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What Happened to Jewish Studies?
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“We thought that academia was a place where these kinds of conversations could happen, and then it turns out that they can’t.”
The sun was shining on May 14, 2014. Under a tent overlooking the Duwamish Waterway, cocktail-attired supporters of the University of Washington’s Stroum Center for Jewish Studies celebrated the 40th anniversary of the department with dinner and drinks, an exhibit of recently unearthed Sephardic artifacts, live music, and a keynote address from the first UW Jewish studies professor, the inimitable Deborah Lipstadt. Here at Harley Marine, the boat shipping company owned by benefactor Harley Franco, members of Seattle’s Jewish community mingled with the faculty and staff. When it came time for the ask, checkbooks flew open. As the sun set, $200,000 flowed into the department for student engagement, public scholarship, and digital media.
Jamie Merriman-Cohen, who chaired the event and donated with her husband Jeff in honor of her parents, longtime Stroum Center supporters Sonny and Gena Gorasht, remembers this as one of several events in the early 2010s that showed the promise of the department. Noam Pianko, director of the program since 2011, blazed forth with an innovative vision — not of a stuffy, ivy-covered Jewish studies department, but of a place where stimulating conversations could take place across the community. His programs, like live “JewDub Talks,” modeled after TED Talks, and living room conversations about Jewish ideas with public intellectuals, like Jonathan Sarna and Ruth Messinger, drew crowds.
“He wanted to re-imagine the reach of Jewish studies,” Merriman-Cohen says. “We’re going to have a younger group of people who are really intellectually engaged…It was creating these spaces for thought leadership through Jewish studies and saying, we can use this program to benefit the community and convene the community and have really exciting and enlivening, difficult, stimulating, connecting conversations. Instead of dividing, we can connect through these experiences of having these conversations.”
But over the course of the next few years, that energy waned, with community support for the program faltering until a breaking point in 2021 that led to donors pulling their support and, in early 2022, the university’s unprecedented return of a $5 million endowment.
The best place to start this story is toward the end, with the infamous letter.
During the conflict between Hamas and Israel in May of 2021, Jewish studies professors from around the country signed a “statement on Israel/Palestine” that expressed solidarity with Gaza, referred to Israel in terms of settler-colonialism and Jewish supremacy, and ultimately offered support to colleagues who choose to boycott Israel. Among the signatories were UW Jewish studies professors Devin Naar, the chair of the Sephardic Studies Program; Noga Rotem, professor of political science; Liora Halperin, the chair of the new Israel studies program; and Sasha Senderovich, professor of Jewish studies and Slavic language and literatures and Halperin’s husband.
In a world of academic freedom, professors have the right to sign any letter they want, which is why the university didn’t take any punitive action against the department — and rightly so, unless one considers the position of the letter to truly endanger Jews, in the way that signing a letter endorsing Klan ideology might cause direct harm. That, however, is exactly what many people who read the letter saw.
This caused a level-5 meltdown among many local supporters of the Jewish studies program, particularly the observant and older Sephardic community, which enjoys a sort of symbiotic relationship with the Sephardic Studies Program. When Devin Naar arrived in Seattle to teach modern European Jewish history, he embedded himself in the Sephardic Bikur Holim and Ezra Bessaroth synagogues as part of his creation of the Sephardic Studies Program. Under his leadership, troves of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) manuscripts, letters, and artifacts emerged from local attics and basements, literal treasures that he gave meaning and purpose to. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he in some ways saved the local Ladino world from extinction.
Naar not only signed the letter, but encouraged his colleagues to sign it, too, via his personal Facebook page. Like a drop of blood in water, anger bloomed among donors and supporters of the program who were outraged over what they saw as a beloved professor inviting colleagues to support Gaza — whose resident terrorists were lobbing thousands of rockets at Israeli citizens — through the language of settler-colonialism and Jewish supremacy and ostensibly in support of the BDS movement, at a time when Jews were experiencing physical and online hostility. Several regular supporters pulled their donations or announced that they were reconsidering.
“What was interesting is that Devin was like a god,” says Sonny Gorasht, Merriman-Cohen’s father who had been involved with the program for decades, including as chair of the Jewish studies advisory board, a group of community members acting as a liaison between the university and the community. “I don’t think you can call Devin anti-Israel. But academically, he’s certainly a critic of Israel; he uses academic terminology to discredit Israel. We didn’t know any of that until that letter came out.”
(Naar, as well as Pianko and Halperin, did not respond to requests for comment; multiple people affiliated with Jewish studies declined to comment for this story or didn’t respond, and others still spoke only on background. And disclosure: my husband used to work for the Sephardic Studies Program.)
While it may not be far-fetched for someone in the academy to take a negative view of Israel, for Naar to publicly take this position felt like a betrayal. It’s also why so much of the controversy swirled around him, including protracted, bitter discussions among members of Ezra Bessaroth around whether to ever have him lead a program at the synagogue again.
“Why Devin? That’s the whole sad controversy with the Sephardic community,” says Regina Sassoon Friedland, regional director of AJC and a newer member of the Jewish studies advisory board. “It’s a painful topic, with many having very close relationships with him, including an emotional connection through his area of expertise. He’s a member of that community, and they are going to be protective.”
Naar, while apologetic, never agreed to take his name off the letter or disassociate from the letter, even though some people involved in the discussions explained that he did not agree with everything in it. Many community members have expressed frustration at this: one cannot apologize without action.
“From those I’ve heard from, there appear to be three distinct viewpoints,” says Friedland. “The smallest is, ‘we support Devin no matter what, and the topic needs to be dropped.’ The biggest viewpoint heard is, ‘he made a mistake and let’s never talk about it again.’ Then there are those that felt he is welcome to be included as a valued member of the community but not in a professional capacity.”
Had Naar not signed the letter, would it have come and gone without such intense scrutiny, possibly even without most of the Seattle community knowing it existed?
Maybe, maybe not. Also on the list of signatories was Liora Halperin, the Benaroya Chair in Israel Studies, who was and still is virtually unknown to the community. The Israel studies position was created in 2017 with the intention of providing a less biased stance on Israel in response to the raft of professors and speakers on the lecture circuit who challenge the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.
“There came a time when the university was inviting rabid anti-Israel, BDS, rabid anti-Semitic people to come speak. The community was up in arms about it. They looked to the Jewish studies program to stop that,” says Gorasht. “Of course, it’s a place where people have a right to speak, so we had a sense that sure, academic freedom, people have a right to speak, but you can’t present one side of the story. Things were in a state of unbalance.”
A $5 million endowment was secured from Becky Benaroya, who with her late husband Jack donated millions to institutions like the Seattle Symphony and the Tacoma Art Museum. The endowment included the chair, an assistant, and research funds, with the intention of putting forth scholarship on the history and contributions of the modern State of Israel. (By comparison, the endowment funding the Sephardic Studies Program is worth about $1 million.)
Merriman-Cohen was chair of the advisory board at this time, and she was troubled by the hiring process. She felt that it was rushed and that the department only put forth Halperin and two other less qualified candidates. In her retelling, she called a meeting with advisory board members and Pianko to discuss her concerns with hiring Halperin. To her surprise, Pianko brought Naar to the meeting. Despite a tense relationship between the two academic powerhouses, Pianko and Naar were aligned on their support of Halperin. Pianko, she says, explained that Naar would help them see how great Halperin would be for the department. It worked.
“[Naar] was saying to us, [Halperin] has the ability to bring [people] together, like in symposiums and in conversations, and manage those conversations really well. And she also brings in the Mizrachi experience, she brings in the Sephardic experience,” Merriman-Cohen says. “The way he kind of spun it is, oh, this could really enhance Jewish studies, this could really knit together all of these kind of disparate ideas and different programs. So, after that, the group was like, okay, well, I mean, if Devin thinks she — oh my God, I just want to cry thinking about that — but you know, well, Devin likes her, Devin wants her.”
Merriman-Cohen then wrote a letter recommending the hiring of Halperin, a decision she regrets and feels she was pressured into, but that she takes responsibility for. (Another board member who prefers to remain nameless says that the advisory committee doesn’t have any influence on hiring, but that they were invited to give feedback on the candidates, and that the ultimate hiring decision was up to the department chair. The UW director of media relations later clarified that hiring decisions are made “by a vote of the faculty based on a report by the hiring committee.”)
For Merriman-Cohen, her uneasiness was confirmed after Halperin started the job. “From day one, we had sort of a plan for how to introduce her to the community,” she says, imagining that Halperin would be a resource to the greater community in the way that Naar was. “Anywhere where there could be a gate, she put down the gate… Honestly, after she started, it felt like it moved from a feeling of bringing goodwill to ‘how can the damage get managed?’”
Supporters of the program were caught off guard by oddities from the beginning, too, like the listing of Israel studies courses as Israel/Palestine. “I was absolutely irate when I got a newsletter from the Stroum Center on a class that Liora is offering on Israel/Palestine,” Gorasht says. “Noam’s whole introduction [in the newsletter] was about finding the truth. Then I opened it to page three and I see what Liora’s doing. I called Noam, and I said I’ve never heard of Israel referred to as Israel-slash-Palestine. What the hell are you talking about, having truth in education?”
Another thing that caught people’s attention was reporting from the November 2017 Middle East Studies Association Conference that describes a panel discussion Halperin participated in called “Navigating Jewish Campus and Community Debates on Israel/Palestine in the Age of Trump,” in which Jewish scholars lamented Israel studies as “fronts for pro-Israel advocacy” despite receiving funds from pro-Israel donors. By the time Halperin was hired, it would have been hard to miss her angle. But that angle is not unique; it’s very much a present and future reality of Jewish studies scholarship on Israel.
For an older guard, “Israel studies” may obviously imply something positive; for younger and more liberal academics, “Israel studies” may be indistinguishable from Palestine studies and postcolonial theory — and any other framing is just hasbara pushed by wealthy donors who want to control the narrative.
Settler-colonial theory is quite new, with scholarship picking up steam only in the past 20 years. According to Oxford Bibliographies, “Settler colonialism is an ongoing system of power that perpetuates the genocide and repression of indigenous peoples and cultures. Essentially hegemonic in scope, settler colonialism normalizes the continuous settler occupation, exploiting lands and resources to which indigenous peoples have genealogical relationships. Settler colonialism includes interlocking forms of oppression, including racism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. This is because settler colonizers are Eurocentric and assume that European values with respect to ethnic, and therefore moral, superiority are inevitable and natural.”
Associating Israel with colonialism feeds into tropes of nefarious Jewish plans for world domination. It also ignores both the destruction attempted and wrought by Arab communities on Jews in Israel and in the countries where they used to reside as well as the history of Jewish marginalization. This is central to the outrage expressed by those offended by the Statement on Israel/Palestine. But the use of settler colonialism appears to be a primary tool for understanding the modern State of Israel in the academy, and the academy is where truth is made.
That the Jewish studies letter on Israel/Palestine plainly states, “we stand with our Israeli, Palestinian, American (including American Jewish), European (including European Jewish), and other international colleagues who are working towards a process of structural change that would bring equality and justice in Israel/Palestine, a systemically unequal space that, nonetheless and inescapably, has a common history and future,” before diving into Zionism being shaped by ethnonational and settler-colonial paradigms and racialized identities, indicates an acceptance of new terms that completely blindsided the more traditional Jewish community.
“I think what happened with the statement…is that it was really kind of the first time that it was non-defensively stated, it was clearly stated what the intention is,” says Merriman-Cohen. “This was the first, put-in-writing, signed in black and white, ‘here’s the direction that we’re going.’”
Merriman-Cohen swallowed her concerns about the nascent Israel studies program, but when the letter came out in the rawness of the conflict, she wrote to the university asking President Ana Mari Cauce to reconsider the appointment of Halperin as the Israel studies chair and Pianko as the director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, citing the misalignment of Halperin with the intentions of Benaroya, the nature of the hiring process, and the shutting out of the community and advisory board from decision making around the program, which was outlined in the MOU sent to Halperin.
While the Sephardic community was busy flogging Naar, Halperin was apparently in talks with the university and Benaroya about her academic proclivities. (Merriman-Cohen has not been on the advisory board or involved with the program for the past few years and claims to have had nothing to do with these talks.) This resulted in a rare occurrence that may have devastating effects on the program: the return of an endowment to a donor.
According to UW’s senior director of media relations, “Informed through her research area of expertise, the faculty member supported by the endowment expressed views that were not shared by Mrs. Benaroya. Our mission as a university demands that our scholars have the freedom to pursue their scholarship where it leads them. After several months of good faith conversations between the faculty member, UW leadership and the donor, Mrs. Benaroya requested that her gift be returned and we agreed this was the best path forward.”
Benaroya is reportedly gifting the funds to Israel advocacy campus organization StandWithUs.
How could this have happened?
There are many reasons, not all known, but one important takeaway is the deterioration of the community-university relationship.
Gorasht feels like the advisory board — which came out of community support when Jewish studies was in its infancy and has led significant fundraising efforts over the years — was sidelined when Pianko took over around 2011. “Noam probably has a ‘kish mir in tuches’ attitude,” he says. “I don’t think he seems to appreciate what was done for the program by the community.”
But what about Pianko’s electric vision for Jewish studies? That was all during an “Obama zeitgeist,” as Merriman-Cohen puts it. Seattle was growing, things were happening. Hope was the word. But then the Sephardic Studies Program started eclipsing the rest of Jewish studies in popularity and program attendance, then Halperin was hired, then Trump, then Charlottesville, then Pittsburgh. At a 2018 event called “Responding to Pittsburgh,” Sasha Senderovich sparked anger with a presentation on controversial cartoonist Eli Valley and the suggestion that Israel is responsible for trafficking right-wing anti-Semitism, which prompted some audience members to walk out. Coming out of the Trump years, with the resurgence of concern over white supremacy and right-wing extremism, alert Jews noticed a twin danger crawling out of the shadows: obliviousness and silence to anti-Judaism when it came disguised as justice and democracy from the left, especially within the academy. And then came Gaza, the defining split, the one that left people musing, “something feels different.” In the crucible of May 2021, the realization emerged that a swath of the institution-supporting Jewish community and a swath of Jewish studies academics are on different boats, and they both left the harbor a while ago.
This maybe shouldn’t have come as such a surprise: as early as 2016 the Jewish studies program was hosting speakers like Sayed Kashua and Gershon Shafir, who are viewed as controversial. Likewise, the program probably should have anticipated that funders might lose their patience.
It’s unclear how Jewish studies will move forward, especially now that it’s working without $5 million, which will inevitably have an impact on staffing and programs, possibly including the role of post-doctoral Israel studies fellow Smadar Ben-Natan, who also signed the Israel/Palestine letter.
Friedland, for one, would like to see the department embrace more intentional discourse. She would like to see starkly contrasting viewpoints, where a spectrum of ideas can be heard. “I would like it to be evident that true discourse is welcome in the department and community trust be rebuilt,” she says.
Merriman-Cohen feels sad and scared for the future. “We thought that academia was a place where these kinds of conversations could happen, and then it turns out that they can’t,” she says. “How are we ever really going to have these conversations?”
This story was updated on 2/20 and on 2/22.
Correction: Mika Ahuvia was mistakenly listed as a signatory of the Israel/Palestine letter. She did not sign it. Sincerest apologies for the oversight.
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