Class Dismissed: An Interview with Jewish Studies Professor Jeffrey Blutinger

By | Feb 26, 2024
2023 Israel-Hamas War, Interview, Latest
Jeffrey Blutinger

Jeffrey Blutinger is the director of Jewish Studies at Cal State University Long Beach. He received his PhD in history from UCLA in 2003 and wrote his dissertation on 19th-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz; his research interests lie at the intersection of Jewish intellectual and cultural history. On Monday, February 19, he was invited to give a lecture at San Jose State University (SJSU), but his talk was shut down after there was an altercation between protesters, who objected to having a “Zionist” on campus, and an SJSU faculty member. Blutinger spoke with Moment about the experience. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You were invited to give a lecture at San Jose State University titled “Constructing a Just Solution: Where Israelis and Palestinians Go from Here.” What happened?

 Apparently over the weekend, a group based in Oakland started plastering Instagram and social media with a digital flier [that incorporated the poster] for my talk, calling on people to come and shut me down: that a Zionist was speaking at San Jose City University, and Zionists weren’t welcome. And so, the SJSU campus police alerted the organizers and said there’s a problem, because my talk was scheduled to be given in a room in the library that apparently only has one door, and the police were concerned that if the protesters besieged the room, there would be no safe way to evacuate myself or anyone else in the room. So they asked that it be moved to a new location. I was speaking to a class on literature of the Holocaust. The plan was to move me to a classroom in a building that has a security system—where you need a key card to enter. They planned to tell the class where the talk would be, but no one else.

I’d never been in a police car in my life, and I was in three on Monday.

Originally, I planned to go early and work in the library, but they told me it was not safe for me to be seen on campus because my picture was circulating on social media. And it wasn’t safe for me to go out to eat for the same reason. I went to the apartment of the organizer instead, and they brought in lunch. An SJSU police car to drive me to the campus—I’d never been in a police car in my life, and I was in three on Monday.

Then on campus, they had a police escort take me to the classroom. Just as we approached the stairs to go to the second floor, I could see three people with keffiyehs coming in. The police stopped and told me, don’t go any further, and they sent an officer upstairs just to check out the situation. There were already 30 people up in the hallway, but they decided it was safe to bring me up. And so, I walked the gauntlet of protesters. And they were chanting “Intifada! Intifada!” as I went along, and then one of them stuck out a protest placard to block my way and at the last minute pulled it back. Anyhow, they put me in the classroom—not a particularly big class. The head of the Jewish Faculty & Staff Association was there, and the professor of the class, who is the head of Jewish studies and who had invited me.

Around 1:30, I said we should probably get started. They were all chanting outside the door, and I think the professor who was hosting was a little thrown by it. So, I started, and I have a very loud voice, so I could talk over the chanting. But every time the door opened to let someone in then all the chanting became very distracting for the students. There was a woman, apparently a professor who was with the protesters, who tried to enter and she was not allowed entry, and she was yelling, and the police asked her to leave.

I was told I only spoke for 15 minutes total. I had the clock behind me, you know, so I was focusing on trying to keep the students’ attention. Then a group of about four students in the class got up and left. And that was a shock. And then about three to five minutes after that a police officer came in and said to me, you’re going to have to stop, we’re evacuating you from the classroom. When an officer says that, you don’t argue with him. I would have preferred to stay; I didn’t like the image of me looking like I was running away, because I wasn’t afraid of them.

I left the classroom out a side door and then down the corridor in the opposite direction from the way I approached. I had a policeman in front of me, a policeman on my left, a policeman on my right and one behind me. I think someone must have been shoving the policeman behind me because he kept bumping into me. And then we were out of the building. They took me to the campus police headquarters, where I chatted with an officer. And then I got a ride back to the airport.

They’re not interested in the peace process, a peace treaty or a two-state solution. They’re calling for the violent elimination of the largest Jewish community in the world. And so, it’s not anti-Zionism. It’s antisemitism.

I learned later that there was a scuffle in the hallway between a Jewish professor who was recording the protests and a protester who tried to stop him from recording. And this led to the police evacuating the building. My understanding is that the head of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion was in the classroom and is very upset with what she saw. She’s working with the class. She’s a therapist, and she’s doing a reparative justice exercise, because some of the students in the class feel betrayed by other students in the class. I really feel for the professor whose class it was. I can’t imagine what she’s going through now.

[Editor’s note: On Tuesday, SJSU President Cynthia Teniente-Matson issued a statement clarifying that the building was evacuated due to an altercation between a faculty member and protesters, some of whom were students, in the hallway outside the classroom where Blutinger was speaking. She noted that no injuries had been reported and no arrests had been made but that the faculty member had been put on administrative leave pending an investigation. The San Francisco Chronicle, the SJSU student paper and other sources that viewed video of the incident reported that a history professor, Jonathan Roth, had started filming a protester with his phone, and when she held her hand up to block her face, Roth grabbed her arm and pulled it down, and a skirmish ensued. Affirming that her campus “values the right to free speech and respects the academic freedom of our faculty and students,” Teniente-Matson stated: “I want to be clear—physical altercations or threatening behaviors that jeopardize the safety and security of any member of our university community will not be tolerated.”]

When you say some students feel betrayed, is that because they think fellow students tipped off this group from Oakland?

I don’t know. That’s a suspicion. I don’t have any knowledge. I should be clear with that. So, I know that of course, there are those four students who walked out. I don’t know what was going on with that either, because I’ve never met these students. I’ve never been at San Jose State before…[chuckling] I’ve been saying I never felt so seen or important! 

And you got to ride in three different police cars, so there’s that.

They’re different than I expected. You know, in an unmarked car there’s no grill in the back that you see in the movies.

I’m curious, the class was Literature of the Holocaust, but your lecture was contemporary. How did it come about? And have you given the talk elsewhere?

I’ll answer the second question first. First of all, I basically teach this as a full semester class: Israel and Palestine. So, every slide is a slide that shows up somewhere this semester. I gave it as a talk at a JCC, I had like an hour and 15 minutes to cover a whole semester. The idea was to first look at the role of the Holocaust in creating the state, but even more broadly to look at peaceful resolutions of conflict, and how to peacefully resolve conflict.

My talk [at San Jose State] was going to look at where the conflict comes from and break down some of the myths—that it’s not from time immemorial; the actual violent conflict begins in the 20th century, a few years before World War I. I was just getting to that part, with the displacement of farmers, when all hell broke loose. I was going to talk about how the conflict begins as one between Jews and Palestinians, then morphs into the conflict between Israel and Arab states, and then, after Camp David I, it goes back to being a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

I talk about portfolios of issues; there are two portfolios for the conflict—the first portfolio are the 1948 issues, and the second portfolio are the 1967 issues. Between the various negotiations, the Oslo agreement and then the failure at Camp David II, importantly, negotiators kept on negotiating; at Taba [in Egypt] in January 2001, they came very, very close to resolving almost all the 1967 issues and one of the 1948 issues. Everything that you think of as a problem, like Jerusalem, Temple Mount, they actually worked most of that out.


There’s one issue that can’t be compromised, and one side will have to concede. And the issue is: what happens to the 1948 refugees and their descendants. Everything else can be compromised. But this is an either/or: Either they’re allowed to return to Israel, in which case Israel becomes a binational state, or they receive some sort of compensation and citizenship wherever they are living, whether on the West Bank, in Gaza where most of the refugees and descendants are, or in Jordan. The problem is there’s no middle ground between that; you can’t have someone partly be a citizen and partly not. So that’s the sticking point, and it has really been the hardest part of the conflict to resolve since 1948. 

If we’re looking for a peace treaty and how to achieve it, I would go through all the things: the borders, the settlements, compensation for lost property, you can go through all of that. And we can go through the map showing where the border would be, which was mostly agreed to, but the problem is refugees and their descendants.

I can’t come to you and say, this is the solution that will resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. I can say, these are the issues that have been tentatively resolved, at least in principle. And here’s the primary sticking point. And that’s what I would have said, and I would have talked about the need for a two-state solution, because that’s where we get to a free and independent Palestine next to a free and independent Israel, living in peace and security with one another. That was what my talk was about. 

Somebody might say, oh, how ironic that if they’d only been able to hear it…

No, because the instant I say that there should be a state of Palestine next to a state of Israel, communication stops, because I’m a Zionist promoting the existence of Israel.

I hear this often from protesters on campus—they’re not interested in the peace process, a peace treaty or a two-state solution. They’re calling for the violent elimination of the largest Jewish community in the world. And so, it’s not anti-Zionism. It’s antisemitism. They’re not interested in listening, and they don’t want to allow any voices other than their own.

 I had a student reporter call me at the airport on my way out. He knew I felt that protesters were going too far but wanted to know how I felt about them standing up for themselves. They weren’t, I said—they were trying to prevent other students from learning. They wanted to prevent me from teaching. Students who came to hear a lecture were denied. When you say free speech for me, but not for thee, that’s not free speech. And look, I have protested speakers before. When I was in college, we protested when Noam Chomsky came to campus at UCLA. And how did we protest? He was speaking in a classroom, and we stood outside the building with signs and distributed pamphlets saying why he was a terrible person and why his ideas were wrong and why he’s antisemitic.

On my campus, about 10-12 years ago, the founder of the Minutemen, which was an anti-migrant, anti-immigrant, rather xenophobic group, was invited by a student group to speak in the University Student Union. And a lot of people said, why can’t the university bar them as hate speech? Well, FYI, hate speech is covered by the First Amendment. What did we do? We did not go into the lecture hall where he was speaking and disrupt. We didn’t make noise. We didn’t hold up signs. We stood outside the building and handed out pamphlets about why what he was saying was wrong. That’s how you protest a speaker. You don’t stop the speaker from speaking. That violates free speech. It also, of course, violates academic freedom.

The protesters called you a Zionist. What does the term Zionist mean to you?

I teach history, I teach Zionism. And it’s an odd thing, because in some ways, political Zionism fulfilled itself in 1948, with the founding of the state. Zionism was about establishing a Jewish State. That now exists. So, like, is there Americanism with the founding of America? As an ideological movement, there are forms of Zionism that persist after the founding of the state. There’s cultural Zionism, as expressed by Ahad Ha’am, which is this idea that whatever was formed would be a new Jewish cultural center to spread a new Jewish identity, a new way of being Jewish. So, the idea of a new Jewishness coming out of Israel, that’s a form of Zionism that continues. And then, of course, there’s religious Zionism, which sees the founding of the state as part of a messianic process. I’m much less comfortable with that form of Zionism. I think Gershom Scholem said that if Zionism becomes Messianism it will be doomed, because Jewish messianic movements never succeed. But I would say that if you understand Zionism not as the idea that we should found a Jewish state, which has been done, but rather that there should be a Jewish state, then I would say, yes, I believe that to the extent that nationalism exists anywhere, the Jews are as entitled to nationalism as anyone else.

What is the name of your course?

Officially, History 420: Modern Israel—but I usually just call it Modern Israel-Palestine. At the end of class yesterday, I was talking about the Nakba, where the Palestinian refugees come from, and I started to show them part of a documentary from Al Jazeera. We’ll be looking at one tomorrow about the British evacuation of the Palestinians from Tiberius, and then what happened at Haifa. And we’ll look at the forced expulsion of Palestinians from a village called Tantura. So, it’s not like I ignore the refugees, because how can I talk about the conflict unless I explain where the refugees come from? I have to teach that.

Opening image: Hagit Shekel

3 thoughts on “Class Dismissed: An Interview with Jewish Studies Professor Jeffrey Blutinger

  1. Judith Stitzel says:

    I am grateful for this excellent interview.

  2. Dr. Blutinger’s comments should be shared far and wide. I am VERY impressed with his analysis of the history of “how we got here” (i.e., the present, ongoing Middle East conflict), as well as his analysis of just exactly what freedom of speech should REALLY mean.

  3. Charles Bernstein says:

    Wish I could be in this man’s class

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.