Professor William Kolbrener

Professor William Kolbrener

William Kolbrener, professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, earned his MA from Oxford and his PhD from Columbia University. He is the author of books on the eighteenth-century British proto-feminist Mary Astell, as well as John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost.  He has also written The Last Rabbi on Joseph Soloveitchik, and a collection of personal essays, Open Minded Torah.  Kolbrener was a lecturer on the 2019 ISGAP-Oxford Summer Institute for Curriculum Development in Critical Antisemitism Studies.

Professor William Kolbrener reflects on the corrupting and ideologised pedagogy in higher education that is creating ‘a moral cosmos as rigid as any to be found in conventional theologies’ and which not only demonises Israel but erodes the very basis of the liberal university. He calls for those committed to democracy to make clear that Zionism is an outgrowth of liberalism, and asks ‘haven’t we learned in recent years that an imperfect reason is preferable to the savagery of demagogues and absolutists? Can we finally give up that very particular Western notion – which has the status of a given in Humanist education today – that enlightenment is worse than its alternatives?’ 

The BDS movement in the US gets its lifeblood from the progressive academy – post-humanist professors with a simplistic ideological narrative, and millennial students who assent to a tweetable narrative they can easily understand. In this narrative, Israel stands for the evils of Western modernity while a fantasy Palestine, sanitised of religious fundamentalism, intolerance and political extremism, stands for the alternative. An illiberal pedagogy, now dominant in the Humanities, drives home this plainly political agenda.

The resulting lack of historical contextualisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Middle Eastern Studies Departments, when combined with the lack of historical memory among millennials, makes combatting BDS a particularly difficult challenge. An undergraduate, for example, will tweet the Irish Times’s‘Arab-Israeli Conflict in 10 Points’ which fails to mention the dates 1948 or 1973, without realising the list may be controversial.

And it’s not just the millennial assent to BDS which is problematic. Also damaging is the surreptitious entry of anti-Israel sentiment into more moderate discourses about Israel. Moderation, reason, and liberalism per se are all now held under suspicion. BDS and the progressive coalition that supports it undermine the very language of liberal democracy and the principles of education which have informed it for at least a century. Indeed, it is the collapse of liberalism in America – the emergence of populist left and right – that most challenges Israeli claims to existence.


The attack on Israel as a central part of a neo-liberal hegemony is inculcated in a distinctive pedagogy in the contemporary post-humanist – the ‘human’ is also a category of domination, apparently – Humanities. Famously, in the 1960s, the Chilean revolutionary pedagogue Paolo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argued that the ruling class ensure education limits reflection, creativity and innovation among the people. Freire opposed this, believing that true education, and indeed civilization, depend upon dialogue, and if the relationship between educator and student is modelled on the Hegelian master-slave relationship, then the possibility of genuine communication is undermined.

Today, a new pedagogy of the oppressed manifests itself in the American academy, taking two forms. First, those enlightened to the colonial usurpation of Palestine by Israel enact the ‘banking model’ of education in which the knowing – ‘woke’ – professor deposits information into the passive mind of the student. This education-as-ideological-initiation parallels the model of education Freire criticised, encouraging acquiescence not initiative. Second, students certain of the singular narrative they have imbibed, then themselves become agents working against critical reflection, as they refuse engagement or argument with other frameworks – whether in other classrooms, on social media, or at home. Applied to Israel/Palestine, this new pedagogy of the oppressed involves the woke saying to those who disagree with them: ‘don’t you dare communicate with me.’ Indeed the invocation of rational discourse and democracy is viewed as entailing a surreptitious form of intellectual conquest. Skepticism towards liberal values – and to Israel, now framed as the distillation of all the evils of the neo-liberal West – is cast as critical thinking, and becomes the most visible and effective form of virtue-signaling.


Central to the story of how Israel became associated with the historical sins of neo-liberalism, the failure of enlightenment, and the fundamentalism of religion is the work of the Frankfurt School in post-World War Two Germany, particularly of two Jews, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Founded in the early years of the Weimar Republic, the Frankfurt School brought together Hegelian philosophy, Marxist political thought, and eventually Freudian psychoanalysis all under the rubric of a critique of Western capitalism. Under the threat of Nazism, Horkheimer and Adorno moved their ‘School for Social Research’ from Frankfurt to Geneva, and eventually to New York in 1935. Though made up of European intellectuals, including the neo-Freudian Eric Fromm and the sociologist Leo Lowenthal, by 1940 all the members of the Institute had become American citizens, with the Frankfurt critique of Western culture now emanating from Southern California. Outside of academic circles, Adorno became known for the proclamation ‘no poetry after Auschwitz,’ by which he meant that the Nazi Death camps marked the end of any pretense of Western refinement and culture. How, after all, do you write a sonnet in the shadow of Auschwitz?

The pursuit of enlightenment and rational universalism, in Adorno’s view, led directly to the Nazis, with the distinction between civilization and barbarism blurred in the Final Solution. Enlightenment, in this reading, contains the seeds of its own destruction, the eventual domination of the world through a reason that had been rendered fully ‘instrumental’ in the service of the State, leading ultimately to genocide. That is, for Adorno, the promises of enlightenment freedom led to fascism and the death camps.

In a bizarre, even perverse historical twist, the humanists of the 1980s appropriated the Frankfurt School antipathy towards Western enlightenment, providing a legacy for today’s progressives, who have turned their suspicions against Israel and the Jews. Starting in the 1970s, Michel Foucault, the most influential figure in the humanities over the past four decades, adopted the perspective of the Frankfurt School for social and cultural history. Writing on love, sex, mental illness, and the prison system, Foucault found all aspects of Western life to be in the ‘fields of power,’ with his Discipline and Punish turning the prison into a metaphor for Western cultural domination. For Foucault and his followers, notwithstanding appearances, all social relations are governed by power. All reason is nothing but instrumental reason, whatever its garb, whatever its self-image. In fact, Foucault shows the ways in which the systemic institutional injustices of the civilized West have been pursued in the name of enlightenment values.

A self-acknowledged follower of Foucault, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton gave voice to the still-prevalent academic gospel in his popular Literary Theory of 1983, that reason must be understood as a ‘dominative’ instrument of ‘patriarchy and Enlightenment,’ affirming with the latter pairing that enlightenment shares patriarchy’s bad name. The Marxist literary critic, Edward Said, still the guiding-spirit of many American Middle Eastern Study Departments in America, re-packaged Foucault, calling the Enlightenment the ‘master-sign’ of both Orientalism and colonialism. In the now canonical Orientalism– bridging between the continental literary criticism of the 70s and Marxist political activism – Said linked Zionism, for him the colonialist project par excellence, and enlightenment rationality. That the real aims of the purveyors of enlightenment are power and domination is writ large in the Jewish State, standing as a symbol for all the excesses of the West.

Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies Departments may currently be dominated by a post-modern ethos asserting the relativity of all values. Yet with the Frankfurt School ethos implicit in contemporary cultural and social critique emanating from Humanities Departments, Israel and the Jews serve as an anchor for a surreptitious new morality and an accompanying sanctimony, as not Nazi Germany but Israel represents the dystopian apotheosis of Western civilization. What starts with Frankfurt School as a critique of enlightenment reason and fascism is now turned against Israel and the Jews. That newly-elected members of the US Congress are preparing for a visit to Israel/Palestine, expecting to find what the Fatah Central Committee Secretary Jibril Rajoub described as ‘an Auschwitz in every city in Palestine’ shows the extent to which the Frankfurt School language condemning the Nazis has been turned on its head, now applied to Zionists and Jews.


Progressives schooled in this social theory think of the modern university as complicit in this process of domination; a self-sustaining bastion of privileged ‘neo-liberalism’. In a post in Electronic Intifada, university administrators are said to be ‘deeply embedded’in the ‘project’ of ‘corporate neoliberalism’. Further, Zionism and neoliberalism ‘converge,’ with the contemporary university said to align itself – a page right out of Orientalism – ‘with Zionism as a settler-colonial project’. For progressives, colonialism is not only the privileged lens through which to understand the Jewish presence in the region, but the only one. For an even more colorful set of (mixed) metaphors, the New Arab website, decries the ‘speaking tongues of liberal Zionism’ upon which ‘Israeli-American neoliberal imperialism hangs its machine guns and parks its drones’. The self-proclaimed ‘objective’New Arabgoes on to associate rampaging Israelis ‘slaughtering Palestinians and destroying their mosques’ with the ‘amalgamation of Islamophobia, liberal Zionism, and neo-liberal imperialism’.

On the pro-Palestinian web, political commentary turns into cartoon allegory. In this story, Israel, the struggling and the admittedly sometimes-challenged democracy is the villain, with the terrorist organisation Hamas, remade through the romanticizing progressive lens, a band of heroic freedom fighters. Academics may not express this perspective in such hyperbolic term, but in concert with the BDS movement, they create a moral cosmos, as rigid as any to be found in conventional theologies, in which Israel represents all evils – the colonialist nation-state, the false promises of liberal enlightenment, as well as the fundamentalism of religion.

With the wrongs of the West displaced onto the Jewish State, undergraduates in elite programmes in America view the conflict through the allegorical lens provided by their progressive professors and anathamatise Israel. With that lens in place, progressives are taken in by the cynical uses of Islam, with Linda Sarsour the master of this art. Sarsour’s version of Islam, transformed for the Western media into a liberation theology, stands as a protest against the dominating ‘ideologies’ of Western Judeo-Christianity. Islam, however, no less than Judaism or Christianity, carries with it the very hierarchical values against which progressives position themselves most adamantly. But the Islamic purveyors of BDS mask their theological agenda, claiming their monotheism enacts cutting-edge cultural and political practices, especially when it comes to gender, and on the way convince liberals that all evils of the West are somehow distilled in the support for the Jewish State. Indeed, the BDS movement and its progressive advocates and enablers embrace a version of the very theological movements to which most liberals still have a visceral antipathy.

Left populists, and those liberals embracing ‘progress,’ in their political zeal, forget that the liberal values and institutions they have rejected, in fact enable their political voice and standing –namely the belief in tolerance, a neutral public sphere and free speech. The millennial break with historical memory, which progressive university professors both cultivate and feed upon, fail to acknowledge that free speech is part of a 200-year-old, indeed fragile experiment, attempted in only a few corners of the world (and now failing in many of them).

That the current Israeli government has aligned itself with demagogues, and waged war against democratic institutions makes foregrounding the importance of liberal institutions and democracy even more critical. This emphatically does not mean siding with right-wing populists – Bibi-supporting evangelists and MAGA Trumpers – who are apologists for the idea of liberty and not its practice, but rather showing those committed to democracy that Zionism is an outgrowth of liberalism, not its contradiction. Enlightenment and Zionism, as Adorno argued, are indeed linked. While the injustices wrought by the single-minded pursuit of enlightenment – the domination of nature by instrumental reason – have not been fully redressed, haven’t we learned in recent years that an imperfect reason is preferable to the savagery of demagogues and absolutists? Can we finally give up that very particular Western notion – which has the status of a given in Humanist education today – that enlightenment is worse than its alternatives?

Today, liberal Jews fail to remember what would have been obvious to Jews before World War Two, habituated to hatred and violence from both Left and Right. Intersectionality excludes Jews not because they represent, among all minorities, an unacceptable form of difference, not to be assimilated into a coalition of the oppressed. But progressives, with their BDS agenda, push Jews away from their intersectional gatherings, because Israel is seen to represent all the core ideals – Patriarchy, Nationalism, and Enlightenment rationality – against which all other repressed minorities are united. The recent exclusion of Jews from intersectional gatherings is not then based upon a failure to understand Jewish minority claims, but on an ideology-driven image of the Jews – and Israel – as representing the antithesis of all progressive values.

But this war against the Jews, from both Left and Right, is also a war against the democratic traditions of the West. Zionism is part of the civilizational process, part of the liberal tradition. As it was in the 1930s in Germany, today’s hatred of the Jews manifests the West’s own suicidal tendencies, its penchant for the irrational, now abetted by populist extremism on both sides. Progressives may pay lip-service to the democratic institutions, but antisemitism reveals not only their enthrallment to the world’s oldest hatred, but to a populism that takes precedence over democratic values, and an educational tradition which values ideology over critical thinking. Those of us who are devoted to the traditions of classical liberalism should understand that BDS and its progressive advocates not only undermine the Jewish State, but also the very democratic institutions upon which our civilization depends.

This article was originally published in Fathom.