Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Tony Judt Affair

Tony Judt: "That's garbage"

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that two “major Jewish American organizations” had “helped block” New York University professor Tony Judt from speaking at the Polish consulate in New York on October 3, apparently because he was “too critical of Israel and American Jewry” (“In N.Y., Sparks Fly Over Israel Criticism”).

Judt was scheduled to speak about the “Israel Lobby” to a networking organization for professionals called Network 20/20; it rents space from the Polish consulate. The president of Network 20/20, Patricia Huntington, called Judt shortly before he was to appear and canceled on him (New York Observer).

Allegedly, both David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had contacted Polish Consul General Krzysztof Kasprzyk earlier with concerns about the event. The Consul then concluded that Tony Judt was too controversial and had the professor nixed.

Predictably, this whole affair has generated outrage, especially among academics who seem to see it as further evidence of the stranglehold exercised by the “Jewish lobby” on the American debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Interestingly enough, Judt himself has denied that he was a victim of censorship – though I was not able to fully understand whom he regards as the real censored speaker:

"I'm not some kind of victim here. That's garbage," said Mr. Judt on Oct. 7. "I don't even regard this as censorship. But I regard it as serious exercise of censorship by someone on someone else, with me in the middle,” (New York Observer).

Tony Judt seemed to have planned on presenting some of the ideas that he published in the wake of the infamous Mearsheimer and Walt “Jewish Lobby” study, on which a long debate was conducted here on Kishkushim last April. I have previously written about Judt’s take on that terrible piece of pseudo-scholarship. I am so sick of the whole thing, that I am not going to recount the many problems with the study. Since the publication of the study, it seems to me that Mearsheimer and Walt have been forced to withdraw many of their biggest claims. However, for those interested, John’s piece on Kramer’s rebuttal is a good summary of some problems, as is Dershowitz’s 43-page line-by-line challenge.

The Washington Post article indicted Harris and Foxman for using back-door threats to coerce the Poles into dropping the speaker. But the New York Observer paints a slightly different picture. I am frequently baffled by Foxman’s public appearances and tactics. But I know that David Harris and the AJC do not threaten foreign consuls. Yes, Poland is very wary of being associated with antisemitism, but I have a very hard time believing that either the ADL or the AJC blackmailed the Polish Consul into canceling the event by playing the “antisemitism card.” I know for a fact that the AJC has a very close relationship with Poland, and that it has done marvelous work to improve Polish-Jewish relations. I do think that it is plausible that Harris or someone else called the Consulate to express the AJC’s opposition to Tony Judt’s views on Israel and the Middle East – views which we might discuss in a future post. But it was the Polish Consul who ultimately made the choice to cancel the event.

Tony Judt recently withdrew from a different speaking engagement, which was to take place on October 17 at Manhattan College’s Holocaust Resource Center. The New York Sun reported that Judt decided not to speak at the Center after Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale threatened to picket the college in response to an appearance by the NYU professor:

"I am a firm believer in First Amendment rights, and would have no problem with Judt speaking at some other forum, as long as an opposing view would be heard," Rabbi Weiss wrote to the Holocaust center's leaders. "But having someone who is a State of Israel denier speak at a Holocaust forum is a desecration of the memory of the six million," he wrote.

Rabbi Weiss, a longtime activist and neither a stupid man nor an extremist, who has taught and mentored many progressive Orthodox Jewish leaders over the past decades (including my local rabbi), was referring to Judt’s previous arguments against a two-state solution and for a binational secular state in Palestine. Manhattan College tried to appease Weiss by announcing that Judt

would speak on his mainstream views concerning the legacy of the Holocaust. [And that] [h]e would not speak about Israel or criticize the Jewish State, the Holocaust Research.

But Judt saw this as an unacceptable condition.

I disagree with Rabbi Weiss’s views. I don’t think Judt, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, is a “desecration of the memory of the six million.” But I also don’t see anything wrong with Weiss’s threats to picket. That, to me, is the essence of democracy. There is no Lobby at work here silencing Judt. There are different people using peaceful means to advance those causes in which they believe. Having said this, I think that it is a shame that Tony Judt did not end up speaking at the Polish Consulate that night. If the Polish Consul felt that Judt was “controversial,” he could have simply expressed his point of view at the talk. Likewise, rather than expressing their concerns to the event organizers, Harris and Foxman would have done better to send someone who would debate Judt. Nevertheless, I don’t see any evidence in this episode of nefarious forces shutting down debate. Such a claim is especially ridiculous given Judt’s frequent publications in influential journals as well as his many other public appearances.

Those who want a real example of debate being shut down – physically – might want to refer to the Netanyahu-Concordia University affair. In October 2002, former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was set to speak at Montreal’s Concordia University. Anti-Israel student and off-campus activists blocked all entries to the lecture hall and took over the building in which the event was to take place. Using physical force and intimidation, including shoving and grabbing those who wanted to enter the lecture hall as well as breaking windows on the scene, these protesters prevented Netanyahu from speaking, as the police had to be called in. The university’s rector subsequently imposed a moratorium on public lectures or events on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

I thank B.D. and J.C. for forwarding me some of the articles cited above.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Amos,
You strike me as a realistic idealist,

or perhaps an idealistic realist. I too believe that one should let the opinions clash.