You are not required to complete the work, yet you are not allowed to desist from it.
—Pirkei Avot (The Book of Principles), 2:21
Such describes the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. Perfecting, preparing or repairing the world: a credo that, to many Jews, prescribes what role they should play in the wider concerns of our society. Judging by the opposition to this past weekend’s Palestine Solidarity Movement conference, however, I cannot help but conclude that the powerful Jewish establishment has distorted the meaning of this age-old teaching.
It is well known that Jews constitute the most privileged “minority” group in this country. Among the top 10 universities, Jews enjoy shocking overrepresentation: Only the California Institute of Technology has an undergraduate Jewish population below 10 percent, and four schools have particularly stark Jewish advantages—Harvard (30 percent), Yale (23 percent), UPenn (31 percent) and Columbia (25 percent). Keep in mind that, at best estimate, no more than 3 percent of all Americans are Jewish.
In his slim volume The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), Jewish-American historian Norman Finkelstein argues that American interest in Judaism is “a tribute not to Jewish suffering but to Jewish aggrandizement.” The holocaust label, he says, arose from the real suffering of European Jews during the 1930s and 1940s, in turn giving rise to the Holocaust ideology, distinguished in its capitalization. He documents economic exploitation by this “Holocaust Industry,” which he calls an “outright extortion racket.”
Regardless of your political stance or position on the PSM conference, it is impossible to ignore the unprecedented outpouring of pro-Jewish, pro-Israeli support in defiance of free speech at Duke. Jewish alumni, faculty and staff have gone out of their way to lobby Duke to reject the PSM conference, mustering 92,000 signatures for their online petition and denouncing professors who have spoken out in support of free speech, as Duke’s chair of political science Michael Munger can attest.
Supposedly apolitical in nature, the Students Against Terror concert, headlined by Sister Hazel, kicked off this weekend’s festivities. The Chronicle reported, “The Freeman Center for Jewish Life funded 90 percent of the $80,000 event through the private donations from parents and alumni.” The Joint Israel Initiative, a coalition of campus Jewish and pro-Israeli groups, coordinated a series of events in opposition to the PSM, at a price tag of $25,000, more than two-and-a-half times what was spent on the conference itself. Four pro-Jewish, full-page advertisements appeared in the Friday, Oct. 15, edition of The Chronicle, with two directly condemning the PSM. We are dealing with a very well-funded and well-organized establishment, indeed.
Granted, I tend to err on the side of complete academic freedom; I would probably let the Ku Klux Klan hold a conference on campus, as long as it could be couched within the framework of serious discussion. But what Jewish suffering—along with exorbitant Jewish privilege in the United States—amounts to is a stilted, one-dimensional conversation where Jews feel the overwhelming sense of entitlement not to be criticized or offended. If the Duke administration had buckled under the influential weight of the Jewish establishment by not allowing the PSM conference, we would be suffering from the Orwellian notion of consciousness, where the only ideas that matter are the ones espoused by the powerful.
While Jews undoubtedly lay claim to a long history of racism and genocide that continues across the world today, this characterization does not transport perfectly to the United States. After World War II, overt anti-Semitism gradually subsided, in part because of American response to Hitler’s murderous regime, but largely due to Jewish association with whiteness and the privileges white skin affords. In short, Jews can renounce their difference by taking off the yarmulke. Clearly, this is not a luxury enjoyed by all minority groups.
When former President Bill Clinton nominated his first two judges to the Supreme Court, both were Jews. Remarkable in the slightest? No, of course not. But the American public still can’t get over Clarence Thomas’s cultural heritage, after being appointed by Bush 41. To be Jewish is to have the right to move seamlessly between the majority and minority, without constraint. Thus, Jewish-American appropriation of the “oppressed” moniker is disingenuous, belying the reality of America’s social hierarchy.
What’s worst is that the “Holocaust Industry” uses its influence to stifle, not enhance, the Israeli-Palestinian debate, simultaneously belittling the real struggles for socioeconomic and political equality faced, most notably, by black Americans. As the world-renowned historian John Hope Franklin mentions, the U.S. decision to authorize federal funding of a holocaust memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—hallowed ground otherwise reserved for commemorating U.S. history—camouflages this nation’s guilt in our own crimes against humanity: the Native American genocide and slavery.
I do not ignore historic Jewish oppression or discredit the stark realities of the holocaust. Nor do I discount anti-Semitic sentiments that still persist in America. With the burden of Tikkun Olam, Jews were even some of the most vocal abolitionists and supporters of the civil rights movement. However, to preserve our democracy and honestly confront inequality where it persists, Jews must own up to their privilege in America, and use it more wisely.
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Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.