In September, the organization StopAntisemitism released a report announcing what any yarmulke-wearing Ivy Leaguer already knew: Elite universities are rife with white-hot anti-Semitism. Intellectual bastions from Yale to Columbia received failing grades in making Jews feel physically safe, reporting anti-Semitic incidents, and refusing to adopt BDS resolutions.
Campus anti-Semitism usually manifests as a vicious strain of anti-Zionism, as in the recent scandal at Berkeley Law School, where several student affinity groups amended their bylaws in coordinated fashion to prohibit “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views…in support of Zionism.” With such statements justified in the name of unimpeachable goals, such as “providing a supportive community space for all indigenous people globally,” as the Berkeley Law groups put it, Jewish students are put on the defensive and forced to self-censor or abandon their core beliefs.
Most college-age Jews remain Zionists, however, and consider their Zionism central to their Jewish identity. This means that Jews looking to take on leadership positions and generally excel at important institutions are increasingly at a disadvantage, as their support for Israel is considered disqualifying. At universities including UCLA, USC, Tufts, and Duke, Jewish students have already faced the stark choice between remaining proudly Zionist and participating in campus life.
This is all the more disturbing because the themes and accusations characteristic of elite anti-Semitism mirror the rantings now frequently hurled at Jews on New York City subways and Brooklyn streets—except with longer words and academic-sounding concepts. The message is the same from self-righteous professors, amped-up student activists, and aggressive vagrants alike: Jews constitute a European entity that usurps indigenous peoples.
This theory can take a few different shapes, but its premise is consistent: Jews, having emerged from Europe as a stateless nation, are white oppressors and occupiers wherever they have since traveled. One frequently hears that the Jews have stolen Israel from the indigenous Palestinians. The domestic version of this canard echoes the classic Marxist trope that Jews exploit honest laborers for profit. Jews, for example, are “greedy landlords,” according to the campaign materials of a onetime New York City Council candidate. Or, by the lights of trendy intersectional analysis, they are willing beneficiaries of white supremacy who reap the profits of minority exploitation. In its extreme Farrakhanite form, the argument maintains that Jews have stolen Judaism itself from “real” non-white Jews.
But anyone now pushing back against either the lowbrow or highbrow versions of this anti-Semitism can use its legal and logical arguments of “indigeneity” against itself.
Because indigeneity is such a flawed concept, it requires a host of double standards and deceits to keep it going. And at this moment, exposing these theories, their implications, and the anti-discrimination laws they likely violate may be the best way to combat the anti-Semitic assault.
The progressive left increasingly values “indigeneity” above all. Progressives in the fields of education, entertainment, and even medicine routinely express the wish that every nation should be returned to its proper place, as if history had never unfolded. Institutions influenced or dominated by progressives now frequently begin their proceedings with “land acknowledgments”—statements about how the words being written or the institutions issuing them sit on lands that were once the stomping grounds of Native Americans. In so doing, they are making a confession of their complicity with the West’s settler-colonialist origins. Colonialism is seen as Europe’s great sin, inextricably tied up with racism, slavery, and, to many, capitalism.
Indigeneity, by contrast, connotes innocence, victimhood, and a cooperative society that would have flourished were it not tainted by European ideas about wealth—all of which amounts to moral currency in the social-justice economy.
Anti-Israel zealots, who were once content to argue that Israel is a legitimate state that exceeded the boundaries of its sovereignty, have fallen in line. Their main thrust is no longer that the putative occupation of the West Bank is unjust. Rather, they now believe and argue that Israel is illegitimate because it is a white European colonialist project that displaced native people of color. And the nub of the argument, logically necessary to every claim that Israel is colonialist or that Jews are white Europeans, is that Jews are not “native” or “indigenous” to the Levant.
Follow the logic. If Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe to Israel (or the Anglosphere) are colonizers rather than historically indigenous to the region, then they are not real Jews. They are impostors. The favored theory, promoted in part by the novelist Arthur Koestler in his late demented-crackpot phase, is that they are Khazars whose descendants converted at the turn of the second millennium. And they are working out the details of their diabolical thousand-year plan to steal a national narrative so that they can displace brown-skinned natives.
This is historically false in ways even Israel’s critics should understand. Not only are Ashkenazi Jews not Khazars, Israelis aren’t even majority Ashkenazi. Millions of non-European Jews who certainly do not look “white” returned to Israel from Arab lands in the 20th century, and they and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now make up approximately half of the population. In any case, Ashkenazi Jews can trace their heritage far beyond Poland and the Pale of Settlement, which might explain why Jewish sages in those territories wrote in a Semitic language about laws they would fulfill when they returned to Zion.
Even anti-Zionist Jews today would admit that tracing their heritage back to ancient Judea—and before it, to the Davidic dynasty, Sinai, and the Exodus from Egypt—is unquestionably central to their tradition. This is so whether Jews are considered a nation, a religion, an ethnicity, or some combination thereof. It is what unites Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Italian, Ethiopian, and Indian Jews under one banner, making them all Jews rather than disparate groups with similar rituals.
Calling Ashkenazi Jews white colonizers, cutting off their lineage a millennium too soon, therefore strikes at the heart of the Jewish tradition by denying their ability to define themselves. Proponents of this charge are saying that our Jewishness is a false (and malicious) national entity bearing a false claim of shared national-territorial origin under the guise of a false religion. Like the vulgar conspiracy theorist shouting on the street—or the Black Hebrew Israelites who tried to massacre Jewish children in Jersey City in 2019—progressive anti-Semites insist that most Jews are not real Jews, who would be entitled to live in their ancestral homeland. They stole the distinction, and they stole Arab land.
This narrative is also false because it’s built on the idea that a people can be indigenous to a place, when in fact all human beings are ultimately indigenous to the same square of Africa. The relevant question is about the sovereignty a nation exercises over a territory or, in the moral calculus, the centrality of a place to a nation’s constitution. On the realist question of sovereignty, Israel obviously prevails. And on the moral matter, the anti-colonialist effort to deny Israel’s centrality to Jewish national identity is pure anti-Semitic lunacy. Campus activists have ultimately adopted the nutty conspiratorial Jew-hatred of the likes of Louis Farrakhan.
Using the language of indigeneity to attack Israel is a left-wing innovation on an old theme. For as long as Israel has existed, its supporters have known intuitively that most “criticism” of the state was anti-Semitic in nature. That discrediting fact was easy to prove when Israel was constantly at war with neighboring countries that affirmed, over and over again, that they would never accept the existence of a Jewish state on “Arab land.” So, as some these countries abandoned their rejectionism in favor of peace treaties and economic cooperation, Israel’s opponents were forced to pivot.
Arabs newly calling themselves Palestinians—the cultural appropriation, by the way, of a word used to connote the Jews of the area before the State of Israel was incepted—ventured a fresh line of attack, literally and figuratively, and Israel’s Western critics followed. The Palestinian justification for bombings in Jerusalem and Netanya was that Israel was occupying territory it had never rightfully acquired. This theory operated on the conceit that if Israel were to give up certain swaths of land under its control, terrorism would cease and a peaceful two-state solution would reign. But there was no connection between territorial concessions and lasting peace because complete rejectionism, with support from left-wing movements in the West, would never die. It would only morph and adapt.
Now, students from Berkeley to NYU wield familiar left-wing jargon to whitewash that same rejectionism and explain why they find violence against Israeli civilians worthy of celebration. If Zionists—substituting the Z-word for the J-word should do the trick—are white European colonialists occupying Arab land, then “movements for Palestinian liberation,” as the Berkeley students put it, are reflections of “anti-racism and anti-settler colonialism.” (For good measure, the law students added that banning Zionists demonstrated student organizations’ “desire for equality and inclusion.”)
This activist jargon necessarily assumes that Jews are white interlopers, bourgeois capitalists, “eternal wanderers” who colonize and subjugate, in mindset if not literally, wherever they go—Israel, America, or anywhere else. And as far as the Levant is concerned, this covers lands from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and from the Golan Heights down to Eilat.
This premise has become a staple of progressive movements obsessed with identifying oppressor groups and seeking to punish them in the name of equity. American Jews have flourished economically, and the “start-up nation” of Israel has made the desert bloom. These successes actually makes both groups suspect, if not presumptively guilty, of the crime of settler-colonial capitalism. It is no coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement tries to draw through lines “from Ferguson to Palestine,” or that Representative Rashida Tlaib claims that it is “the same people that make money and—yes, they do—off of racism, off of these broken policies… From Gaza to Detroit.” This is a timeless form of Jew-hatred: As long as the Jews do not go back “where they came from,” they remain parasites on the natives, exploiting their labor, stealing their resources, and destroying the noble indigenous culture.
But denying the historic Jewish connection to the Land of Israel in this way—denying Jews the right to self-definition and forcibly categorizing them as white Europeans—is discriminatory and likely a violation of civil-rights law. Doing so publicly and repeatedly denigrates a core tenet of a tradition that unifies a group organized around shared heritage. On campuses, especially, it leads to discrimination and harassment. And in the United States, we have laws against that sort of thing.
Here is where the concept of indigeneity can be effectively turned on its head by pro-Israel lawyers. It violates American anti-discrimination law by turning Jews into a racial group before subjecting them to systematic disfavor. Discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, which, the Department of Education has noted, “can include discrimination based on…shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics,” may include telling Ashkenazi Jews that they are “too white” to be the real Jews of the Bible, or to be part of one nation with their Mizrahi or Sephardic brethren.
Some lawyers have expressed skepticism that our current anti-discrimination-law framework can protect Jewish students from the anti-Zionism that they know, but have trouble proving, is anti-Semitic. One challenge has to do with the Department of Education’s interpretations of Title VI. Title VI is the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that bans institutions receiving federal funding—which includes nearly every university in America today—from allowing discrimination against any person based on their race, color, or national origin. It is the piece of legislation that authorizes the Department of Education to investigate, monitor, and sue universities for civil-rights infractions. According to the Department of Education, however, it does not explicitly protect individuals on the basis of religion. In this reading, Title VI would cover Jews only if they are being discriminated against on the basis of “race, color, or national origin.” This has been a problem in the past because Jews come in many colors, and from many countries. But religion itself is unnecessary to arguments for the centrality of tracing their lineage to the Holy Land. Even thoroughly secular Jews understand that a common national heritage in the Levant is what unites world Jewry.
It’s what makes Jews one people even if they speak different languages, have different color skin, and observe Judaism with different practices. And so, the concepts and terminology that the anti-Israel left chooses to employ now actually pit anti-Israel zealotry against American anti-discrimination laws.
We counsel an updated application of Natan Sharansky’s famous Three D’s test. “Criticizing” Israeli Jews for being white colonizers does not merely aim to delegitimize Israel; it delegitimizes Jews by severing them from their constitutive national symbols, holy books, and beliefs. It demonizes Jews by casting them as “white occupiers” who exploit non-white people. And it engages in rank double standards against Jews by singling out for scrutiny, among all the nations of the world, their interrelated claims to their ancestral homeland and national unity.
Just imagine the uproar if whites on university campuses told Afro-Caribbean students that they were not really black and could not share the banner with black students from other parts of the world. The victims of such harassment would quickly and rightly have administrators in their corner. The school could lose its federal funding for allowing an out-group to tell an in-group who they are and who they are not, and which national bonds emerging from the mists of time are sufficient to confer unity. Yet that is what happens every time activists deploy the indigeneity canard to demonize Zionism as a colonialist project.
And this is how progressives tantalized by the success of the postcolonialist anti-racist movement in the United States have badly overplayed their hand. They have run headlong into the Civil Rights Act. Lawyers up to the task of defending Israel and American Jews can and should sue institutions that fail to protect Jews. The lawyers must identify and explain the horrific and patently anti-Semitic implications of calling Ashkenazi Jews “white”—not because there is anything wrong with being white, but because it is maliciously inaccurate—and calling Israel a colonialist state.
When campus activists call Israel “colonialist” or Israelis “white Europeans,” they trace Jewish history back only to Europe. But history is more than a millennium old, and Jews can trace their heritage back much further, all the way to Jerusalem and Beersheba and Yavneh, well before the Romans first renamed Judea “Palestine” to sever the Jewish connection to the land. Referring to Arabs as “indigenous” or “native” similarly rewrites history and the Jewish tradition by erasing the Jewish national and religious connection to the Land of Israel—possibly the most foundational element of Jewishness no matter how abstractly defined.
As elite institutions adopt the trendiest, crassest anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the Jewish legal defense creates itself. Indigeneity may be a silly value to champion, but if that is the framework that progressives insist on, it will collapse under the weight of its own bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Postcolonial anti-Semitism will fall apart as soon as Israel’s defenders expose its delegitimization, double standards, and demonization for what they are: the oldest form of hatred, going by its latest name.
Photo: Gunnar Klack
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