Decolonizing Jewish Studies Part II: A Response to the Backlash

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Recently, we identified Jewish Studies scholarship that is sexist, racist, and cisheteronormative, arguing that neoliberal ideologies and metrics reinforce and promote such research. We invited collective reimagining of a more just and creative field. Thus, we’re bemused by a letter written shortly thereafter by former presidents of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS)—the field’s scholarly organization in the US—decrying the president’s resignation (after meeting with a sexual harasser the organization expelled). The letter alleged a threat to “academic freedom” and “diversity of viewpoints.” What a display of desperation by (white, Ashkenazi, Jewish) senior scholars.

We’re not here to amplify the letter-writers, nor to platform their rightwing tropes purporting a crisis of “academic freedom.” Rather, we register the positive changes to which they disgruntledly react. And we situate these developments along three vectors: decolonizing Jewish Studies, disrupting entrenched disciplinary policing, and disburdening from neoliberalism.

Jewish Studies must confront its sexism and cisheteronormativity. Previously, we disclosed personal experiences of sexual and gender harassment within Jewish Studies. We’re struck that no responses to our intervention noted these disclosures. More must be done to make our field safer, more accessible, and supportive to non-cismen.

Classics and early Christianity are also confronting racism, classism, and transphobia. As ever, webs of injustice are woven of overlapping threads (“intersectionality”). By not naming these phenomena, we deny their reality: the limits of language are the limits of our world. Critics denouncing terminology as “jargon” aren’t just lazily dismissing positions they find threatening or conceding their inability to proffer critique: they’re refusing to accept these realities as such. For those wishing to comprehend words like “patriarchal,” “heternormative,” and “neoliberalism,” consult this resource.

Cisheteronormativity signifies fixed preferences for heterosexuality with attendant norms about sexuality and gender roles (including reproduction and kinship) and cisgenderness (assumptions about binary sexgender based on biological sex). One way to discard casual cisheternormativity is to say “women and nonbinary people” rather than “females” (a bio-classification, not an identity). Similarly, gender and sexual harassment must be linked; the former is a vital element of the latter. Solidarity and  intersectional thinking is critical, given violence towards trans people. Certain academics—many of whom are self-identified “feminists”—embrace biologically-reductive conceptions of gender to authorize their transphobia.

Refusing a priori conceptions of gender, kinship, and sexuality makes us keener scholars. Scholars and scholarship, activism and language, collaboration and justice are intertwined. Centering marginalized people, rather than “including” them, enables structural change.

Following scholars across the Humanities and Social Sciences, we advocate decolonizing Jewish Studies. Decolonization confronts systemic racism and historical colonialism. We tread carefully here. It’s problematic to use decolonization as a metaphor, considering its origin in Indigeneous thought and activism redressing settler-colonialism and land-theft. Being white, we use this term with reservation, appreciating its ladenness, while acknowledging that it signifies phenomena otherwise difficult to discern. We solicit criticism of our (mis)use of it and invite alternatives.

Anti-racism in Jewish Studies minimally entails making it more accessible to non-white scholars and students and to the study of non-white lifeworlds. This isn’t just about “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) or questioning the ways that “merit” obscures structural inequities. Confronting racism encompasses probing how our conceptual paradigms reproduce racializations and racisms. DEI often perpetuates extractive models of labor in which people of color are just added (exacerbating their disproportionate labor-burdens). This is familiar from diversity efforts addressing gender. The “neutrality” of DEI and its economistic justifications for increased productivity rather than flourishing, equality rather than justice, encapsulate its limitations.

Previously, we scrutinized how Jewish continuity discourse reinforces racism or reproduces racialized thinking; we invite collective attention to interrogate this across Jewish Studies. Take “Jewishness,” a basic analytic category in our field. Its complexities abide from antiquity to the present. “Jewishness” has at different moments and places been entwined with racializations and even racisms. This is not news; scholars have been addressing this for decades; these complexities are staples in introductory Jewish Studies courses. For example: early iterations of Zionism, Rosenzweig’s theory of Judaism as a “blood community,” and post-Holocaust Jewishness are racially-valent. These emerged amidst the ascendence of eugenics and scientific-racisms, which also informed Nazi ideology. The marginalized contexts in which historical conceptions of Jewishness materialized, substantiates rather than negates analysis.

Conversely, we must guard against replicating or projecting modern-contemporary racializations onto sources unable to sustain them. For instance, using terminology traceable to scientific racisms to characterize ancient rabbinic ideas of “intermarriage” in contemporary accounts of a supposed early rabbinic principle of “matrilineal descent” is anachronistic. This says more about present conditions and racializations than about second-century Palestinian rabbis. Sometimes, this is less straightforward. The Zohar evinces Jewishness ethnocentrically, which informs subsequent Kabbalah and Hasidic thought. Medieval responsa, poetry, and liturgy, variously construe Jewishness in exclusionary and essentializing terms. How might we continue interrogating these sources without succumbing to our standpoints?

We invite scholars to turn their critical gazes onto our field. It’s imperative to continue locating and disassembling the colonialism and imperialism that our field, like all others, has absorbed. Jewish Studies is well-positioned to engage this task precisely because of the variegated cultures it studies and because of the field’s history.

Decolonizing Jewish Studies is a multidirectional enterprise. On the one hand, Jewish pasts and presents have been explicitly (mis)appropriated under various imperial and religious-supremacist ideologies. Think of Augustine summoning the Jew to witness and testify to Christian hegemony, or of conservatives deploying the recently invented construct of the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” (which is positioned against Islam and other religions and sustains Christian supersessionism of the Jewish). This Christian hegemony underwrites “Western” thought. Consider this subtler instance: Hegel’s relegation of Spinoza’s philosophy to the “Oriental,” which still colors the Jewish and non-Jewish philosophical reception of Spinoza. Marginalizing Spinoza’s philosophy as other positions Hegel to absorb its insights and then supersede it.

On the other hand, the introduction of Jewish Studies as a “science”—“Wissenschaft”—into the European university, its legibility as an academic discipline in which Jews themselves had agency, was fostered by these constraints. In this “Western” context, scholars of a historically marginalized Jewish culture tried to claim space. “Western” is suspect and political. It falsely erases the non-“Westernness” of Jewish cultures produced outside of the boundaries conventionally tagged “Western.” Jewish Studies must confront the vestiges of its European founding and its concomitant privileging of the Ashkenazi, European, and white. These prejudices still impact research priorities, curricular expectations, and documentary access. Scholars of Jewish cultures in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, continue to redress these lacunae.

Racism, cisheteronormativity, ableism, and classism pervade all academic disciplines. Particular to Jewish Studies is its conferral of authority on people it qualifies as “Jewish.” We’ve benefited from this privilege and also from being Ashkenazi. We worry that an imagined continuity between contemporary “Jewish” scholars and the Jewish cultures studied in our field, erects a hierarchy, privileging scholars who satisfy this credential. This tension is amplified when what’s being studied is temporally and geographically proximate. It’s time to demystify the field and welcome a variety of students and scholars, crediting heterogenous knowledges and experiences as entry-points.

External funding is another way that “Jewishness” is presumed to be contiguous with Jewish Studies. Others note how this subsidizes research advancing ideological agendas, as with Jewish continuity and Israel/Palestine. We need to collectively reappraise the histories and presents of funding within universities and scholarly associations by examining the entanglements of Jewish Studies and Jewish institutions, including the founding of the AJS itself. This is related to the ways in which universities push scholarship to satisfy economistic and utilitarian metrics.

The latter observation points to the neoliberalization of higher education. Unsurprisingly, its particular brands of investments and commendation influence Jewish Studies. Pressure to produce work construed as “relevant” or “impactful” and that conforms to narrow empiricisms, often results in a bias for the contemporary or immediate past. We have no quarrel with American Jewish Studies or the study of contemporary Jews and Jewishness, in and of themselves. We commend shifts to heterogeneous subjects and methods, especially those informed by sociological theory and critical ethnography that critique inherited methods and introduce alternatives. 

Still, the overpromotion of the contemporary deleteriously affects adjacent subfields. Fetishizing the present is not unique to Jewish Studies: research in departments across the Humanities is disproportionately focused on the modern-contemporary and the “American.” Contra these currents, we refuse to cede or constrict “relevance” to presentist concerns.

Rigid construals of “relevance,” including the tokenization of the present, fail to encourage decolonization across periods and disciplines. Decolonizing is a matter of justice. It starts with correcting the historic marginalization of researchers and subjects that are not cisheteromale, able-bodied, and white. It must also dispense with fictions of “neutrality” or the “marketplace of ideas,” while unmasking allegiance to “standards,” “merit,” and “rigor” as ideology disguised as impartial metrics

Comparing collective action against a harasser to a tragic Cold War abuse of power is disingenuous. But the comparison discloses what’s at stake: a contrived Manichean battle between the forces of the Left and the Right.
Further, it involves thinking beyond the empiricisms and historicisms of neoliberal reasoning, overcoming its impatience with deep and patient thinking, close-reading, and complex theorizing. Such an approach emerges from and reaffirms thinking that transgresses disciplinary and temporal boundaries. Perhaps the constraints of academia have become such that it’s unconducive to radically experimental work.

Embracing collaborative and comparative research without heed to disciplinary and hierarchical borders licenses us to pursue work with sources, scholars, and methods typically viewed as “outside” of Jewish Studies. It’s time to cast-off ideological conceits of conceptual, disciplinary, and methodological “purity,” ciphers for what’s habitual and familiar. Thinking differently requires confidence and humility: it entails overcoming the aversion to the disorientation that accompanies theorizing that’s open to alterity, irresolution, and discordance.

Such disinhibition may fortify us to scrutinize uninterrogated categories and push beyond overdetermined, conventional paths of thinking, positioning us to provincialize (be attuned to the contingency of) rather than naturalize (unquestioningly reiterate) contemporary assumptions and ideas. Take, again, “Jewishness:” a transdisciplinary approach spurs granulated accounts questioning circular assumptions of Jewish exceptionalism. This thickens conceptions of the mutually constituting ways in which Jewishness and other dimensions emerge, thereby refusing binaries like influence versus resistance or simplistic causal models.

Disrupting disciplinary policing involves supporting research that’s informed by different theoretical and philosophical movements, including: Critical Race Theory, Trans Studies, Disability Studies, Queer and Gender Studies, and other critiques of power, class, and ideology. This allows us to reconfigure the frameworks of what we consider thinkable, the sources we privilege, and the methods we deploy.

Jewish Studies is already moving towards knowledge-making that’s more just. It’s thus jarring that a former AJS president describes the resistance to rehabilitating a sexual harasser as McCarthyism. McCarthy, wielding governmental and institutional power, accused academics of being communists and sympathizers. Comparing the women’s collective action against a harasser to this tragic Cold War abuse of power is disingenuous. But the comparison discloses what’s at stake: a contrived Manichean battle between the forces of the Left and the Right. The supposed Left, with its vilified wokeness, is imagined to be deploying its purportedly disproportionate power to suppress sexual harassers and their sympathizers. This perverse calculus is familiar from the Trump playbook.

Rather than a “marketplace of ideas,” we advocate interdisciplinary thinking that critiques power and ideology. We dismiss this harasser’s work because its content is wrong and harmful: it’s sexist, cisheteronormative, and racist. That this aligns with his patterns of harassment is hardly coincidental, as scholars note. But absent this, we’d discount the work on ethico-intellectual grounds alone. We invite opponents of the effort to confute his scholarship to defend it on its merits, rather than fear mongering about “academic freedom” to salvage his reputation and research (which is notorious for fear mongering about the Jewish “future”).

There’s a chasm between the openness we’re advocating to dismantle injustices in Jewish Studies and the conceit of a “marketplace of ideas.” The alarm in this bellicose letter is gratifying: it affirms that change is afoot. Jewish Studies, thanks to the courageous work of countless scholars, is shifting. It’s pivoting towards social and knowledge-making landscapes that are more accessible, heterogeneous, and just. To sustain this momentum, let us commit to decolonizing, resisting disciplinary insularity, and dispensing with neoliberalism.