UW Sephardic studies chair condemns Israel, rips Zionism


SEATTLE – As over 4000 Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli neighborhoods and violent mobs targeted Jews in Israel and around the world, condemnation of Israel’s defensive efforts erupted from all the familiar places and one unexpected place. Devin Naar, The Isaac Alhadeff Chair of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington posted to Facebook earlier this week, urging Jewish and Israel Studies academics to sign on to a harsh condemnation of the Jewish state. Naar is well known in local Jewish circles for his efforts at documenting and preserving Sephardic culture and restoring interest in the Ladino language. He enjoys a near rock star status in Seattle’s Sephardic community.

By adding his name to the “Statement by Jewish Scholars on Israel/Palestine”, Naar joined a group of Israel’s harshest critics in condemning what they call “the ongoing state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces are carrying out in Gaza.” Writing on the controversial statement, Rabbi Natan Slifkin mused, “They decided to condemn Israel for using “state violence” to try to stop Hamas from firing rockets. Of course, this is innately foolish in that they didn’t actually present any explanation of how Israel is supposed to stop thousands of rockets without engaging in military action.” 

Referencing the internecine mob riots that resulted in serious injury and death to both Jews and Arabs along with damage to property and torched synagogues, the statement reserves “anger” for only one group, complaining of the “impunity enjoyed by most Jewish attackers”. While the statement provides no source for this allegation, news sources indicate that a robust effort has been made by Israeli authorities to apprehend the perpetrators, both Jew and Arab.

The statement does acknowledge “the pain” of “Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel who have lost loved ones and homes to unjustifiable and indiscriminate Hamas rockets” but quickly pivots to an attack on Zionism Itself.

Zionism is the notion that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. In stark contrast, the academic manifesto defines Zionism as a racist endeavor that represents the original sins of Western civilization tied into a neat Jewish bundle, or in their own words a “set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies – shaped by settler colonial paradigms” that “have erected unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence…

The trope of “Jewish supremacy” has a long and chilling history, having originated among anti-Semites who believed that the Jewish people considered themselves superior to non-Jews and manipulated the banking system and the media. It has been enthusiastically used as an antisemitic slur by the likes of Henry Ford, the Nazis, and the KKK.

According to Professors Steven Lubet & Jonathan Zasloff, when academics call Israel a “settler colonial” state, “it is not meant as a mere descriptor. Rather, the phrase is a deliberately pointed charge, part of an ongoing campaign to undermine Israel by challenging its very founding.”  They go on to explain that unlike actual colonists, the Jews who settled Israel “carried the conviction that they were returning home. No other transplanted society made such a claim”

UW Sephardic Studies Chair Devin Naar urged Jewish studies academics to sign on to a trope filled anti-Israel statement. Photo Credit: TMR

The language put forth by Naar and his cohort appears to meet the definition of antisemitic speech as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA} which in part defines antisemitism as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been recognized by the European Union and 29 nations, including Canada, the United States, Israel, The United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Greece.

Ironically, included in the statement’s shopping list of calumnies is reference to Sheik Jarrah, a real estate dispute centered around efforts to reclaim property originally purchased by the Sephardic community of Jerusalem in 1875. Sephardic families resided on those properties for nearly 75 years until they were forcibly expelled by the Arab Legion in 1948. The properties were subsequently occupied by local Arabs. Following the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem the Sephardic Community Committee and other Jewish owners turned to the courts to re-establish legal rights over their properties. Ultimately prevailing in the courts, the owners requested that the residents living on their property agree to pay rent. The squatters refused, hence the current controversy.

The statement closes with a declaration of the right of the signators’ and their academic colleagues to protest “in the form of boycott or other organized economic pressure on Israel”. The economic boycott of Israel, better known as the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement has been condemned by many Jewish leaders as inherently antisemitic. Said Maxima Patashnik, Director of Government and Community Relations at the Seattle Jewish Federation in a Seattle Times op-ed, “at its core, BDS is anti-Semitic.” She explains, “the goal of BDS is not to create two, peaceful, sovereign states — Israel and Palestine — but to delegitimize and demonize Israel, blaming only the Jewish state for a complex conflict…”

Supports Holocaust Comparisons

Naar is no stranger to controversy, In June of 2019 he signed a petition supporting the practice of comparing contemporary events to the Holocaust. This is counter to the near universally accepted principal that the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people was a unique historical event and that any comparison dilutes the enormity of the crime. Responding to the use of such comparisons, the Unites States Holocaust Museum issued a statement saying that “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” The Museum went on to declare  “…it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel. We owe the survivors more than that. Comparisons to the Holocaust are innately offensive…”

Are Jews Indigenous to Israel?

In March of this year Naar joined two of his colleagues in contesting aspects of the California ethnic studies curriculum. His complaint was threefold. He objected to the curriculum’s moving antisemitsm “to the center of the discussion” and the “bolstering of the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life”. Equally remarkable, Naar expressed displeasure at the curriculum’s assertion that all Jews, including European Jews, are “indigenous” to the Middle East.  The deportation of the Jewish people from their indigenous homelands by imperial powers in 586 BCE and 68-135 CE and their subsequent dispersal across the Middle East, Europe and the Levant is historic fact. The argument that Jews are a foreign implant to the Middle East has been a justification for much of the violence inflicted upon the the Jewish people and Israel.  

In contrast to Naar and his co-signators’ jaundiced assessment of the Jewish state, a group of prominent Sephardic leaders, including the spiritual leaders of Seattle’s two venerable Sephardic congregations issued a statement of strong support for Israel last week. The statement published in the Jewish Journal and across social media declared that we “Sephardic rabbis representing communities all over the world, stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel. Wsupport Israel’s right to defend her cities and civilians, and to assert her sovereignty over Jerusalem, the historic and eternal capital of Israel.” The Sephardic leaders’ declaration goes on to offer “our love and prayers to the brave men and women of the Israel Defense Forces…”

While Naar’s view of Zionism and the Jewish state is not entirely unusual within the confines of academia, how or if it will impact his standing in the Seattle Sephardic community remains to be seen.


Statement on Israel/Palestine by Scholars of Israel Studies & Jewish Studies.

Sephardic Rabbis Stand in Solidarity with Israel

“Jewish Supremacy” Nazi language goes woke (Newsweek).

IHRA definition of antisemitism

Bearing false witness in a statement against Israel

Hamas’s Useful Idiots (Rabbi Natan Slifkin)

The Boycott Israel movement is antisemitic | The Seattle Timesl

The issue is not 1967, it’s 1948 (Daniel Gordis)

Sheikh Jarrah; the facts (Alex Safian, PhD)

The Sheikh Jarrah real estate dispute (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)

Ivory Tower Bigots (Tablet Magazine)

Not this again (Emily Alhadeff/The Cholent)

Attacking Seattle Jews does not resolve the Middle East conflict (Regina Sassoon Friedland/Seattle Times)

Jewish studies — you have failed | Jarrod Tanny | (timesofisrael.com)

Academia Signs Shockingly Unoriginal Anti-Israel Petitions (Middle East Forum)

Statements by departments about the Gaza war have implications for academic freedom (opinion) (insidehighered.com)

Un-Jews use Trojan horse slogans that delegitimize Israel and Zionism | Gil Troy | (timesofisrael.com)

BDS, Racism and the New McCarthyism (Judea Pearl)

The Mainstreaming of Antisemitism: How Should We Respond? | Bari Weiss & Bret Stephen, AJC

Is Israel really a settler colonial state? – Israel News – Haaretz.com

When human-rights NGOs adopt anti-Semitic language (jns.org)

Jewish Studies and Israel Studies Scholars Write Against Israel (israel-academia-monitor.com)