At academia, ‘the Left’ is a very uncomfortable place to be in now

Sgt KOSHER ,BEELD DAT LIJKT OP Sgt Peppers lonely hearts club band

After the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas on the 7th of October, my world has tilted in an unexpected way. The ground feels unsteady, I feel out-of-step with many things. Of these many swiftly tilting certainties, the one that shouldn’t surprise me, but does, is how out of step I feel in my work.

I’m an academic. And within the academic world, I’m a “good Jew.” If you know me at all, I suppose you could say that this statement is up for debate, laughable even. My synagogue attendance seems to be mostly limited to High Holidays. I enjoy a cheeseburger when I’m not in one of my periodic bouts of lackadaisical vegetarianism. My Hebrew remains stubbornly stuck at Bat Mitzvah level – a Bat Mitzvah which occurred some decades ago, I might add. I am – or was – a ‘good Jew’, though, in the academic university world in which so much of my life has been spent. 

A ‘good Jew’

As a ‘good Jew’ in the academic world I did what is now termed ‘virtue signaling’ whenever anything verging on the topic of Israel/Palestine came up. I practically tripped over my tongue to make sure that everyone knew that I was ‘progressive’. 

My colleagues in the many departments at the myriad universities and research centers around the world where I have worked over the years needed to be reassured, and as quickly as possible, that I didn’t blindly support Israel ‘right or wrong’. 

Loyal to each other?

This is what they suspect all Jews think and feel, of course. It’s a modern iteration of the pervasive idea that all Jews are first loyal to each other. I managed to allay their doubts by dropping in my concern for Palestinian rights, my eschewing of the Netanyahu government, my activism, however armchair or ineffective it might have been, whenever I could.  After all, it was important for all my academic colleagues to know that I was on the good side. I was a good Jew. Not one of those savage Israelis. Not part of some ‘Israel lobby’. Not tribal. Open-minded. Nuanced. A good Jewish academic.

Anti-Israel, even antisemitic, bias

The academic world skews overwhelmingly left. I have also skewed left in my politics, too, both on Israel and other issues. Yet the Left, whatever spectrum of ideologies and policies that may encompass, is also a very uncomfortable place for me to be in now. There has been a spate of articles in both the Dutch and international press decrying the Left for its anti-Israel, even antisemitic, bias. They do this far more eloquently than I have or can. Read them if you’re interested. They’re easy to find.

Junior colleagues who don’t feel they can speak up when their own department heads sign petitions calling for the destruction of Israel.

Sad, scared, lonely, angry

I was asked, by the editors of De Vrijdagavond, to write something different, something personal. 

So let me tell you what this ‘good Jewish academic’ is feeling: sad, scared, lonely, angry. In the end, all my years of effort to be the ‘good academic Jew’ don’t seem to matter. Because if I proclaim my sorrow at the loss of 1400 people, the kidnapping of hundreds of people, including babies, grandmothers, the rape and murder of people, civilians, going about their daily lives, this casts doubt upon my ‘academic goodness’. Because we should all proclaim explicitly or implicitly, that these Israelis had it coming. Terms like ‘settler colonialism’ are thrown around with abandon as some sort of justification for murder, rape, kidnap. 

Conversations over coffee

We Jewish academics should tacitly support, or at least turn a blind eye to, ignore, calls for the destruction of Israel ‘from the river to the sea.’ Better yet, for our academic ‘street cred’, we should march along. If and when we don’t fall into line with the prevailing academic group think, all those years of being the ‘good academic Jew’, all those conversations over coffee and in workshops and seminars and conferences with judicious nodding along of our heads, will go out the window. We (or I) are what our colleagues always thought we were. Just a Jew.

Of course, there are worse things than losing academic colleagues and friends. After all, I could have been at Kibbutz Be’eri, or in a tunnel in Gaza. Or an innocent Gazan just trying to live my life in horrible conditions. I could even be like some more junior colleagues at different universities who don’t feel they can speak up when their own department heads sign petitions calling for the destruction of Israel. In good academic jargon, I am privileged.

Wonderful colleagues at the VU

Let me hasten to add that I happen to have wonderful direct colleagues. My faculty of Religion and Theology at the VU is full of genuine, warm, caring people who have reached out to me from their various points upon religious and political spectrums. I am grateful to them, and I know I have their support and understanding, even if we don’t always agree on every issue. My concern is for the academic environment at other universities, worldwide.

If I express solidarity with my own people (yes, there you go! I am tribal after all), I will be dismissed as a crank, a right-wing reactionary.

But it’s still sad and painful that after all my years of scholarly work and achievement, if I don’t tread a very fine line, if I let my grief and pain and anger show too much or too publicly, if I express solidarity with my own people (yes, there you go! I am tribal after all), I will be dismissed as a crank, a right-wing reactionary, someone not even worth discussing anything with. A relic. An embarrassment to whatever department or faculty I’m in. Someone the students want to avoid, whisper about, or who seek to contradict and challenge and mock at every turn in classes.

Relegated to the corner with the old white male professors who thought that the Dutch East India Company had some positive effects or that the enslavement of Africans wasn’t that bad. And possibly even someone to be avoided in the most ‘progressive’ of Jewish spaces, as well.

A ‘good Jew’ never fits in

But, really, isn’t that what being Jewish is? No matter how hard we try to be the ‘good Jew’, to fit in, to say and do the right thing, we’re never going to be beyond reproach, good enough. 

The hope of the nation of Israel

That, of course, was the hope of the nation of Israel, however tarnished it may have become by all the events since its founding. That there could be one place in the world where Jews didn’t have to fit in, put on a mask, play act. Be ‘good’ or ‘useful’ or prove our worth. We could just . . . be. Now that it seems so very threatened, it’s very hard to find any equilibrium at all. The world keeps tilting. 

cover: beeld gezien in Joods Museum Amsterdam, foto Bloom

Over Jessica Roitman 2 Artikelen
Jessica Vance Roitman is Professor of Jewish Studies at the Free University of Amsterdam. She is an historian whose work engages with colonialism, religion, and ethnicity. Her focus has been on Jewish communities in colonial spaces, with a particular emphasis on the Dutch Caribbean from the 1700-1900s. She is interested in the boundaries between groups and in processes of minoritization and belonging.


  1. Well written. You expressed a commun feeling. I have never experienced such feeling of uncertainty and unsafe.

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