The Hounding of Noam Pianko

Last month, the historian Noam Pianko, a professor at the University of Washington and the director of its Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, was compelled to resign as president of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). His offense was having attended a private Zoom meeting in March, at the invitation of academic colleagues, to discuss a scholarly paper relating to his field of American Jewish history.

Both the AJS committee forcing Pianko’s resignation and he in accepting and agreeing to it affirmed their theoretical commitment to academic freedom. “However,” he wrote in his explanatory note,

I have now come to understand that although I violated no AJS policy, my role as president of AJS necessitated a different set of obligations and standards than other members of the organization. Accepting this meeting invitation was a mistake.

Some cynics might say that Pianko’s confession-cum-resignation merely confirms the degree to which the AJS is striving to keep up with academic fashion. But this episode affects me personally because of my long investment in the field of Jewish studies and in the AJS itself. As it happens, the manner in which Pianko was forced out traces back to a development that confronted me in my own term as AJS president in the late 1980s. When I lost that particular battle—an episode to which I’ll return—I did not foresee the extent of damage that still lay in store and whose poisoned fruits lie everywhere about us. Involved in this resignation is not just some institutional squabble, but the intellectual integrity of the academic study of Judaism.

Where to start? In 2018, the Jewish press reported on a series of charges against Steven M. Cohen, a prominent sociologist and scholar of the American Jewish community. Accusing him of “sexual assault and harassment that dates back decades,” eight young women, some of whom had been in his employ, complained of unwanted touching, intrusive sexual questions, offensive remarks, and propositions for sex.

The women’s complaints included no mention of reward for sexual favors given or punishment for favors withheld, but their claims of distress and fear of professional retribution were considered serious enough to warrant termination of Cohen’s tenured position at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and, as reported in the Forward, the loss of “all official titles, roles, and affiliations with Jewish and academic institutions.” Organizations that had once commissioned research from him hired him no more: trust in him was withdrawn as completely as it had once been invested.

Since Cohen faced no criminal charges or civil lawsuits—and since he for his part refrained from suing his employer for unlawful dismissal—lawyers felt that neither side had a case strong enough to take to trial. This no doubt came as a relief to Jewish institutions that in a courtroom proceeding might have found themselves implicated or subjected to more bad publicity. As for the ostracized Cohen, without confessing to an actual transgression he accepted responsibility for having offended women and announced “a critical and painful examination of my behavior”:

In consultation with clergy, therapists, and professional experts, I am engaged in a process of education, recognition, remorse, and repair. I don’t know how long this t’shuvah [penitential] process will take. But I am committed to making the changes that are necessary to avoid recurrences in the future and, when the time is right, seek to apologize directly to, and ask forgiveness from, those I have unintentionally hurt.

Since he had been stripped of his authority, there was no professional arena where he might abuse it, and since there was no subsequent evidence of recidivism in his behavior, the resolution of this case would appear to have been at once a win for the complainants and a strong deterrent warning against similar behavior on the part of other men. Meanwhile, there being no evident stain on his scholarship itself, Cohen could theoretically resume work in whatever areas were still open to him. Even if organizations were not ready to hire him, the field could benefit from his decades of research.

Thus, it was to everyone’s advantage when three distinguished academic colleagues who had worked with Cohen over several decades included him in a private colloquium to discuss new issues and problems arising in the ever-changing fabric of American Jewish life. Their meetings went so well that from time to time they invited other researchers, including younger ones, to join their voluntary, online discussions in areas of common interest.

Noam Pianko was one of those who accepted the invitation; Emily Sigalow, an executive at UJA-Federation of New York, was one who refused and who then went public with her refusal, telling the Forward that these informal meetings “made a number of women in Jewish studies cringe.” Some of those who had launched the original complaints against Cohen now mobilized the Women’s Caucus of the AJS to topple Pianko from the presidency for his gross indiscretion. True, the defendant no longer constituted a threat; but like the phantom limb that continues to hurt, phantom-Cohen was said to be prolonging the women’s pain and was to be judged by how much, and however long, it lasted.

This, then, was no longer about a senior scholar who had made unwanted advances to younger women—that such advances crossed a line no one disputes—but something else altogether: a #MeToo claim of victimhood in service of a larger social cause. What had seemed a sensible alternative to a lawsuit had morphed into a permanent campaign of harassment against both Cohen and his academic associates.

To be clear: there are serious sex-related crimes that, in a workplace, may include coercion, blackmail, or intimidation. Rape and physical abuse are but the gravest of such offenses that should always be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law. In each case, however, the severity of the offense is determined by the nature of the abuse, not by the sensibility of the plaintiff(s). If the kind of behavior of which Cohen was accused is no longer to be distinguished from higher levels of injury, will predators soon be permitted simply to apologize for their acts while mashers are handed lifetime sentences as culprits in perpetuity?

At the AJS, an ancillary sphere of damage in the phantom-Cohen case was addressed in a statement organized by the American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna. Signed by himself and his fellow past presidents, myself included, the statement deplored the events surrounding Noam Pianko’s resignation and reaffirmed our commitment to academic freedom. Without actually naming the overreach perpetrated by the AJS Executive Committee, the statement reiterated that the organization was created to advance research and teaching in Jewish studies and to uphold academic freedom, which emphatically includes “the right to pursue, teach, and publish knowledge without undue interference, subject to peer review and judged only by academic standards.” Unspoken but clearly implied was that the AJS executive had betrayed its mandate by asking for Pianko’s resignation and that he had compounded the disgrace by agreeing to step down.

The pressure came from the Women’s Caucus of the AJS. Nor was this the first time that the Women’s Caucus had been granted veto powers in the AJS. At least one more such offense had occurred in 2017 when Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and other participants in a scheduled AJS panel on the music of Leonard Cohen were informed that their session had been canceled because of the inclusion of Leon Wieseltier, who had stood accused of similar behavior while at the New Republic—again with no formal indictment.

Against that earlier peremptory action I had remonstrated with the AJS executive privately; this time around, I was grateful to Jonathan Sarna for organizing a formal protest. But the AJS declined to post the statement of its past presidents on its website for longer than a day, even as it continued to feature the phantom-Cohen complaint of the women.

And this brings me back to my tenure as president (1986-1988), during which a group of women introduced the idea of a Women’s Caucus. Although a number of academic interest groups were already using the organization’s annual conference as an opportunity to gather by discipline or by affiliation with one or more academic publications, the new group ambiguously blended the study of women with a gender-defined cause. While some members did use their meetings to develop the fledgling field of women’s studies, the caucus served others as a feminist bloc.

I tried to dissuade the founders from forming the caucus on the basis of gender. First, against their claim that young women felt disadvantaged in what was still a male stronghold, I urged that precisely for that reason they should make a point of caucusing with fellow academics in their various disciplines, because only by participating in meetings and seminars with their senior colleagues could they both feel at home and make their home in the AJS. Second, I argued that political factionalism was antithetical to the vision of Jewish studies, a field that would suffer badly if extraneous categories were introduced and one bad example would inevitably encourage others.

In fact, about the same time, none other than Steven M. Cohen was forming within the AJS a chapter of Americans for Peace Now. I argued against that, too, as an egregious intrusion of politics into an academic organization, but I wasted my breath; he did not care about such niceties.

In this respect, incidentally, I never doubted the later claim by women that Cohen was ill-mannered; that part I knew to be true. And I might even have enjoyed the irony of his fate at the hands of the feminists if there were less at stake. But meanwhile the increasingly radical politicization of the academy had begun and proceeded in earnest, and it was but a matter of time for the AJS to catch up.

I will leave for another occasion an account of how a growing sector of the AJS has drifted steadily into the campus campaign against Israel, and stick to the issue before us. But here the lens needs to be widened. For, as it turns out, Steven Cohen had long been in the ideological sights of women’s groups—not for his manners, but for his research. From this perspective, the hounding of Noam Pianko offered a perfect occasion for slandering the research group whose meeting Pianko had joined and much more besides.

The articles of indictment go like this: the American Jewish community’s emphasis on self-perpetuation—on “continuity,” to use a once-favored term—has itself been an exercise in corrupt male power, typified in this case by the work done by Cohen and his fellow scholars. Not to put too fine a point on it, Cohen, who conducted many research projects for Jewish communal organizations, was to be seen as the very symbol of the repressive Jewish “patriarchy.” Therefore, disallowing association with him was potentially a means of shutting down what he allegedly stood for.

Sound far-fetched? Not I but the historians Lila Corwin Berman, Kate Rosenblatt, and Ronit Y. Stahl forged this connection and explained it in both the Forward and in an academic article titled “The History and Sexual Politics of an American Jewish Communal Project.” Here is a selection of their chief contentions and conclusions:

A Jewish continuity paradigm emerged forcefully in the 1970s as a set of expert pronouncements and community policies that treated women and their bodies as data points in service of a particular vision of Jewish communal survival.

Condemning intermarriage and decrying low child-bearing rates became signature features of the affective work of Jewish communal research.

American Jewish continuity discourse was embedded within patriarchal and misogynistic structures.

Jewish organizations used data to define, typify, and stabilize “the Jewish family.” This was unsurprising in the context of the cold war. Beginning in the 1950s, the nuclear family became the cultural and political touchstone that turned researchers’ attention to gender roles and sexual behavior as the core variables for defining norms and deviances. The stakes, however, were higher than simple research. Rather, the effort to produce and monitor heterosexual family units with mothers, fathers, and children was central to domestic containment of encroaching Soviet Communism.

We believe that power, expertise, and gender norms are operative and entangled forces in Jewish studies and Jewish communal life deserving of historically grounded analysis.

These deadening Marxoid pronouncements reframe the effort to perpetuate Jewishness in America as a dystopian project of enforced reproduction. Every sensible Jewish communal initiative to encourage Jewish marriage, family, and education as the sustaining features of Diaspora survival is defined as a suspect tool of indoctrination. Scholars who apply social science in determining trends of growth and decline are the “entangled forces” fueling a despotic attempt to control women’s bodies.

And so forth. Just as the academic left frames the traditional image of the American family as an outdated tool of cold-war propaganda, so these scholars condemn the Jewish emphasis on “continuity” as a device for ensuring conformist submission: a misogynistic, patriarchal, and chauvinistic scheme to turn Jewish women into “data-points” for baby-making. The thinking, radically dissociated from any conceivable reality, reveals a view of life so hollow and ultimately cruel that it must kill off anything joyous and hopeful in its path—starting with American Jews who aspire to sustain the millennial-old experiment of Diaspora survival in the world’s most open society.

Thus do the Women’s Caucistas, who may or may not recognize the provenance of the slogans they invoke, project their own reductionist and totalitarian thinking onto others. Meanwhile, Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis, Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee and Yeshiva University—the senior scholars who invited their long-time colleague to join their discussion group—are my nominees for the most sober, balanced, and trustworthy students of American Jewish life. Their findings and their writings demonstrate how rigorously they draw the line between research and its application, data and their interpretation. If the personal views of a researcher are of issue only when they interfere with the integrity of the work, these scholars set the gold standard for the profession. The same cannot be said for the women whose ideology requires that they shut down their betters.

When the founders of the AJS in the late 1960s fought to introduce Jewish studies into American universities, they hoped that the study of Jewish civilization in all of its facets would supplement and enrich the offerings and scope of American higher education. The people forged at Sinai had stayed independent of many forms of barbarism, and professors in their diverse disciplines were expected to do the same. Today, if there are still researchers and teachers who uphold the original stated values of the AJS, which include “the right of all members to articulate beliefs and positions without fear of retribution,” and “to build bridges among Jewish scholars and professionals, the Jewish community, and the wider public,” they may have to become independent of the organization that once upheld these goals.

In 2007, Professors Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution concluded that their field’s umbrella organization, Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), was too corrupted by anti-Israel and other ideological trends to serve as a genuine learned society. They founded ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, because there was no other way to reclaim the high standards of academic research and teaching in their area.

Now a hostile ideology is pushing the AJS to a similar breaking point, and those in the field of Jewish studies face a similar impasse. True, the rot is everywhere in academia, but that is no comfort to those desirous of conserving the integrity of their precious domain. However they respond, members and would-be members of AJS, if they wish to protect study of the Jews and the American Jewish community, must be prepared to do battle.

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. 

The opinions expressed here are her own.

Read the original post in Mosaic.

Photo Credit: Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images.

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