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Debate Grows Over Free Speech and Alleged Efforts to Silence Critics of Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2006

Jewish groups are charged with having worked to cancel lectures by academics who have been critical of Israel.  
The Washington Post (Oct. 9, 2006) reports that, “Two major American Jewish organizations helped block a prominent New York University historian from speaking at the Polish consulate ... saying the academic was too critical of Israel and American Jewry. The historian, Tony Judt, is Jewish and directs NYU’s Remarque Institute, which promotes the study of Europe. Judt was scheduled to talk Oct. 14 to a nonprofit organization that rents space from the consulate. Judt’s subject was the Israel lobby in the U.S., and he planned to argue that this lobby has often stifled honest dissent. An hour before Judt was to arrive, the Polish Consul General Krysztof Kasprzyk canceled the talk. He said the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee had called and he quickly concluded Judt was too controversial, ‘The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure,’ Kasprzyk said. ‘That’s obvious — we are adults and our IQs are high enough to understand that.’”  
Judt, who is Jewish and was born and raised in England, lost much of his family in the Holocaust. He took strong exception to the cancellation of his speech. He noted that he was forced to cancel another speech at Manhattan College after a different Jewish group had complained.  
According to The Washington Post, “Other prominent academics have described encountering such problems, in some cases more severe, stretching over the past three decades. The pattern, Judt says, is unmistakable and chilling. ‘This is serious and frightening, and only in America — not in Israel — is this a problem,’ he said. ‘These are Jewish organizations that believe they should keep people who disagree with them on the Middle East away from anyone who might listen.’”  
The leaders of the Jewish groups denied asking the consulate to block Judt’s speech and accused the professor of retailing “wild conspiracy theories” about their roles. But they applauded the consulate for rescinding Judt’s invitation. “I think they made the right decision,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said: “I never asked for a particular action. I was calling as a friend of Poland. The message of the evening was going to be entirely contrary to the entire spirit of Polish foreign policy.”  
Judt has angered some Jewish groups by his articles in the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and in the Israeli newspaper Ha‘aretz arguing that power in Israel has shifted to religious fundamentalists and territorial zealots, that woven into Zionism is a view of the Arab as the irreconcilable enemy, and that Israel might not survive as a communal Jewish state. The solution, he argues, lies in a slow movement toward a binational and secular state.  
The Post notes that, “... some Israeli writers, not least Israeli historian and social critic Amos Elon, have praised Judt’s writings on Israel. Nor are Judt’s arguments without historical precedent: MIT linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky, who is Jewish, has advocated a bi-national solution in Israel, a view that three decades ago sparked such anger that police stood guard at his college talks. More recently, the ADLrepeatedly accused DePaul University professor Norman C. Finkelstein, who is Jewish and strongly opposes Israeli policies, of being a ‘Holocaust denier.’ These charges have proved baseless.”  
In an open letter to the Anti-Defamation League (New York Review of Books, Nov. 16, 2006) a group of prominent academics declare: “The ADL has recently been very critical of those academics and intellectuals, like Professor Judt, who have raised question about the Israel lobby and American foreign policy, an issue on which reasonable people have disagreed. This does not surprise us or disturb us. What does surprise and disturb us is that an organization dedicated to promoting civil rights and public education should threaten and exert pressure to cancel a lecture by an important scholar. ... In a democracy, there is only one appropriate response to a lecture, article or book one does not agree with. It is to give another lecture, write another book. ... Though we, the undersigned, have many disagreements ... we are united in believing that a climate of intimidation is inconsistent with fundamental principles of debate in a democracy ... the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather than stifle public debate. We ... are dismayed that the ADL did not choose to play a more constructive role in promoting liberty.”  
Among those signing this statement are Prof. Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago, Rabbi David J. Goldberg of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London, Prof. Fritz Stern of Columbia University, Prof. Alan Wolfe of Boston College, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, Prof. Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth College, and Prof. Ian Buruma of Bard College.

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