United against Scholarship

In the last few years we have been witnessing the emergence of a self-gratifying populist culture in the midst of the Palestinian scholarly discourse. Two years ago we watched Ali Abunimah’s lecture about ‘culture’ and politics setting a new record of intellectual ignorance. We then came across ‘anti’ racist Israel boycott campaigner Omar Barghouti preaching in favour of biological determinism. This week I came across Columbia Professor Joseph Massad’s Last of the Semites, a talk on Zionism and anti-semitism the Professor delivered in Stuttgart last month. Unfortunately Massad repeats the exact same pattern.

Watch Massad’s Lecture:

Let’s us examine some of Massad’s ideas. Towards the end of his talk Massad concludes that “whereas Israel insists that European Jews do not belong in Europe and must come to Palestine, the Palestinians have always insisted that the homelands of European Jews were their European countries and not Palestine.” Nice set-up of conflicting views but made up out of whole cloth by Massad. I can’t think of any Palestinian, including Massad himself, who has been brave enough to boldly suggest to Europeans Jews where they really belong. In fact, the only person who was courageous enough to express such a simple and truthful idea was American hero Helen Thomas. So the next question to ask is who are the ‘Palestinians’ Massad has in mind? Do they exist outside of his solipsistic universe?

Massad continues, “whereas Zionism insists that Jews are a race separate from European Christians, the Palestinians insist that European Jews are nothing if not European and have nothing to do with Palestine, its people, or its culture.”

Again, Massad may be correct here as far as the Jews’ hailing from Europe but again, who are the ‘Palestinians’ to whom he refers? Are the Palestinian people now a nation of anthropologists who produce verdicts regarding Jews and their ethnic or racial belonging?

Massad proceeds and produces some vague and largely wrong statements that fail to correspond with any reality whatsoever. “European Jews”, he says, “were transformed into the instruments of aggression; they became the elements of settler colonialism intimately allied to racial discrimination.” In case Massad does not know, European Jews were not "transformed into the instruments of aggression." As far as Zionism is concerned, they voluntarily and consciously adopted that "aggressive" role. Furthermore, Israel is indeed a settler state, yet Zionism is not colonialism and Israel is not a "colonial settler State". I would expect a Columbia professor to know that colonialism is commonly defined as a material exchange between a ‘mother state’ and a "settler state". It is far from clear what is the mother state behind the Jewish settler state.

Reading Massad one cannot discern any coherent intellectual procedure. He is actually following the whims of his heart in a populist attempt to appease a crowd of Left activists and Jewish ‘anti’ Zionist supporters. This is pretty much a disaster because the intellectual has a role in society and in the discourse of resistance in particular. He or she must push the envelope rather than surrender and conform to a mediocre political pattern and slogan shouting.

Interestingly enough Massad departs from his own pattern at one point and presents a truthful observation. When Zionism started, says Massad, it espoused anti-Jewish ideas, including scientific anti-semitism. Massad correctly points out that early Zionists such as Herzl saw the anti-semite as a potential ally. “Herzl”, writes Massad, “explained that it was Jews, not their Christian enemies, who ’cause’ anti-semitism”.

Although correct, Massad is not very original here. The anti-semitic nature of early Zionism is a well-discussed topic. Yet, Massad fails to ask himself the most crucial questions:

Why was early Zionism anti-semitic? How is it possible that Zionism, initially repulsed by the ‘Jew’, eventually evolved into the political voice of the Jews?

One would expect a Columbia professor and expert on Middle East affairs to delve into critical thinking or at least to be familiar with negative dialectic. I would expect Massad to grasp by now that Jewish political identity is defined by negation. Zionism, the Jewish State and Jewish politics in general are set to mobilise animosity towards the Jew. The Israeli genocidal tactics in Gaza, for instance, incite Jewish hatred around the globe. Consequently, French Jews are intimidated by some sporadic violent actions against Jewish soft targets, they are pushed to identify themselves politically as Jews or Zionists, some would make Aliya, others would spend some money and purchase a shoa shelter in Tel Aviv. The meaning of it all is simple. Anti-semitism and Jew hatred are obviously embedded within both Zionist and anti-Zionist thought and practice. Anti-semitism is at the heart of Jewish political identity discourse because secular Jews are defined by their enemies by means of negative dialectics (as opposed to Orthodox Jews who are defined by the Torah). Is the above too complicated for an American Palestinian scholar? I really don’t thinks so. But Massad is clearly afraid to question what is the true nature of the Jewish state and Jewish politics. He prefers to remain within the strict boundaries of the Zionist vs. anti Zionist binary discourse. May I remind Massad that this template is actually a Zionist one – it could and should be challenged.

For some reason Massad draws some very peculiar conclusions. He, for instance, interprets the fact that “European countries, along with the United States, refused to take in hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors of the holocaust ” as a proof of “support” of the ‘anti-Semitic programme of Zionism. Can Massad justify this absurd idea? Not really, in fact he doesn’t even try. Isn’t it more likely that European countries and the USA refused the entry of Holocaust survivors regardless of Zionism? Massad who happens to be bold enough to claim that “the Palestinians have always insisted that the homelands of European Jews were their European countries”, should have the minimal integrity to accept that the Americans, like the Palestinians, may have also believed that ‘the homelands of European Jews were their European countries rather than the USA.

Massad is an interesting and creative thinker. His insight could have brought light to the discourse but instead he is engaged in an embarrassing, pseudo-academic zigzagging that leads nowhere. It is not surprising that the same Massad was amongst the first to criticise Mearsheimer & Walt’s work on the Israeli Lobby. Massad also added his name to Ali Abunimah’s list of Palestinian book burners. Massad who often enough lends his voice, name and reputation to Jewish smear campaigns was last was week a victim of a such a campaign. Al Jazeera shamelessly bowed to Zionist pressure and deleted his article.

I want to believe that Massad learned the lesson – time is ripe for academics and Palestinian academics in particular to rise up and speak their minds while aiming at the truth. It is time for all of us to insist that our scholars produce real scholarship rather than chase their own tails. Freedom is really freedom of the spirit, the ability to say what you think, rather than attempting to preach to the converted.

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and Being in Time and is one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached via his website. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.