Flagship Biblical Studies Group Faces Bitter Divide Over Statements on Israel/Palestine

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In a time of terrible grief and anger, does the study of ancient Israel require a particular political stance on modern Israel?

Freedom of speech and inquiry, one of the bright lines dividing democracies from dictatorships, has been of such concern in recent years that it’s driven an outpouring of support from intellectuals (including eminent Jewish ones) who wrote in a 2020 open letter that “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” Pointing to this principle, many Jewish scholars have opposed academic boycotts, such as those the pro-Palestine BDS movement urges, of Israeli institutions.

But recent events in Israel and Palestine may have broken open this united front for free speech. Across the nation, everyone from donors and trustees to teachers and students have urged schools to take a stand for either Israel or Palestine, while “free-speech advocates [claim] administrators should not say anything at all, as part of their responsibility to protect everyone’s First Amendment rights.” And now academic biblical studies—which claims the mantle of an apolitical, nontheological “big tent”—is feeling this tension as prominent members urge its flagship institution, the Society of Biblical Literature, to stand with Israel and carefully limit its expressions of sympathy for Palestinian suffering. 

It began about a week after the October 7 massacre, when the Society of Biblical Literature, after urging from a group organized by (among others) Duke professor Marc Brettler and Bar-Ilan professor Nili Samet, issued a statement vigorously condemning the attacks and labeling Hamas as terrorists whose atrocities are “opposed to the values we espouse as human beings and as a professional society.” But the statement didn’t mention Palestinians, an omission that troubled other members. Four days later, it issued a second statement condemning the “loss of innocent life, and deprivation of basic shelter, safety…and other life essentials currently experienced by innocent victims in Gaza.” 

This is where the trouble started. An Israel-based organization called the Anti-Terror Group denounced the SBL’s “despicable equation between the deliberate actions and consequences of Hamas terrorists, and the responses of the State of Israel,” declaring that “the distinction between good and evil is straightforward and must be acknowledged clearly in the strongest terms possible,” and demanding for “the leadership of the SBL to stand by our side—unequivocally.” A few days later, a second cohort wrote an even more intense letter declaring its signers were resigning from or suspending their relationship with the SBL which had “actively engaged in outrageous false equations.”

What happens when prominent scholars draw a line between “civilization” and “barbarism”—and cast a field’s main scholarly society, including most of their colleagues—as part of the barbarians? Further inflaming the issue, this group was multiplied into a crowd in a front page story in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, which declared erroneously that around 400 scholars had already resigned (at the time the article was published only around 30 scholars, and not all actual SBL members, had said they were resigning). In the article, the eminent Talmudist Vered Noam, winner of the Israel Prize, described other SBL members as standing for “barbarism,” while on Facebook a German professor described SBL as disqualified “for civilized human beings in general and Biblical scholars in particular” and proposed the development of an entirely new society for Bible scholars. 

What are the consequences when people at the top of the field suggest no civilized human being could remain in your society—one that remains the major clearinghouse for jobs and scholarly presentations in the field? Could the language of moral clarity and sweeping condemnation and the influence they hold affect fellow members? I asked early career scholars—who are generally reluctant to share political views publicly—as well as prominent senior colleagues if such language might intimidate colleagues into not expressing their own views. 

Every early career scholar I spoke to, including many Jewish ones, feared the consequences of speaking out. One who asked to be quoted anonymously wrote: 

“Of course people would feel intimidated … Language performs things, right? The use of the rhetoric of ‘barbarism’ is performative because it intimidates others, it silences those who dare to think differently. This kind of discourse will literally place people who have different opinions into the same box as those barbarians.” 

Nonwhite scholars also found the asymmetry between the letter’s signers, who were almost entirely White, and the SBL leadership, which includes the president and executive director, both of whom are Black, sent a disturbing message. Sid Sudiacal, a recent PhD in Theology, said that “It has a very chilling effect” given that scholars who are “people of the Global Majority have had to learn very quickly how to make sure we don’t lose our jobs and [that we’re prepared to] play the game if we need to survive.” 

Other early career scholars were also surprised at the binary language: 

“But frankly, that any of them would sign a letter using language like ‘pure evil’ and ‘without recourse to historical complexities’ and present such a blatant mis/over-reading of the SBL statement they’re referring to floors me. When George W. Bush used this kind of language, my impression…was that academics nearly universally laughed at him, and yet this letter is signed by a virtual majority of Hebrew Bible’s senior scholars.” 

One scholar’s main advisor “is sharing stuff that would make any of their students who even silently disagree… terrified of being cut off [from the kinds of support that can make or break a career].” 

Andrew Tobolowsky, a tenured professor who studies ancient Israelite and Jewish identity, said:

“what stood out to me about the rash of statements is that they weren’t asking for things compatible with free speech and rational inquiry. When the objections—[using a] language of pure good and evil, civilized and barbarian—piled up to the SBL offering an extremely tepid expression of concern for the loss of innocent lives, it sent a clear message that the expectation of some in the guild was that every other person in it would be 100% on board with anything Israel was doing or might do.

And in fact I would advise students that this makes it clear that there are serious potential career consequences for speaking up. Anything else would feel dishonest. But those of us who can worry less about that have to try to be visible to make sure [students] know that there are also plenty of people who don’t agree that that level of uncritical support is an actual prerequisite for belonging.”

By contrast, few of the senior scholars I asked expressed concern about the consequences of openly sharing their political views—with an interesting exception. The senior Israeli scholars said that, in this case, they cared less or not at all about freedom of speech. Former SBL President Athalya Brenner wrote that: 

“At this time I’m less concerned than usual about freedom of expression, future job prospects of younger colleagues, and so on..[F]reedom of verbal expression does not and should not extend to hate speech and violence. Out of self defense, this is not the company i want to keep.” 

Noam, the aforementioned Talmudist, was harsher, drawing a parallel between SBL members and deadly terror groups: “what concerns you is that those people will be ‘intimidated’? Are you also concerned lest ISIS supporters be intimidated?” These responses fit the mood in Israel, where it is illegal to protest the war and people have been jailed for anti-war social media comments. And Brettler, an American scholar, disagreed with the question itself: 

“Should I curb my own opinions—about the Bible or about politics—due to fear that these may prevent others from speaking up? In other words, should I voluntarily take away from myself the right to speak freely on issues that I feel strongly about? Are only younger people welcome to speak up?”

On the other hand William Schniedewind, a professor of Hebrew Bible at UCLA, expressed a sense of nuance and conflict: “I agree that there is a lot of pressure to sign letters, which can be especially difficult for junior scholars….But I’m not a Middle East expert, and I don’t pretend to have the answers.”

When it comes to Israel, scholarly stances in Biblical Studies have long been political, often aggressively so, according to Rachel Havrelock, author of The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible. Only now that it threatens a more powerful political side, she argues, is it being condemned as such: 

“With the location of so many excavations in the Palestinian West Bank… scholars often claimed not to have a particular political stake on territory but only to pursue what they could learn about the ancient past. [Even a]s funding for excavations like the City of David [which is displacing Palestinians], came from politically invested groups,” the claim ran something like, ‘I don’t need to agree with the aims of my funders. As long as they don’t interfere with the research, this is apolitical scholarship.’” 

Or, as eminent archaeologist Israel Finkelstein told the New Yorker in 2020: “O.K., they have their agenda, but they don’t interfere in the research.”

What would be the cost to intellectual life if this rift resulted in an academic boycott of SBL and the creation of a new rival organization? Consulting with Middle East scholars suggests one possibility: perhaps, not much. One thing about eminent, vocal, well published scholars is that most people already know what they think. Recent divisions in Middle Eastern Studies provide an example of what such a fallout would look like.

Founded less than 20 years ago to counter what they saw as anti-Israel scholarship in the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA), Bernard Lewis’ ASMEA has emerged as a much smaller and narrower conference, but one well-funded by right-wing think tanks. It was only in response to a more explicitly political act—MESA’s formal endorsement of the movement to boycott Israel—that the more ideologically diverse Association for Israel Studies voted to disaffiliate from MESA, raising the question of whether “the study of Israel require[s] fidelity to the politics of the Jewish state.”

There is still hope for reconciliation in some quarters. Two longtime SBL members, Greg Carey and Bernadette Brooten, have suggested a way members could just talk with each other in good faith, in person, with the help of a mediator. Carey said “I had received emails from two early career colleagues who observed online intimidation” but understands where the complainants are coming from as well. “We wanted to create a space where we could hear one another that wasn’t social media, that recognized we’re not adversaries.” It hasn’t happened yet, but a promising sign is that their proposal was supported by a range of members—including some who’d signed both letters of protest against the SBL.

However, if the divide continues, the larger cost may ironically be paid by the anti-SBL scholars’ own students, some of whom have already shared their fear of expressing their own political and moral views. But there’s a difference with Middle Eastern Studies, which split over a subject in which the different sides could at least claim professional competence. In the Biblical Studies case, on the other hand, the topic on which they claim to stake the future of the field is not one in which most of the scholars were hired to teach or research—and not one in which their opinions, however heartfelt, necessarily carry scholarly weight. 

And then there’s the question of how this dispute looks to outside observers. What Hamas did to hundreds of Israeli civilians on October 7 was sickening and immoral. But over 200 people are still captive, and for weeks the world has now watched Israel continue to bombard Gaza, killing over 12,000 Palestinians (mostly women and children) as children plead for their lives. A new scholarly society based apparently on the demand to not only condemn Hamas but also to keep quiet about state violence of this magnitude may be remembered differently from the way its founders intended.