George Eliot was at the peak of her renown in 1874 when John Blackwood, her publisher, learned that she was at work on “Daniel Deronda,” a new novel. As a literary man, he was in thrall to her genius. As a businessman with an instinct for the market, he valued her passionately dedicated readership. But an early look at portions of her manuscript astonished and appalled him: Too much of it was steeped in sympathetic evocations of Jews, Judaism and what was beginning to be known as Zionism.
All this off-putting alien erudition struck him as certain to be more than merely unpopular. It was personally tasteless, it went against the grain of English sensibility, it was an offense to the reigning political temperament. It was, in our notorious idiom, politically incorrect. Blackwood was unquestionably a member of England’s gentlemanly intellectual elite. In recoiling from Eliot’s theme, he showed himself to be that historically commonplace figure: an intellectual antisemite.
Intersectionality, a muddled and half-mystical credo that turns disparities into parities and distinctions into connections, is the coinage of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading professor of law at UCLA and Columbia.
Antisemitism is generally thought of as brutish, the mentality of mobs, the work of the ignorant, the poorly schooled, the gutter roughnecks, the torch carriers. But these are only the servants, not the savants, of anti-Semitism. Mobs execute, intellectuals promulgate. Thugs have furies, intellectuals have causes.
The Inquisition was the brainchild not of illiterates, but of the most lettered and lofty prelates. Goebbels had a degree in philology. Hitler fancied himself a painter and doubtless knew something of Dürer and da Vinci. Pogroms aroused the murderous rampage of peasants, but they were instigated by the cream of Russian officialdom.
The hounding and ultimate expulsion of Jewish students from German universities was abetted by the violence of their Aryan classmates, but it was the rectors who decreed that only full-blooded Germans could occupy the front seats. Martin Heidegger, the celebrated philosopher of being and non-being, was quick to join the Nazi Party, and as himself a rector promptly oversaw the summary ejection of Jewish colleagues.
Stupid mobs are spurred by clever goaders: The book burners were inspired by the temperamentally bookish—who else could know which books to burn? Even invidious folk myths have intellectual roots, as when early biblical linguists mistranslated as horns the rays of light emanating from Moses’ brow.
In the medieval era of successive plagues, the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells. In city after city across Europe between 1348 and 1351, whole communities of Jews were massacred. In this hour of world-wide panic, the purposeful devisings of coronavirus are said to have been hatched, with malice aforethought, by a cabal of Jews and Zionists. The medieval cutthroats are out again, brandishing their updated social media.
The fanatical shooters who assault synagogues and kosher food markets are the product of committed teachers, articulate authors of the books and pamphlets that litter their gun-filled rooms. A venerable university press publishes an academic volume reviving an ancient blood libel in its claim that Israeli Jews deliberately maim innocent Palestinians—all in properly credentialed, theorized prose. An international literary festival invites a participant who touts similar venom: Israeli Jews harvest Palestinian body parts for organ transplant.
Sophisticated terms such as boycott, divestment and sanctions, designed to weaken and dismantle the Jewish state, are touted by the superior pronouncements of university professors, members of Congress, aspiring politicians, respected journalists who have forsworn impartiality for advocacy, and other pinnacles of societal influence.
Nor are the poets immune to incitement. Eliot and Pound, those Jew-scorning midcentury literary monarchs, are easily exceeded by contemporary versifiers such as Amiri Baraka, who suggested Israelis “knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed,” and Tom Paulin, who has called Israeli soldiers “the Zionist SS.”
Black lives matter, as mayors, governors and newspaper editorial boards daily affirm, in effect taking the lead. Yet human-rights causes can be shackled by usurpers under virtuous slogans: In 2016 an alliance called the Movement for Black Lives issued a nefarious 40,000-word manifesto defining Israel as an apartheid state bent on genocide against Palestinian Arabs.
The campus zealotry of Students for Justice in Palestine is hardly a spontaneous youthful expression of outrage funded by pocket money. Their activities include costly defamatory installations of so-called apartheid walls, checkpoints, die-ins, chants and hostile invasions of classrooms and meetings, and thuggish disruptions of visiting speakers. Its founder, Hatem Bazian, is a lecturer in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Omar Barghouti, emperor of the BDS movement, holds a master’s in the philosophy of ethics from Tel Aviv University.
Although the exigencies of pandemic have stilled the muscle-men of the campuses, they have opened new opportunities for their cyber-skilled handlers. While the rioters’ shrieks of “Intifada” and “From the river to the sea” are the spew of bottom-feeders, the kingfish intellectuals intend the same.
Antisemitism dressed in the sheep’s clothing of social justice is the province of elevated pitchmen—cultivated elites, learned professors, scholarly theorists. Intersectionality, a muddled and half-mystical credo that turns disparities into parities and distinctions into connections, is the coinage of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading professor of law at UCLA and Columbia. Its faithful adherents populate academic organizations such as the American Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association. By surrendering to the doctrine of identity politics—the birth mother of intersectionality—these groups have allowed themselves to become venues of antisemitic incitement.
On the lowest rung of this hierarchy of ethnic worthiness, Jews are designated as white oppressors of marginal peoples. They are accused of complicity in a colonialist plot against Palestinians and as accomplices in the training of police brutality. If they profess to be liberals, or radicals of the left, they are shunted aside as persecutors of the weak. Even as they are scorned as unfairly privileged, they are treated as campus pariahs.
Marxism is a movement of the deluded; antisemitism is a movement of the cleverest. When students become inquisitors and administrations are feeble, when the elect succumb to the political haters, so will a nation’s conscience. A vengeful mob is a fearsome thing, but the true monsters are its teachers.
Cynthia Ozick, acclaimed short story writer, novelist, and essayist, is author, most recently, of “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays.”
This article first appeared in the WSJ and has been reposted with permission.