The Use and Misuse of a UVA Lecture Series

by James A. Bacon

The “fixation” of modern-day Israelis on the Holocaust has become a “vast and ugly fig leaf” hiding oppression of Palestinians and giving Israelis license to brush aside moral qualms about their response to the October 7 terror attacks, Brown University historian Omer Bartov told an audience of 60 or so people Tuesday at the University of Virginia.

In vowing to “never again” let Jews fall prey to genocidal extermination, Israelis indulge in “self-victimization,” “self pity,” and “self righteousness,” said Bartov, an Israeli-born Jew who has built his academic career around the study of the Holocaust and genocide. “It’s not a condition conducive to understanding, toleration, and reconciliation.”

The lecture, entitled, “The Never Again Syndrome: Uses and Misuses of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Global Politics,” was one in a series of events billed by UVA leadership as broadening understanding of the Middle East conflict. The lecture series is an outgrowth of the tension between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups at UVA. Jewish students have complained of a hostile environment that leaves them afraid to speak out or even openly identify as Jews. In a parallel initiative, the Ryan administration created a religious diversity task force to understand how Jewish and Muslim students, faculty and staff “experience life on Grounds.”

“We have much to learn about the world from those with academic expertise and those with lived experience,” Provost Ian Baucom told UVA Today in January in announcing the series. “We recognize that the ongoing war in the Middle East affects members of the UVA community in different ways, and providing opportunities to learn from and support one another is one of the most important things we can do as an educational institution.”

Many parents of Jewish students at UVA don’t see much “support” for pro-Israeli Jews in the lecture series, however. One mother of two students at UVA wrote President Jim Ryan to ask him to cancel the Bartov speech. The scholar, she noted, had signed an open letter urging U.S. Jewish groups to protest the Israeli occupation in Palestine on the grounds that it operates an “apartheid” regime. “This event is poised to provoke by portraying Israel as guilty of genocide, further fueling tensions on campus,” she wrote.

The administration did not oblige her.

Bartov was introduced by Ahmed H. al-Rahim, a professor of Islamic Studies at UVA. In his speech, the Brown professor traced the history of Holocaust remembrance from World War II to the present time. He argued that Israelis and Arabs engaged in a kind of rhetorical escalation in attributing genocidal intent to one another.

Bartov spent no time analyzing Palestinian accusations of genocide, however, choosing instead to focus on Israeli rhetoric. The Holocaust has been inserted “anachronistically” into the discourse, he said. The emphasis on “Never Again,” he suggested, “creates a fixation on the very thing one wishes to prevent and provides license to violence.”

The Nazis’ “final solution” must be seen in the context of other genocides in 20th-century history, Bartov insisted. He cited a succession of mass murders: the Herero people in Southwest Africa by the Germans, Eastern European pogroms against the Jews, the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, the butchery of the Congo peoples by King Leopold of Belgium, and Stalin’s mass butchery of Russians and Ukrainians. The Holocaust of the Jews did have unique features such as assembly-line killing in concentration camps, but it was “part of a larger trajectory,” he said.

After World War II the reaction of Israeli Jews toward the Holocaust was largely one of shame — embarrassment that the Jews had been unable to defend themselves. Israel was seen as the homeland where the Jews had a state of their own and the ability to fight back.

However, the formation of the Jewish state in 1948 was entwined with the injustice of 750,000 Palestinians forced from their homes during a calamity they call the Nakba, Bartov said. “The Shoah and the Nakba became entangled.”

“Ironically,” Bartov noted, “Israel turned out to be the least safe place to be a Jew.”

By the 1980s Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust had evolved. Bartov contended that Israelis began emphasizing the historically singular horror of the genocide as a way to forge national solidarity among diverse Jewish groups “based on fear and trepidation.” The “Never Again” mentality created a “phobia” that the whole world was against Israel and “liberated Israel from the constraints on all other nations.” In the process, Israel’s foes became “worthy of destruction,” and the Israel Defense Force was envisioned as “a remorseless tool of destruction.”

Most Israelis, said Bartov, see the military assault on Gaza as a just response to a “genocidal” mass murder on October 7, and they see Hamas as a “Nazi-like organization.”

Bartov is not the problem. Should the UVA administration have canceled the speech that some Jews (and non-Jews) found offensive? No. Bartov should be free to espouse his views; those who want to hear them should be free to listen to them; and those who disagree should be free to critique them.

The problem at UVA is not showcasing Bartov’s perspective. The problem, at a time when many Jews regard UVA as a hostile environment, is showcasing only one side of a contentious debate.

The Bartov speech must be seen in the context of the series of speeches that UVA has held or has scheduled this spring. Examine the flier atop this post. In fine print at the bottom appears the following (my bold):

Presented by the Islamic Studies Unit of the Religious Studies Department, this lecture series regards the Israel-Palestine Conflict. The invited speakers will offer perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict that have not yet been heard on Grounds, particularly (though not limited) to those that bring Palestinian and Arab perspectives into the public conversation, as appropriate to our collective expertise.

There is no pretense of being even-handed here. And there seems to be no pretense on the part of the Provost’s Office of being even-handed either. A systemic pro-Palestinian bias can be seen in the line-up of speakers listed on the Provost Office’s website.

Before providing capsule descriptions of those events below, let me offer some caveats. First, I have heard only the Bartov speech, none of the others. I infer bias in the other speeches from the identity of the speakers or the description of the events. I am willing to stand corrected if I mischaracterize anyone. Second, some of the events have not occurred yet. Some speakers might surprise us with what they have to say. If you disagree with my assessment, please feel free to dispute them in the comments. We do encourage opposing viewpoints.

With that, let’s see what the UVA community is learning about Israel and Palestine.

Standing Together: A Conversation About Israel
February 11, 2024
How it was billed:
Sally Abed and Alon-Lee Green—leaders of the Israeli Arab-Jewish grassroots movement Standing Together (Omdim Beyachad-Naqif Ma’an)—discuss a vision for a shared, equal, and just society.
Context: Standing Together describes itself as “a grassroots movement mobilizing Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in pursuit of peace, equality, and social and climate justice.” In other words, it is a left-wing group hostile to the war aims of the Israeli government.

Advocating for Middle East and North Africa’s Inclusion in U.S. Census With U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib
February 12, 2024
How it was billed:
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib will join an online conversation to discuss the perennial issue of MENA (Middle Eastern North African) communities’ omission from the U.S. Census.
Context: The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib is a member of “The Squad,” a group of left-wing congresspersons. This event was designed to create sympathy for Palestinians and Arabs in the U.S.

Why We Choose Dialogue: An Israeli and a Palestinian Share Their Stories of Loss and Wish for Peace​
February 27, 2024
How it was billed:
An Israeli and a Palestinian who have lost family members in the conflict will tell their personal stories of bereavement and explain their choice to engage in dialogue instead of revenge. Presented by the Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization made up of more than 700 bereaved families.
Context: PCFF is a pacifist organization whose website says, “the process of reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable peace. The organization thus utilizes all resources available in education, public meetings and the media, to spread these ideas.” In other words, it opposes the war conduct of the Israeli government.

A Doctor Reports From Gaza
March 13, 2024
How it was billed: American plastic surgeon and Virginia resident, Dr. Irgan Galaria, will speak about his recent trip to Gaza as part of a medical mission. Join us as he reports back on what he witnessed as well as helps us think about the ethics and responsibilities of medicine in times of conflict.
Context: The event emphasized Palestinian victimhood and suffering.

Palestine and Palestinians in Modern History: Denialism & the Question of Genocide
March 21
How it is billed:
Dr. Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History and Chancellor’s Chair at the University of California Berkeley.
Context: Here’s what Makdisi tweeted the day after October 7: “Just waking up to the news. Go read CLR James, Black Jacobins, on the violence of the oppressed. And then try to ignore the utterly racist double standard of Western politicians and media when it comes to questions of resistance and occupation and international law.”

The Israel-Hamas Conflict: Ways forward
March 25, 2024
How it is billed:
Mara Rudman, a former U.S. deputy national security advisor and a professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, moderates a discussion on constructive ways forward with Ghaith al-Omari, former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team…
Context: Al-Amari undoubtedly will give full voice to the Palestinians. Nimrod Novik does provide an Israeli viewpoint, but he has criticized policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the Front Line: The Emotional Toll
April 9, 2024
How it is billed: Join a distinguished panel of photojournalists — including Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographers — as they explore how their profession keeps the public well-informed and share their perspectives on what it’s like to work in some of the most challenging areas in the world.
Context: Suffering Palestinians make better photos than Israeli tanks.

Christian White Nationalism in American Antisemitism Past and Present
April 15, 2024
How it’s billed: Public lecture by Riv-Ellen Prell (University of Minnesota). Reception to follow. Sponsored by the UVA Jewish Studies Program.
Context: Wait, what? I thought the problem was how the UVA community deals with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. How did Christian White Nationalists get pulled into this? How is this remotely helpful?

Advanced Public Policy & Leadership Seminar – International Humanitarian Law: Conflicts in Middle East
Spring 2024 Semester.
How it’s billed: Sponsored by Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy. Taught by Batten lecturer Jane Zimmerman.
Context: Zimmerman was a career U.S. diplomat before coming to UVA. This U.S. state department perspective is likely to be more balanced.

Christian White Nationalism. The racial classification of Arab-Americans in the U.S. Census. Neither of these shed any light on the Israel-Hamas conflict that is at the root of unease at UVA, and it is a mystery why they belong in this speaker line-up. But their inclusion does do one thing: it reveals the mindset of the Provost’s Office.

The perspectives provided in the lecture series are overwhelmingly leftist; they portray the Palestinians as victims and are hostile to the Israeli war effort. This is deliberate. The UVA administration has spurned multiple offers by Jewish parents to bring pro-Israeli voices to the Grounds. UVA’s offense is not giving a soapbox to Bartov but its refusal to provide a forum for alternative views.