The old story of Christian anti-Semitism has never quite gone away, and has now come roaring back in academia in a new but still despicable form. In a new configuration of political forces, rightwing Christian evangelicals (or rightwing Catholics) cooperate with rightwing neo-cons and the Israel Lobby to attack progressive Jews, deny them tenure, and drive them from their jobs. The recent campaign against Marc H. Ellis at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, is sadly typical. The object, of course, is to completely silence anyone in academia who is capable of making the slightest squeak of protest against the “special relationship” of the US and Israel, as well as the latest depredations of the rightwing Likud government in Israel/Palestine. Since Professor Ellis has a liberationist approach to Jewish theology, and has criticized both the government of Israel and its US proxies in the Israel Lobby, he is a huge target both of the neo-cons and the Republican Party generally.
Marc H. Ellis is the University Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, which is a Baptist center of higher learning in Texas. That by itself seems like a handful; but it is my pleasure to report that during his previous thirteen years at Baylor, former BU Presidents were protective of Ellis, regarding him as a kind of house radical who added leavening to the bread of evangelical Christianity. But the Religious Right does not usually take such a generous view of political and religious heretics, so things quickly changed when a new University President for BU arrived in 2011—the new boss being none other than the hated and feared Judge Kenneth Winston “Ken” Starr, the same Ken Starr who was the Special Prosecutor of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
He was, people will remember, originally hired in that decade to facilitate the so-called Whitewater Investigation of Bill and Hilary Clinton; but when he could find nothing wrong, he simply used one investigation to open another, going on countless such fishing expeditions until he became aware of Bill Clinton’s wandering eye. As a result of information he was able to leverage from a previous case, Judge Ken Starr eventually kidnapped Monica Lewinsky, held her against her will in a hotel room, and interrogated her until she confessed to consensual sexual acts with President Bill Clinton, including performing fellatio several times on the President in an area adjacent to the Oval Office.
Starr then collected every salacious detail he could find and then published them for the whole world to read in his 336-page Starr Report, the investigation costing the American public some $40 million. The Report included graphic descriptions of sexual acts, including the fact that once, while Monica was performing fellatio on the President, he slipped a cigar into her vaginal tract. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!” shrieked the newspaper cartoonists; reputable daily journalism waxed agog over the nature and disposition of the President’s penis. Starr’s fellow evangelicals in the Republican Party moaned and shook their heads in mock horror, all the while enjoying every salacious detail.
In so doing, Starr was engaging in a specifically American activity that has been around since at least the 17th-century Puritans held forth in Massachusetts: in a highly public and sometimes hysterical frenzy, a virtuous (and usually religious) authority figure denounces as the work of Satan some particular act or variety of sin—almost invariably sexual—lingering at length on the hideous details and the seductive nature of the sexual sins involved. (For a good modern example, see Rev. Jimmy Swaggart’s long, tearful, and occasionally slobbering public confession of his interactions with street prostitutes.) This alarming activity might be called ‘puritanical pornography,’ since the goal is so clearly to entertain and titillate the sexually repressed with details of sins uncounted, while at the same time enjoying the satisfaction of denouncing them. (Some effort is made to present the gratuitous recounting of sexual details as educational, but few are fooled by this.)
It was not long after Judge Starr arrived at Baylor University that he began the work of trying to sack Professor Marc H. Ellis. According to his attorney, Ellis tried to intervene in a dispute between a former “close friend” and a student organization; this backfired, and the former friend then filed charges of “abuse of authority” on March 4. According to a letter from the American Association of University Professors, this original dispute was settled; but using it as a pretext, Starr began to investigate every other aspect of Ellis’ life. It became known (because it was probably leaked) that the complaint had a sexual component—but that could well refer to something that happened long ago. (Baylor’s policy on sexual misconduct includes “fornication,” which could include any consensual sexual act outside of marriage.)
In a manner spookily similar to his behavior while Independent Counsel under President Clinton, Starr used the investigation of a single incident as an opening to investigate every other relationship Ellis had ever had. Starr’s proxies were soon calling up anyone who had ever had a conversation with Ellis, asking if they knew of other examples of his “misuse of authority.” (This included cold calls to people who had signed a petition supporting Ellis.) At one point Starr asked Ellis to resign, offering him hush money if he’d leave quietly; but Ellis declined.
A growing number of American progressives saw what was underway, and a sizable group (including Rosemary Ruether, Cornel West and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) have come together to support him. Ken Starr is a man who has no conception of discretion–or even of propriety–except to use or outrage them for political purposes; he is an administrator who thinks it exceedingly clever to ramble through the grandstands at Baylor University football games loudly shaking down rich alumni for pet projects. (In his first year he raised $35 million.) His sermons at Chapel are, predictably, lugubrious exercises in evangelical Christian self-congratulation and barely-repressed aggression. Thus he will probably use his position to expose to the maximum every dark corner of Professor Ellis’ private life, for all the loathly and sadistic reasons that religious fanatics do such things.
There are three reasons why the charges against Ellis are bad news. One is that punishing people for criticizing Israel violates the conventions of free speech and scholarship that academia is supposed to protect. The second is that charges of sexual misconduct, to have resonance and support in society at large, must be punished equitably. Once such sensitive charges become politicized, and the punishment of them becomes excessive, administrative rules regarding sexual misconduct are compromised, and women’s rights are set back.
The third reason is the University’s official policy at Baylor University, that incidents of sexual misconduct are to be treated in a “redemptive manner” with “constructive forgiveness” when appropriate and possible. But some sinners (the Christian evangelical ones) are historically seen as more deserving of redemption than others (the non-Christian evangelical ones), because no hint of a redemptive settlement (one that doesn’t involve firing a progressive Jew who criticizes the Israeli state) has been put on the table by Judge Starr himself.
Instead there has been a single-minded desire to humiliate Ellis publicly and cause him to resign, using some of the same over-the-top tactics that the Starr first practiced on Bill Clinton. Therefore Professor Marc H. Ellis has made a complaint under the appropriate civil rights statute—correctly, I think—alleging antisemitism on the part of Starr and Baylor University. (In a typical Starr gambit, his office denied any knowledge of Ellis’ EEOC complaint.) But won’t the fabled ‘organized Jewish community’ come rushing to Professor Ellis’ assistance as he twists slowly in the wind? Isn’t the Anti-Defamation League, for example, supposed to help Jews who are denied due process and whose civil rights are violated?
Sadly, in 2012 such help is available only to Jews who have the right political line on Israel—those who have the wrong politics on Israel need not apply. The history of such leaders as Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman who have colluded with conservative Christians to crush dissenting Jews who criticize Israel is quite long, their cooperation with the Catholic hierarchy to deny tenure and get rid of Norman G. Finkelstein at DePaul University being only one well-publicized and recent example.
Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. Most of its advocacy has been for Sikhs and Muslims. It operates solely on grants and donations from supporters. The Foundation can be contacted at P. O. Box 6862, Napa CA 94581. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.