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Woke Academics Invited to Israel: Stay or Go?

What would a scholarly talk on Hamlet be without mentioning the Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land?

This happened, this past year at one of the world's great research centers, the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During my one-year tenure as fellow, I had the privilege to work with extraordinary scholars of unassailable pedigree from Europe, the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere.

This has also been the year that I experienced, directly and personally, the undermining of the Humanities, not from the external financial pressures from an increasingly STEM-based university, but also, and even more depressingly, from within. [1]


Living in Israel (as I have since 1992), I had followed the slow, creeping evolution of the “Woke Academy” since I left Columbia University in NYC – where I received my PhD in English in the 80s. I resisted then believing what American colleagues have now been telling me for some time, that the edgy critical theory that helped shape me as a scholar had transformed, over the decades, into an orthodoxy.

At Columbia, I studied post-structuralism, deconstruction and Marxist cultural theory. Coming out of Roslyn, one of Long Island's premier upper-middle class suburbs, literary theory taught me that criticism almost always begins with an external perspective of questioning. Further, if we can speak of something called ‘truth,’ it also includes whatever is discovered reading from more than one perspective. The pursuit of truth must be a process; progressive academics, in the name of pluralism, multiplicity and the newly-coined ‘intersectionality,’ demand assent to a set of already-decided positions.

What I saw this year at the Institute is that curiosity has been replaced by close-mindedness and creativity stifled by orthodoxy. Puritanism has always gripped the right in America, but messianic piety has now overcome the left as well.

I live in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, and today’s “progressives” may well outdo my Haredi neighbors in their public expressions of uncompromising belief. If I were to advertise my religious views with a similar degree of enthusiasm, my academic colleagues would likely cancel me, disavow me as a fanatical extremist.

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William Kolbrener is a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan and Director of Academic Development for ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy).
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