A newly-formed “Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism” (ICSZ) will almost certainly never produce any serious insight into Zionism, but the institute itself is proving to be a useful case study in the inherent antisemitism of anti-Zionism.
The ICSZ is a project of a handful of professors and activists who purport to be embarking on a “critical study” of Zionism. A review of the “founding collective” and their “points of unity” brings out a clear picture of their mission and beliefs: they demand those very things they simultaneously demand the world’s Jewry be denied.
Consider the “Points of Unity,” which declare, “[w]e reject the exclusionary/scarcity model of academic work.” It further decries that “academia is an exclusionary environment,” and says that its members “aim to broaden the community of participation in rigorous research and conversation on Zionism…”
Yet, the members and supporters of ICSZ have long battled to create exactly what they decry: an exclusionary environment.
The ICSZ has multiple connections with the “U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel,” whose entire purpose is to exclude from and restrict the “community of participation” in academia. Not only is USACBI one of the co-sponsors for the ICSZ’s upcoming 2023 conference (titled “Battling the ‘IHRA definition’: Theory & Activism”), but multiple founding members of ICSZ are from USACBI.
Among the “founding collective” is Rabab Abdulhadi, an extremist professor at San Francisco State University known for claiming that “welcoming Zionists on campus” amounts to “a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, [and] Palestinians…” She’s also one of USACBI’s co-founders. Abdulhadi’s conduct over the years has been so antithetical to the idea of “broadening the community of participation” that she led to her university system being sued over discrimination against Jewish students. The suit resulted in a settlement agreement in which her university system was forced to “issue a statement that persons of all faiths, ethnicities, national origins, and viewpoints, including but not limited to Jews, Israelis, and Zionists, are welcome on the SFSU campus.” Even before the settlement agreement, the university president felt it necessary to issue a statement saying that Abdulhadi’s rhetoric was “contrary” to the university’s “principles of inclusion, thoughtful intellectual discourse, and sharing of ideas that are central to our academic environment.”
C. Heike Schotten, a member of USACBI’s “organizing collective,” also sits on ICSZ’s “founding collective.” Among the other eight “founding collective” members are Lisa Duggan and Christine Hong. Both are listed as “endorsers” of USACBI. Duggan is perhaps best known for having led the American Studies Association when it voted to endorse an academic boycott of just one country in the world: Israel. Sheryl Nestel, another “founding collective” member, signed a petition in 2019 supporting the BDS movement and opposing a summer exchange program with an Israeli university.
The double standard is particularly evident when considering statements by ICSZ’s director, Emmaia Gelman. Gelman has signed petitions pressuring educational institutions to “support the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” but also petitions that argue “[i]t is no longer acceptable to speak over Palestinians” in the context of academic writings. Yet, she directs an institute that is solely focused on “studying Zionism.” That is, Gelman’s position is that while Palestinians should speak for themselves in academia, Israelis must be restricted from speaking, especially about Israel and Zionism. No one should speak over Palestinians, but Gelman and her fellow “anti-Zionists” are allowed to speak over Israelis and Zionists (i.e., 95% of Jews).
The ICSZ’s ideal “community of participation” is thus one in which Israelis and the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population is excluded, notwithstanding the subject (Zionism) is fundamentally about the rights of those exact people.
It’s thus unsurprising that the ICSZ’s “points of unity” contain other classic antisemitic tropes. The institute says it will be “[s]tudying Zionism – its direct work for the Israeli state and its ‘other work’…” The scare quotes are ICSZ’s. The meaning is clarified just a few sentences later. After committing to “join in resistance to structures of racism, group supremacy, violence, militarism, colonialism, and capitalism,” the institute states it will research “the role that Zionism plays in struggles over racism and violence.” The institute has found what ails the world and it will now work to connect those ills with a Jewish cause.
The institute seems to justify its blatant discrimination by depicting Palestinians as victims of oppression and Israeli “settler-colonialism.” Of course, Zionism – the very subject they purport to study – is itself a movement for self-determination of the Jewish people in their indigenous homeland, one that was forced to defend itself against multiple surrounding armies. It was perhaps one of the most successful liberation movements in history. But rather than contend with this and be forced to justify their discriminatory positions, the institute just implies that Zionism is the “appropriation of liberatory rhetoric by repressive political forces.”
It’s a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian set of positions put together by the ICSZ, one clearly at odds with what higher education is supposed to embody. Perhaps that’s why the institute’s members “reject academic professional success as a measure” in favor of ideological purity. They’ve developed a theory, and that theory conveniently means evidence and arguments to the contrary are to be silenced. But more importantly, that theory means the very Jews to be studied must also be silenced.
 While USACBI and Gelman might argue that they only boycott institutions, not individuals, the distinction is meaningless given Israeli academics are inevitably going to be overwhelmingly based at Israeli academic institutions. Moreover, both common sense and anti-discrimination laws recognize that when a policy “treats individuals differently on the basis of seemingly neutral criteria that are so closely associated with the disfavored group that discrimination on the basis of such criteria is, constructively, facial discrimination against the disfavored group.”