On the same late September day that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a self-declared anti-Semite, spoke before a packed and supportive audience at Columbia University and questioned the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, a subtler but equally pernicious anti-Semitic event was taking place on the other side of town. Titled “On Comparative Settler Colonialism,” the panel discussion at New York University (NYU) featured Wesleyan University Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and Birzeit University Professor Rana Barakat. It was presented by the American Studies Program in the Department of Social Cultural Analysis and co-sponsored by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and the NYU Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
Moderated by Rutgers University Professor Jasbir Puar, infamous for resurrecting classic anti-Semitic tropes such as the medieval blood libel, participants reveled in bigotry and pseudo-intellectualism. In the spirit of classic anti-Semitism, the panelists advocated stripping the Jewish people of their indigenous history and bond to the land of Israel — leaving them, yet again, without a home. By cleverly manipulating concepts of indigeneity, sovereignty, occupation, and colonialism to fit a politicized, one-dimensional narrative based on a self-declared “anarchist” worldview, panelists distorted the region’s distant past and contemporary events alike.
The panel’s aim, according to Kauanui, was to “think comparatively across several colonial landscapes.” Using the framework of her theory “mobilizing indigeneity,” she posited similarities between Hawaii and “Palestine” “at the structural level,” arguing that both peoples “share the fundamental condition of indigenous territorial dispossession.” Kauanui rejected the two-state solution as “unjust at its core because it is premised on the continued acceptance of the Zionist claim to Palestine” that risks “normalizing Israel as a healthy biological political body.” The core problem, Kauanui said, is not the “occupation” per se, but the “broader settler colonial project” — in other words, Israel itself.
Barakat delivered an emotionally fraught lecture on her project of “decolonizing return.” “I hail from a legacy of generations attempting to return,” she declared. “Our collective Palestinian battle is an ontological imperative.” She told a “story” about Lifta, a village she falsely claimed was decimated by Israelis who allegedly forced out her grandmother and many others. In fact, the Arab Higher Executive issued the ultimatum to evacuate the town, as eight Arab armies had just declared war on the fledging Jewish state.
In elaborating on “indigeneity” and “sovereignty” during the question and answer session, Barakat and Kauanui inadvertently revealed these concepts as political tools for delegitimizing Israel. Asking herself “whether the Jewish state had a right to exist,” Barakat denied that it did and claimed that even posing the question legitimized settler-colonialist “manipulation.” They dwelt on Palestinian dispossession, but ignored the historical dispossession of the Jewish people from the region for three millennia despite their continual presence on the land. Both spoke about the Palestinian right of return, but omitted that returning to Jerusalem has been a fundamental element of Jewish identity through the ages, from the Hebrew scriptures to daily prayers.
That Kauanui and Barakat called for the elimination of a sovereign state with no objections from their elite university audience demonstrates the moral and intellectual depravity of contemporary academe. Their arguments seek to legitimize genocide — yet to students mis-educated by Middle East Studies (MES) professors to view Zionism as a racist, colonialist scheme to steal land, they seem just.
Yet the “Zionist project” is perhaps history’s greatest triumph over colonialism. Through it, an ancient people who had their own nation with Jerusalem as its capital, and who were subsequently sentenced to centuries of exile, were able to re-assert their sovereignty and exist collectively as a people in the 20th century. What the panelists called “settler colonialists” are in fact a composite of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees forcibly expelled from Arab countries in the 1940s and their European Jewish counterparts escaping Holocaust persecution who joined native Jews whose ancestors had lived continuously in the region since Israel’s destruction two-thousand years before. In promoting Palestinian indigeneity and sovereignty but denying this same right to the Jewish people, they hypocritically display their own shade of “settler colonialism.”
UCLA Professor Judea Pearl once characterized anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism aimed at Jews collectively, rather than individually: “If we examine anti-Zionist ideology closely, we see that its aims are to uproot one people, the Jewish people, from its homeland, to take away its ability to defend itself in sovereignty, and to delegitimize its historical identity. It is racist and fundamentally eliminationist.” Kauanui, Barakat, and Puar’s comments at NYU validate Pearl’s observation.
Their prominence in contemporary MES here and abroad, moreover, illustrates the field’s descent into a morass of politicized, even bigoted indoctrination masquerading as scholarship. Anyone trusting their work — whether students, journalists, government specialists, military leaders, or others — will be dangerously misled on the fundamental history of the region and its people. MES’s systemic problems are well-documented and widely known. Unless this corrupt, failing discipline is reformed intellectually and morally, no one should look to it for accurate, truthful analyses.