The Day the University Died

William Kolbrener

The only hope for the Humanities, and the Liberal Arts, and the American University, had been the eradication of antisemitism from its midst. But with October 7th and its aftermath, the calls for genocide of Jews on university campuses, and I say this as an English Professor, the University is not DOA.

For Israelis, like myself, October 7th was the worse day in Jewish history since the holocaust. For Americans, like myself, the days after are even more terrifying. Professors and students at major research universities, private colleges, state universities, celebrate atrocities which we thought would never again be repeated. Now they have been perpetuated, recorded, celebrated, and, often in the same breath, denied.

The Humanities – maligned for decades by the people who were meant to represent it – once formed the bastion against religious and political fundamentalisms. But the woke enlightenment on campuses – I got my PhD in English from Columbia in the 80s – has turned English Departments into activist dens of political orthodoxy, a regression into fundamentalism.

Puritanism has always gripped the right in America, but messianic piety took over the left, long before October 7, especially in the Humanities. Coercive orthodoxy reigns where jobs, promotion, and tenure depend on keeping the party line. Curiosity had been replaced by close-mindedness; creativity stifled by uniformity. I have lived in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem. But, today, I see who the REAL fundamentalists are: the progressives who glorify Islamic martyrdom; who make shrines to Hamas murderers; who chase Jewish students at Carnegie Mellon, in fear for their lives, into underground tunnels.

This has not come out of nowhere. Anti-Zionism has always been the tell for woke progressives. Don’t bother trying to qualify for woke credentials unless you are a fervent believer in Palestine. I see it first-hand as an English professor.

Literary critics are supposed to be suspicious of stories that oversimplify, but with Israel/Palestine, the one-and-only story has become a children’s allegory: the Palestinians are Good, the Zionist Jews, Evil. Open to pluralism and different perspectives in every other context, Israel/Palestine gets told as a Medieval Morality Play, the Jews as modern Christ killers.

The intersectional alliance – like its Puritan predecessors – offers salvation, just not for the Jew. Israel/Palestine is not incidental to the intersectional identity but defining of it. The leaders of the Dyke March in Chicago in 2017 turned away the Zionist (Jewish) lesbians who had superimposed a magen David on a rainbow flag. The organizers of the Philadelphia food festival in 2021 told the Moshava Food truck, featuring ‘Israeli-style’ cuisine, to leave the premises. Because of all the different faiths, gender orientations, and political position, only the Zionist is excluded. All other beliefs are up-for-grabs, but Zionism is the agreed-upon-anchor, the metaphysical evil, giving stability to their moral universe. The long-seething bloodlust against Jews has shown itself in Hamas atrocities, as well as in the progressive apologetics for them, as darkness, as John Milton puts it, visible. Sadly, and terrifyingly, the October Revolution on university campuses, turns out to waged against the Jews, even the Jewish progressives who now discover the war is against them.

Over the millennia, the very existence of the Jew has been the reminder to those who pursue the absolute truth of political and religious movements, that their truths are incomplete. We prove the lie of all fundamentalisms – first to early Christianity, now to the woke. Jews have always known and suffered the dangers of coercive orthodoxies, even those, or especially those based upon love.

Today, however, the Humanities have entered the dark ages of their own scholastic fundamentalism, an unforgiving orthodoxy which advertises belief in difference, but aims to annihilate its historical advocates, the Jew. One professor at UC Davis told her Twitter followers that Jewish journalists have ‘kids with addresses’ – ‘we know where you live’ – her message punctuated by blood, axe, and knife emojis. In the meantime, university presidents offer lame condemnations, and psychological services, instead of addressing student and faculty calls for pogroms.

After World War II in America, Jews like M.H. Abrams, Lionel Trilling, Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish, did not cancel Christian literature – and when you think of it, why not? – but created the modern discipline of literary study. They made the Humanities the defining discipline of the Liberal Arts. In turn, the Liberal Arts once made the university a place for critical introspection, open discourse, toleration, and pluralism. But after October 7th, the Humanities have moved into their Stalinist phase, the Jew the primary target and victim. Some Progressive Jews, out of denial, who are now reading the writing on the wall are now homeless. For them and the rest of us, looking for language, meaning, and poetry after the October Revolution, the University is dead: we must look elsewhere.

A version of this article first appeared in the Forward right after October 7