The New McCarthyism

by Ellen Schrecker – 30 June 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education

It’s hard to tell whether to fear or mock the recent call of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for a revival of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, as it was commonly called. It’s unlikely that a new committee will storm through the nation’s campuses in quite the same way the original did. The end of the Cold War has obviously mitigated the fear of Communism that powered HUAC’s investigations. Still, the rhetoric of Gingrich and his fellow Islamophobes contains enough parallels to the witch hunts of the early Cold War to arouse concern about an intensification of similarly repressive activities. And this time around, the academy could well be the main victim.

Though he boasts a Ph.D. in the field, Gingrich has his history wrong. His brief remarks on Fox News, made in response to the shootings in Orlando, imply that HUAC flushed out Nazis and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed its work. That was not the case. Almost from its birth, in the late 1930s, the committee went after alleged Communists in the New Deal and the labor movement, not Nazis. FDR deplored HUAC’s activities but refused to spend his political capital in an open battle with the then-popular committee.

The advent of the Cold War empowered the witch hunters. Because of American Communists’ ideological connections to the Soviet regime, the committee and its allies could — and did — portray the small and always unpopular party as a danger to national security. Revolution was never on the table, but during World War II, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allied against Hitler, men and women within the party’s orbit had spied for the Kremlin. Still, once the war ended, whatever threat Communism posed to the United States had essentially been eradicated by the Truman administration’s internal purges — as even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover privately admitted.

But scaremongering has its rewards. By the late 1940s, hyping the Red menace allowed ambitious politicians and bureaucrats like Joe McCarthy, Hoover, and HUAC member Richard Nixon to advance their careers and ideological agendas. Their activities and those of their collaborators gave birth to a campaign of loyalty oaths, security programs, and investigations designed to expose and eject every organization, individual, and idea associated with Communism from every position of influence in American society.

Congressional hearings were central to that operation. As they scoured the nation in search of headlines, votes, and supposed subversives, committees like HUAC and its senatorial siblings did not call up people at random. They focused on those sectors of society where the Communist Party had been active — the academy among them. Before the witch hunts ended, the committees had grilled dozens of college professors about their past and present political activities and those of their friends and associates. Like the better-known witnesses within the entertainment industry and the federal government, most of the professors who refused to name names were, or had once been, Communists. But they had never abused their academic positions or engaged in illegal activities. Even so, the stigma of Communism was so toxic that more than 100 academics found themselves unemployed and blacklisted.

Linking the campaign against PC to the threat of terrorism could start a new academic witch hunt.

Today the threat is terrorism. It is no fantasy. But in our polarized society, it provides the same opportunity for some Republican politicians and right-wingers to push their own partisan schemes. There is, thus, the real possibility that in seeking to counter the genuine, if overblown, menace presented by potential terrorists’ ostensible links to ISIS or Al Qaeda, we might confront a new outbreak of McCarthy-style repression. Gingrich’s call for resuscitating HUAC exemplifies that danger.

Invoking national security to advance existing ideological agendas during a crisis, real or imagined, is a longtime American tradition. This is especially the case when the designated enemies, like the Communist Party, have foreign ties. Think of the Federalists at the end of the 18th century, whipping up fear of a conflict with France to crack down on immigrants and punish their political enemies by means of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Or the racist scaremongering in California in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor that sent more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Whether today’s mass murderers are trained killers under orders from ISIS and Al Qaeda or simply damaged souls eager to enact their private hells on a broader stage, whatever foreign connections they may have can easily be used to justify a wider campaign.

Change a few words in Gingrich’s anti-Muslim rants, or those of Donald Trump, and you could be listening to a diatribe about the evils of Communism by Hoover or McCarthy. Whatever the ideology — and the witch hunters of today are as vague about the content of Islamic radicalism as the McCarthyites were about Marxism-Leninism — their line is that it’s un-American and deserves to be suppressed. They are equally vague about the organizations that should be sanctioned. Gingrich’s Exhibit A is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil-liberties group that seeks to combat anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States just as the Anti-Defamation League fights anti-Semitism. But in the twittering world of today’s hyperventilating patriots, any connection to Islam is cause for alarm.

Xenophobia aside, what should also be of concern to the academic community is the former House speaker’s attack on the “national elites” who, he insists, facilitate terrorism by adhering to political correctness. According to this scenario, by refusing to demonize Islam, these elites in the news media, Obama administration, and the universities are simply coddling the enemy. They have been as soft on terrorism as the McCarthy-era witch hunters claimed the New Deal liberals were on Communism.

While such charges may be too outrageous to stick, Gingrich’s reference to political correctness opens a new front in the continuing culture war against the nation’s faculty members, one that, it should be noted, had no real counterpart in the 1950s. The Cold War anti-Communists, though never loath to bash an intellectual, were not as hostile to the academic profession as today’s right-wing politicians and pundits are. HUAC harassed professors because of their politics and because they refused to name names. But it did not attack their teaching or their scholarship, as so many conservative ideologues do today.

Much of the current attention stems from the larger role that the academy now plays in American life. With the disappearance of well-paying working-class jobs, a college degree is now the only route into the middle-class, and one whose increasing unaffordability dominates public debate. In the process, higher education has come to be considered an individual benefit rather than a common good, with vocational training largely replacing any broader civic mission. Accordingly, professors in the liberal arts, who try to teach the critical-thinking skills that thoughtful citizens need, come under assault as superfluous — and perhaps contributing to the rising cost of higher education.

Conservatives have their own reasons for attacking the university. Upset about what they saw as the radicalization of the academic profession during and after the 1960s, a cluster of right-wing business leaders and foundations mounted a public-relations campaign to delegitimize the academic mainstream. By the 1990s, that well-funded campaign had managed to convince large numbers of ordinary citizens that the nation’s college faculties had been taken over by tenured radicals who wrote incomprehensible prose, hated white men, and worked just 12 hours a week. As a result, political and financial support for the nation’s public colleges and universities and for higher education as a whole has dwindled.

Until now most of the damage has been structural, afflicting institutions rather than individuals. Inherent in Gingrich’s proposal for a new HUAC, however, is the danger that by linking the campaign against political correctness to the threat of terrorism — thus making it a matter of national security — a new academic witch hunt could take off.

To a certain extent, it already has, hounding the only academic group that Gingrich specifically identified as having contributed to terrorism: those who “are funded by countries like Saudi Arabia.” Since it is unlikely that Gingrich was referring to petroleum geologists, we can assume that his new HUAC would be looking at professors in Middle Eastern studies and related fields. No surprise there. Scholars who study the Islamic world have been under attack for years. Their connections to that tumultuous region have rendered them singularly vulnerable to outsiders with their own agendas, especially with regard to the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict.

There is a disturbing precedent here. During the 1950s, the field of East Asian studies became the target of politically motivated charges linked primarily to a Republican Party campaign to blame the Truman administration for the “loss of China.” McCarthy and his colleagues tied many of the nation’s leading China scholars to an organization that, it was asserted, had served as a conduit for Communist influence on the State Department. Far-fetched as that scenario was, it destroyed the careers of several figures in the field and frightened the rest into circumspect silence.

It is all too easy, I fear, to envision a similar set of hearings designed to bring out the supposed terrorist connections of those scholars of the Middle East who have already been singled out as insufficiently supportive of the current Israeli government. Fortunately, promoting terrorism has yet to be added to the list of their transgressions. They are simply being charged with biased scholarship, anti-Semitism, incivility, and — ironically, considering conservative disdain for political correctness — creating a hostile classroom environment.

Even so, a few, like Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein, have lost their jobs or been denied tenure. How many other academics within or outside the field have been encouraged to keep their heads down is hard to tell. Signing a petition against the occupation of the West Bank or publicly supporting the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement could jeopardize someone’s employment or subject a professional organization, such as the American Studies Association, to external sanctions. But even for individuals with the security of tenure, the hassles can be wearing. No one wants to contend with an inbox full of hate mail or to find informers in their classes sent by off-campus organizations. Better, therefore, to emulate some China scholars in the wake of McCarthyism: Steer clear of controversy and study the 13th century.

It may not be possible to stay out of trouble. The East Asian experts who were critical of the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1940s had no way of knowing that 10 years later, congressional investigators would accuse them of undermining American interests. Given the partisan pressures and high emotions evoked by the situation in the Middle East, as well as the increasingly politicized attacks on higher education, who knows what Twitter post or reading assignment might earn a subpoena from a revitalized HUAC?

Because “McCarthyism” has been a pejorative term for so many years, it would be comforting to assume that the American public and its political leaders are inoculated against a revival. In fact, Gingrich’s feeler may well quietly flop. Still, presented as a necessary adjunct to the nation’s war on terror, a crackdown on dissenting academics with connections to the Middle East might well gain traction.

The academic and other purges of the early Cold War were effective because of the day-to-day collaboration of mainstream politicians and timorous employers. There was plenty of tut-tutting within the liberal establishment and moderate middle about McCarthyism’s injustices, but little effective opposition until the worst was over. Today, when such outrages as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent and presumably unconstitutional executive order imposing sanctions on the proponents of BDS is barely challenged, except by civil libertarians and the pro-Palestinian movement, it is not inconceivable that the political repression of the McCarthy era could return. Like the anti-Communist purges of that earlier era, it would be enabled by a passive public unwilling to question strident claims that a threat to national security requires a new round of un-American activities.

Correction (6/30/2016, 5:20 p.m.): The author’s identification has been updated to recognize her emerita status at Yeshiva.

Ellen Schrecker is professor of history emerita at Yeshiva University and the author of, among other books, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford University Press, 1986).

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Organizational Letter to NY Assembly Members Opposing A.9036

Join organizations across NY state opposing legislation that creates unconstitutional blacklists. Add your organization to the growing list of co-sponsors by following the link below:

Current organizational signers include: Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal, National Lawyers Guild – NYC, United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Jewish Voice for Peace – New York City Chapter, Jewish Voice for Peace – Ithaca Chapter, Jewish Voice for Peace – Albany Chapter, Jewish Voice for Peace – Westchester Chapter, Jewish Voice for Peace – Rochester Chapter, JEWS SAY NO!, Jewish Voice for Peace – National, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, US Palestinian Community Network, American Studies Association, American Association of University Professors – NYU Chapter, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Adalah-NY: the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, Brooklyn For Peace, CODEPINK New York, Concerned Families of Westchester, WESPAC Foundation, Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, Syracuse Peace Council

Dear Assembly Members:

We are writing to strongly oppose A.9036, currently in the Governmental Operations Committee of the NY Assembly, as well as any similar legislation that creates unconstitutional blacklists. We share deep concerns about unconstitutional attacks on boycotts, a form of protected political speech. We call on you to stop this legislation, and oppose any similar efforts.

This legislation mandates that New York State create a blacklist of individuals and entities that exercise their constitutional right to utilize boycott as a form of free speech. Under this bill, individuals and entities that boycott a country (or companies based in that country) from a selective list of “allied nations” will be ineligible to contract with the state. The legislation also calls for the state to divest its holdings from any corporation that boycotts an “allied nation*.”

The proposed legislation runs counter to the US Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., which concluded that boycotts constitute a political form of expression that “occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”

If passed, this legislation would require that New York utilize the power of the state to:

-Punish those advocating for a boycott of Turkey because it uses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses against Kurds, or for advocating for a boycott of Colombia because it uses U.S. weapons to commit atrocities against its citizens.

-Bar United Methodist Churches from contracting with the state to run homeless shelters and soup kitchens because the church supports the boycott of Israeli settlement goods.

-Punish those advocating for a boycott of Israel because it uses U.S. weapons to inflict systemic human rights abuses against Palestinians. It would prevent New York from investing in corporations that have severed their complicity with Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in response to boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns.

Should it become law, the bill would put a chill on speech, and deter constitutionally protected speech by intimidating people from engaging in actions for fear of being blacklisted. This bill was passed in the NY State Senate the first week of the session with virtually no debate and it must be stopped now.

We are also concerned about A8220/S6806; a bill just as unconstitutional. This legislation blacklists and bars state funds to individuals and entities that have taken any action to boycott Israeli policies. We believe A8220 is just as dangerous as A9036. No legislation should restrict the rights of New Yorkers to engage in efforts to bring sanctions against a nation engaged in human rights violations.

We ask you to act in accordance with this state’s history of defending free speech and the rights of New Yorkers to engage in peaceful efforts to change policies.

We urge you to make sure A9036 does not pass in the Assembly. We are counting on you to defend free speech and reject this new version of McCarthyism.

*The definition of “allied nation” in this bill is: any country that is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, any country that is a signatory of the Southeast Asia Treaty of 1954, any country, other than Venezuela, that is a signatory of the Rio Treaty of 1947, Ireland, Israel, Japan, and The Republic of Korea

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Sign the Statement of Academics on the Settlement of Professor Steven Salaita’s Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

November 11, 2015

As scholars in a wide range of academic disciplines we write to express that we are both pleased and concerned that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has agreed to settle Professor Steven Salaita’s lawsuit challenging his illegal termination by the UIUC Board of Trustees after he made comments on social media critical of Israel’s military assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. We note that the University agreed to settle Professor Salaita’s claims only after a federal court had ruled in Professor Salaita’s favor on key elements of his case, including that his employment was terminated after he had been given a contract of employment by UIUC, and that Professor Salaita’s comments on social media were protected by the First Amendment.

We are pleased that the University of Illinois trustees, through the payment of a substantial monetary settlement to Professor Salaita, have acknowledged how Professor Salaita’s termination amounted to a serious violation of both his constitutional right to free speech on matters of public concern, and principles of academic freedom. Agreeing to pay what amounts to the equivalent of Professor Salaita’s salary for ten years, the University of Illinois trustees have implicitly conceded the core claims of Professor Salaita’s lawsuit: that he was illegally terminated in retaliation for his comments in connection with the Israeli war on Gaza, and that UIUC officials’ decision to terminate Professor Salaita was motivated, at least in part, by pressure they received from large donors to the University as was revealed by emails disclosed by the University in connection with the lawsuit.

At the same time, we are concerned about the terms of the settlement for two principal reasons. First, it did not include Professor Salaita’s reinstatement. Although we respect Professor Salaita’s decision to accept the settlement and to move on with his career, we nevertheless call attention to the fact that a cash settlement without an offer of reinstatement leaves unaddressed the unjust terms by which his employment was terminated. Not only were his fundamental rights of free speech and academic freedom abridged, but he remains entitled to reinstatement at UIUC as a matter of principle, whether or not he chooses to accept that reinstatement. As it stands, the settlement demonstrates that the university can abridge such rights at a price, setting a perilous precedent.

Second, we recognize that UIUC’s unlawful treatment of Professor Salaita has had implications well beyond Professor Salaita individually. The UIUC American Indian Studies Program that hired Professor Salaita not only lost Professor Salaita as a colleague (after a rigorous search), it has suffered severe fall-out given the administration’s assault on the autonomy of the program and its selection to appoint Professor Salaita to the program. Professor Salaita’s hire was intended to build a rising, dynamic academic home for research and teaching on American Indian Studies. Now the program struggles with just one and a half academic appointments. The decimation of the American Indian Studies Program at UIUC has been an additional price tag paid by the university’s capitulation to internal and external forces that disapproved of Professor Salaita’s exercise of constitutionally protected rights to free speech. Sadly, the settlement in this case fails to address the larger price paid by students, faculty, and the broader academic community that looked to the University of Illinois as a home of robust academic inquiry into the complex issues of sovereignty, belonging, dispossession, and conquest – both in the U.S. and globally.

On account of the manner in which Professor Salaita was terminated the American Association of University Professors censured UIUC for its failure to conform to sound academic practices as established in AAUP principles. We feel strongly that the monetary settlement of Professor Salaita’s legal claim does not address the underlying breaches of academic freedom and widely accepted standards for the conduct of academic governance that formed the basis of the AAUP sanction in this matter. For this reason we urge the AAUP to not remove UIUC from its list of censured administrations until such time as UIUC adequately addresses the larger pall of uncertainty that has been cast over the manner in which academic freedom is understood and respected at UIUC.

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Palestine Solidarity: The Film Critics’ Blind Spot

June 30, 2015 – The Palestine Center, Washington, DC

Watch film scholar Terri Ginsberg discuss Palestine-solidarity filmmaking, focusing predominantly on To Live in Freedom, a 1974 documentary directed by Simon Louvish, and featuring Palestinian writer and intellectual Fouzi El-Asmar. The talk examines the relationship between Zionism, European colonialism, class stratification and racism in Palestine/Israel, and suggests historical ties between the establishment of the film studies discipline during the 1960s, and U.S. government interference in the socio-cultural sphere.

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Einstein and Arendt signed 1948 letter to NY Times warning of Zionist fascism in Israel

4 December 1948, New York Times

The letter, sent to the Editor of the New York Times on December 2, 1948, was entitled “New Palestine Party – Visit [to the U.S.] of Menachem Begin and New Political Movement [Freedom Party] Discussed.”


Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.  The current visit of Menachem Begin, leader of this party, to the United States is obviously calculated to give the impression of American support for his party in the coming Israeli elections, and to cement political ties with conservative Zionist elements in the United States. Several Americans of national repute have lent their names to welcome his visit. It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughoutthe world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.  Before irreparable damage is done by way of financial contributions, public manifestations in Begin’s behalf, and the creation in Palestine of the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel, the American public must be informed as to the record and objectives of Mr. Begin and his movement. The public avowals of Begin’s party are no guide whatever to its actual character. Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state. It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character; from its past actions we can judge what it may be expected to do in the future. 

Attack on Arab Village

A shocking example was their behavior in the Arab village of Deir Yassin. This village, off the main roads and surrounded by Jewish lands, had taken no part in the war, and had even fought off Arab bands who wanted to use the village as their base. On April 9 (THE NEW YORK TIMES), terrorist bands attacked this peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants ? 240men, women, and children – and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem. Most of the Jewish community was horrified at the deed, and the Jewish Agency sent a telegram of apology to King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan. But the terrorists, far from being ashamed of their act, were proud of this massacre, publicized it widely, and invited all the foreign correspondents present in the country to view the heaped corpses and the general havoc at Deir Yassin. The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the charac! ter and actions of the Freedom Party. Within the Jewish community they have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority. Like other Fascist parties they have been used to break strikes, and have themselves pressed for the destruction of free trade unions. In their stead they have proposed corporate unions on the Italian Fascist model. During the last years of sporadic anti-British violence, the IZL and Stern groups inaugurated a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community. Teachers were beaten up for speaking against them, adults were shot for not letting their children join them. By gangster methods, beatings, window-smashing, and wide-spread robberies, the terrorists intimidated the population and exacted a heavy tribute. The people of the Freedom Party have had no part in the constructive achievements in Palestine. They have reclaimed no land, built no settlements, and only detracted from the Jewish defense activity. Their much-publicized immigration endeavors were minute, and devoted mainly to bringing in Fascist compatriots. 

Discrepancies Seen

The discrepancies between the bold claims now being made by Begin and his party, and their record of past performance in Palestine bear the imprint of no ordinary political party. This is the unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a “Leader State” is the goal. In the light of the foregoing considerations, it is imperative that the truth about Mr. Begin and his movement be made known in this country. It is all the more tragic that the top leadership of American Zionism has refused to campaign against Begin’s efforts, or even to expose to its own constituents the dangers to Israel from support to Begin. The undersigned therefore take this means of publicly presenting a few salient facts concerning Begin and his party; and of urging all concerned not to support this latest manifestation of fascism.


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How Zionism Corrupts Judaism

Judaism is a religion based on humanistic principles offering powerful arguments for social justice, but it has been hijacked by Zionists who have twisted it into an excuse for ethnic cleansing and mass murder, as Professor of Moral Theology Daniel C. Maguire describes.

by Daniel C. Maguire – 2 July 2015, Consortium News

Like the Palestinian people, Judaism is also suffering from siege and occupation. Zionism, a Nineteenth Century hallucinatory piece of fictive theology and a vicious ideology, has gotten a demonic grip on much of modern Jewish consciousness and has taken possession of U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Zionism is not Judaism; Judaism is 3,000 years old. Zionism is a heretical upstart based upon preposterous assumptions. In terms of theistic Judaism, Zionism teaches that God, the creator of everything in the universe from fruit flies to quasars, is also into real-estate distribution and has assigned Palestine to Jews or those who tenuously claim to be Jews … from dark-skinned Ethiopians to blue-eyed Russians.

The Prophet Isaiah (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company)

This God wants all non-Jewish Palestinians (some of whose ancestral roots in Palestine go back for millennia) to be removed or brutally occupied and periodically bombed and starved into submission. That is Zionist theocratic policy and it has been a raging success.

Thanks to Zionist power and American complicit and compliant support, Jewish Israelis control 100 percent of Palestine and Syria’s Golan Heights. Non-Jewish Palestinians are either occupied or living under dehumanizing siege.

To forestall any charge of caricature, let the Zionists speak for themselves. Joseph Weitz, an administrator responsible for planning the takeover of Palestine, minced no words: “Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both people together in this country. … The only solution is a Palestine … without Arabs. And there is no other way than to transfer Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, not one village, not one tribe, should be left.”

David Ben-Gurion, a man of no known theological expertise, saw the invasion and occupation as an exercise in theology: “God promised it to us,” he said. Yitzhak Baer joined the pious Zionist chorus writing in 1947: “God gave to every nation its place and to the Jews he gave Palestine.”

One could be tempted to think that God would have preferred pre-Zionist Palestine. In the Nineteenth Century, Jews were four percent of the population, Christians, ten percent, and the rest were Muslims and all lived together in harmony and peace.

The Zionist success is brittle and becoming more so. Fifty years ago, a professor at Hebrew University wrote presciently: “Israel may be able to win and win and go on winning till its last breath, win itself to death. … After every victory, we face more difficult, more complicated problems. … The abyss if mutual hated will deepen and the desires for vengeance will mount.”

In the age of suitcase-size atomic weapons and micro-biological weapons and pinpoint accurate drones, a reality-check should tell Zionists that it is past time to take paths to peace that are open to them right now. United Nations resolutions and Arab offers are on the table based on returning to the pre-1967 borders.

Peace is there for the asking once Zionist stop the land-theft (euphemized as “settlements”) and comply with international law. Israel can choose peace or expansion; Zionist Israel is choosing expansion and continued ethnic cleansing.

Equating Zionism and Judaism

But here is the piercing point of Zionism: Zionism would not settle for the land of Palestine. It demanded that Zionism be identified with and conflated with Judaism. This perverse effort has worked well so that now any criticism of Zionist imperialism is called “antisemitic.”  “Antisemitic,” of course, is a misnomer since the occupied and besieged Palestinians are Semites, too.

What is meant is that any criticism of Zionist policies is anti-Jewish. Wrong! Even Adolf Hitler knew that Zionism is not Judaism: he despised Judaism, but in his Mein Kampf,  he had praise for Zionism. Hitler admired racist oppression wherever he found it. Indeed, Zionism’s fatal fault is that it is not Jewish.

In my judgment, as a scholar in the field of religion, Judaism is the most profound, inspiring and practicable moral vision to be found in any world religion. Christianity and Islam are blessed to be among its heirs. In the years 1250 to 1050 B.C.E., the early Hebrews pressed history to turn a corner in such a wise direction that modern democratic theory owes deep debts to their achievement.

The Exodus/Sinai story in novels, films and homilies suffered shrinkage. It got reduced to historical facticity, i.e., stuff that happened and got recorded by ancient scribes trying to get their facts straight. The Exodus-Sinai epic is not history; it is metaphor.

As Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman put it: “There was no mass Exodus from Egypt.”  Moses may not have been a single person but a composite of many figures assembled with literary freedom over centuries.

But that doesn’t mean nothing happened back there. Poetry happened. Revolutionary social experimentation happened. Forget the frogs and the parted seas engulfing the bad guys. What really happened was a social-political-economic revolution presented in epic form.

As Norman Gottwald shows in his monumental study The Tribes of Yahweh, those Hebrews (from apiru meaning outlaw) challenged the monarchical paradigm of one percent rule exemplified by Egypt. These poets were saying we need not live in the Egyptian model. The Sinaitic alternative beckons.

This Exodus-to-Sinai story is an epic poem in the genre of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, but outstripping both Homer and Virgil in power and far-reaching effects. As Walter Brueggemann says it is as insightful and relevant as if it had been written yesterday. It has perpetual contemporaneity, the mark of a true classic.


This epic poem was about people-power, about the 99 percent taking on the one percent. The story says you cannot trust the greed-driven one-percent. They are, as Micah said, “rich men who are full of violence, the city’s upper classes speak falsehood and their tongues frame deceit.” (6:12)

And he said that millennia before sub-prime mortgages and derivatives were cooked up like a witch’s brew. The exodus was a moral exodus from the one-percent rule in Egypt with all power moving to the top — to the Sinai model where “there shall be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4).

In the Sinai model compassion was woven into the political economy. As Walter Brueggemann says, the Hebrew revolution which is the root of Judaism became “the first move toward a social safety net in the history of the world.”

Jan Dus says that what is contained in Exodus chapters 1 to 24 is the first ideologically-based socio-political revolution in the history of the world. The Judaism of Sinai and the prophets deserve two Nobel prizes, one in Peace and one in Economics. That is the stirring moral core of Judaism, the polar opposite of Zionism. It is this that should swell Jewish hearts with pride, not Zionism.

The poets of Israel warned that doom awaits societies that “grind the faces of the poor.” (Isa. 3:15) Security comes from planting a poverty-banishing justice (Isa. 32:17) not from kill-power.   You cannot build “Zion in bloodshed.” (Micah 3:10) That’s a message the Zionists will not abide.

“Neither by force of arms nor by brute strength” will the people be saved. (Zech. 4:6) The “song of the military” will be silenced (Isa. 25:5, 2) Prophetic Judaism scorns an over-reliance on violence. With the over-used sword beaten into a plowshares the earth could turn green with hope and not red with the mayhem we call war. (Isa.22:4; Mic. 4:24) That’s the dream that the poets of Israel dreamed and bequeathed to all humankind.

Suppose Israel Were Jewish

Israel and the United States both started out with ethnic cleansing. Is the superpower United States going to repent and hand the country over to the Native Americans? Is Israel the fourth strongest military power and the sixth strongest nuclear power about to dissolve itself? The answer is No to both those naive questions.

What Israel can do is accept the peace offered to it by its Arab neighbors and prescribed by the United Nations. In March 2002, 22 members of the Arab League offered to recognize Israel’s right to exist and have normal relations with Israel, no small concession that.

This offer has been repeatedly reconfirmed. In April 2002, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes 57 nations, concurred with the Arab League offer, and the Iranian delegation expressed its full approval.

The condition was Israel’s compliance with the United Nations Resolutions 194, 242, 338 and the return to the pre-1967 borders. Hamas has said it will acknowledge Israel’s right to live in peace within its pre-1967 borders. Israel can have peace or continued ethnic cleansing. It is currently choosing continued ethnic cleansing.

A morally Jewish Israel, embodied in growing groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, would make peace and in so doing transform the roiled politics of the entire Middle East. No one expects Zionist Israel to do that. Hence the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) movement.

The reigning assumption today is that it is pressure, not conscience, that will move Zionist Israel to choose peace.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians and The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy [Fortress Press]). He can be reached at

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Steven Salaita speaking tour – New York City – November 2014

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