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The AJS Must Stop Comparing Gaza to Auschwitz

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

February 8, 2023

The Jewish Studies Zionist Network is alarmed by the Fall 2022 “Justice Issue” of AJS Perspectives, published by our flagship academic organization, the Association for Jewish Studies.

Rather than examining the rich history of justice in Judaism and Jewish politics, the volume’s editors chose to focus disproportionately on how the contemporary Jewish community, both in America and Israel, impedes and undermines the universal quest for justice. Some of the artists and authors deploy inflammatory rhetoric and imagery that border on antisemitic. Rather than promoting scholarly inquiry, the volume seems intent on provoking indignation and embarrassment.

Most disturbing is Ruth Sergel’s “Gaza Ghetto,” a series of photographs in which the names of Gazans who have perished during the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflicts are etched in ink on the artist’s arm. Sergel’s objective is to evoke images of Jews tattooed as they were registered into the Auschwitz camp, thereby comparing Israel’s complex war with Hamas to the Final Solution. Leaving aside that such Holocaust inversion is utterly lacking in scholarly foundations – Jews tattooed at Auschwitz were slated for extermination, not unfortunate casualties of war – such imagery can be deeply traumatic for Survivors, their descendants, and the wider Jewish community. Moreover, numerous institutions and governments across the world regard comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany as a form of antisemitism, a rhetorical strategy deployed to undermine Israel’s right to exist and vilify its supporters abroad, many of whom are members of the AJS.

As Professor James Diamond of the University of Waterloo recently wrote in an open letter to the AJS, “those images have graphically violated every principle AJS espouses and should stand for as a professional academic organization for crossing the line from provocative art to perverse exploitive misappropriation of one people’s suffering to capture another’s. … What is fashionably referred to in the issue as ‘embodied’ art, insidiously dispossesses the unimaginable suffering of millions of actual bodies, both of those systematically murdered and tortured in the Shoah, and those who survived the horrors.”

The widely adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA WDA) contends that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” can be construed as a form of antisemitism. Although the AJS has not officially adopted the IHRA WDA, its leaders should nevertheless think twice before promoting Holocaust inversion as artistic expression.

The JSZN upholds the principle of artistic freedom and does not question Ruth Sergel’s right to produce such images, despite its affront to the victims of the Holocaust and its blatant propagation of antisemitic tropes. But we question the judgment exercised by the editors of AJS Perspectives in choosing to publish this incendiary material, without commentary, without critique, without scholarly context, in a venue whose purpose is to further academic inquiry, not to demonize Israel by comparing it to Nazi Germany and not to degrade the memory of exterminated Jews, the Survivors, and their families.

Notwithstanding the well-documented escalating climate of antisemitism in academia, the Association for Jewish Studies has largely desisted from entering the fray, ostensibly because its mission is to promote scholarship not activism. The AJS has never challenged the numerous statements issued by other academic associations and university programs demonizing Israel. Nor did the AJS speak up when hundreds of Jewish studies scholars blamed Israel entirely for the May 2021 conflict in Gaza, even though the vilification of Zionism as European colonialism precipitated a violent antisemitic backlash in the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, the decision to publish Ruth Sergel’s “Gaza Ghetto” suggests that the AJS has chosen to become an activist organization, siding with those who mean to do us harm.

The Jewish Studies Zionist Network is calling on the AJS and the editors of AJS Perspectives to issue a public apology for having demeaned the memory of the Holocaust, for having demonized the Jewish state and its citizens, and for having forsaken its mission to promote scholarship and debate in order to push a political agenda that is at best biased and at worst antisemitic.

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