the universities. And it did not take long before the proportion of Arab and Muslim students on North American campuses increased disproportionately.
In my experience, most of these young women and men are serious students seeking a first-class education. However, a significant number are vocal in their disdain for Israel, nurtured by a heavily biased Middle Eastern studies program combined with the academy’s contemporary shift to post-colonialist guilt and postmodernist relativism. These indoctrinated political science students tend to be the most politically active on campus and gravitate toward student union leadership positions, bringing their malicious agenda to a university-wide audience.
That brings us to the crux of the issue. While the Western academy has spent the last couple of decades grappling with ontology, epistemology, and moral relativism, the Muslim establishment, in tandem with radical post-colonalist scholars and student activists, have seized the opportunity to insert its anti-Israel campaign into the mainstream campus conversation.
In other words, while neutral professors sit on the fence and strive to avoid conveying any moral or ideological values to their students, those with an anti-Israel agenda have had free rein to attack the Jewish state and its allies in the West. With few professors willing to go to bat for the State of Israel, the country has become the target of student and faculty activism and boycotts. Consequently, at this point anti-Israel sentiment is considered not merely acceptable, but intellectually august. And woe betide the student who dares question the universally approved narrative on Palestine. At best he should anticipate public castigation, but the likelier outcome is that he will simply fail his courses.
Right now, we are in the midst of an existential crisis. It’s admirable to see Jewish philanthropists abandoning the elite institutions they hold dear and have already invested so much into. And yet, one wonders whether defunding is the most effective response. Firstly, these preeminent universities have substantial endowment funds in reserve. And secondly, their Saudi patrons have limitless resources to more than adequately recoup any shortfall.
What might work? Rather than providing general gifts to the university, those philanthropists should direct their donations strategically. Our children and grandchildren deserve a cadre of professors and a range of subjects that are unabashedly values-driven. Professors who are unafraid to declare their support for American society. Courses that emphasize America’s contribution to global peace and order. Professors who declare their full-throated support for the First Amendment and encourage open debate in their classes. Courses that examine issues honestly from diverse perspectives without automatically passing negative judgment on all knowledge and viewpoints that do not conform to postmodernist norms that masquerade as value-free.
My undergraduate professor loved teaching “The Dignity of Difference” because it allowed him to position the despotic political culture of various Arab and Muslim countries on equal footing with America, Canada, and the UK. That was certainly not Rabbi Sacks’ intention. He saw a world where morality was taking a nosedive and he wanted us to learn from one another to make this world a better, kinder place for all.
Let’s plant ourselves firmly in the Western institutions we cherish and use them unashamedly to teach the moral life in which we believe and that we
Daniel Friedman of Teaneck is an assistant professor of political science at Touro University.