Joshua Garoon is as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Wednesday’s Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism is a brilliant bit of agitprop. If it served up “red meat for Republicans who believe colleges are increasingly hostile to Jews” due to the increasing visibility (and volume) of anti-Zionist activists and the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement, it was, for their opponents, equivalent to waving a raw, bloody steak in the face of vegetarians. The prospect of white nationalists defining Jewishness horrified leftist Jews, who, ironically, found themselves pushed into a curious spin on Jewish particularity: insisting that Jews don’t, by dint of their unique minority status (not just religion, nor race, nor ethnicity, nor culture, nor nationality), fit into existing civil-rights legislation. Only Jews can put Jews in boxes.
Gradually, though, the Jewish question has given way to another: what will the order mean for higher education? Concerns about an Ivory Tower Inquisition waged in the name of protecting Jews from hostile campus environments are understandable. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Ken Marcus seems like the dog who’s finally caught a car. His reopening of a four years-closed case at Rutgers University is troubling. And the order’s incorporation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and its controversial examples vis-à-vis Israel, would seem, prima facie, to encourage this sort of fender-chasing. It’s limited by the order’s own safeguards on protected speech, however – and, critically, the administration and its allies have bigger pursuits. The order’s not all about crushing BDS (or Students for Justice in Palestine or the like). It’s about exercising broader control over academia.
For that purpose, successful Title VI investigations aren’t the be-all and end-all. However much the order’s advocates might revel over, say, a federal rebuke of the (Title VI-funded) Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, they know that punishment is only a means to the end of compliance – and just the threat of punishment, particularly when it carries public opprobrium, can suffice. In an age of austerity, neoliberal corporate universities, and popular skepticism of expertise, how much stomach will presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and other administrators have for courses, events, and research agendas that invite a Title VI investigation? In the face of potential federal defunding, donor losses, and public disapproval, how vigorously will they mount their defenses? In the face of the damage – to livelihoods, and to lives – that could be wrought, even in the absence of an official Title VI investigation, what will be the limits of (especially non-tenured) faculty, staff, and students? Tenured professors have already taken to social media to express their fears over the order’s potential effects. What will faculty’s next moves be, in terms of what they’re willing to take on in their courses and research – especially if they come under internally generated administrative pressure? (Principled resistance? Resigned concessions?) What will be the repercussions for their students? The subjects of their studies?
In fact, given the order’s widely ascribed anti-BDS intentions, it’s remarkable how it mirrors that movement’s playbook. It relies as much on moral suasion as concrete cases of success. It gives the administration, and its allies, the appearance of standing in solidarity with American Jews, especially students. And especially given how reasonable this order might seem (the ADL approved!), not least to a general public apprised of its bipartisan language, it parallels the anti-politics of philanthropy – creating an apparently “neutral” terrain of fighting antisemitism on campus, even as it shifts the political burden to leftist Jews who are now spending their limited resources explaining their opposition to an order that appears anodyne. The ball is now in their court. It’s got a wicked backspin.