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On the wrong side of history

Boycotting Historians Denounce Blacklists Just as They Call for Blacklisting Israeli Academics

Of the many examples of the shameful degradation of values in academia, few are more intellectually grotesque than academic boycotts, which, in their present form, are almost exclusively targeted at Israeli scholars and institutions. In the latest example, at their January annual meeting the American Historical Association (AHA) debated among their members two petitions: the first, which was ultimately rejected by the AHA’s Council, urged the AHA to review investigate “credible charges of violations of academic freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” whether by “constituting a fact-finding committee, authorizing a delegation or issuing an investigative report.”

The second petition recommended that the AHA issue a statement, which it did, affirming “the rights of students, faculty and other historians to speak freely and to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse perspectives on historical or contemporary issues.” Putting aside the absurdly paranoid notion that any anti-Israel activism is suppressed or otherwise limited on campuses anywhere, what actually terrified these intellectual hypocrites, it seemed, was the possibility that, once they had publicly announced their enmity for Israel, Zionism, and Jewish affirmation, they would be held accountable for their toxic views, that they would be named for what they are: anti-Israel activists whose rabid ideology can, and should, be made transparent, exposed, and understood.

The AHA statement made this hypocrisy clear when it meretriciously stated that, “We condemn all efforts to intimidate those expressing their views. Specifically, we condemn in the strongest terms the creation, maintenance and dissemination of blacklists and watch lists —through media (social and otherwise)—which identify specific individuals in ways that could lead to harassment and intimidation.”

The so-called “blacklists” and “watch lists” referenced in the statement are such databases as Canary Mission (mentioned specifically), Discover the Networks, Campus Watch, the AMCHA Initiative, and other similar organizations, all of which have as their intention to provide students, faculty, and others with information on the ideology, scholarship, speeches, and writing of radical professors and students. These are individuals (and groups) who have very public records of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism and whose words and behavior have been catalogued so that the politicization of scholarship can be exposed and students can avoid courses taught by professors with a predetermined and evident bias against Israel.

The craven AHA members are not the first representatives of the professoriate to recoil in terror at the thought of being included in one of these databases, even though they are perfectly willing, if not eager, to signal their virtue in the first place by publicly expressing their obsessive disdain for the Jewish state. In 2014, for instance, 40 professors of Jewish studies published a denunciation of a study that named professors who had been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or possibly even antisemitic [sic] rhetoric.”

While the 40 academic “heavyweights” claimed they, of course, rejected anti-Semitism totally as part of teaching, they were equally repelled by the tactics and possible negative effects of the report, produced by the AMCHA Initiative, a comprehensive review of the attitudes about Israel of some 200 professors who signed an online petition during the last Gaza incursion that called for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars—academics the petitioners claimed were complicit in the “latest humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel’s . . . military assault on the Gaza Strip,” just as the AHA members alleged that because Palestinians were being denied access to education as a result of Israeli policy, Israeli academics deserved to be collectively shunned.

Calling “the actions of AMCHA deplorable,” the indignant professors were insulted by the organization’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences,” something which, they believed, “strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.” That was a rather breathtaking assertion by academics, just as it was when the AHA members repeated the same idea; namely, that it is contrary to the core mission of higher education that ideas publicly expressed by professors should be examined and judged, and that by even applying some standards of objectivity on a body of teaching by a particular professor “AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions.”

Specifically, reports like the AMCHA product clearly indicate which professors have demonstrated that they bring to their teaching a clear bias against the Jewish state; in fact, they have gone even further with that enmity by mobilizing as part of the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement to turn Israeli academics in intellectual pariahs by excluding them from the intellectual marketplace of ideas.

Can anyone believe that had the AMCHA Initiative or other organizations issued a report that revealed the existence of endemic racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or Islamophobia in university coursework, and had warned students who might be negatively impacted to steer clear of courses taught by those offending professors, that these same 40 feckless professors or the AHA’s historians would have denounced such reports being “McCarthyesque” or somehow undermining the civility of higher education by actually holding academics responsible for some of the intellectually deficient or corrupt ideologies to which they adhere and which they are more than happy to foist on others—including, of course, their students.

Why should a professor’s political attitudes not be known to students, especially, as in these cases, when those anti-Israel attitudes are extremely germane to their area of teaching, namely Middle East studies and history? None of the mentioned organizations furtively investigated the private lives of the 200 professors, or historians, or campus radicals, nor did they hack into emails accounts, or take testimony from anonymous sources, or delve through association memberships, reading habits, or private writings without the individuals’ knowledge or consent. They were not spied upon nor their courses videotaped furtively by students.

The findings were based on the public utterances, published works, and social media posts of professors and students, behavior and speech they apparently had no problem with making public and for which they were not hesitant, at least initially, to take responsibility. In fact, as often happens when anti-Israel academics are called upon to defend their libels and intellectual assaults against the Jewish state, they wish to freely pontificate on the many perceived defects of Israel but do not like to be inconvenienced by being challenged on those often biased, and intellectually dishonest, views by others with opposing viewpoints.

More hypocritically, these morally self-righteous historians denounced their placement on so-called blacklists but wished to do the very same thing to Israeli scholars by proposing to essentially blacklist an entire nation’s professoriate for the actions of that country’s government—over which, of course, academics, even if they actually agree with those policies, have little or no influence. And the extent of their blacklist is more onerous and less intellectually honest, since they are blacklisting an entire group of academics, irrespective of ideology, without any distinction between those who might share their views and those who hold views that are ideologically opposed to theirs. In its indiscriminate nature, an academic boycott is morally perverse, since, unlike the efforts of Campus Watch, the AMCHA Initiative, Discover the Networks, or Canary Mission (which deal with specific individuals and their publicly professed and articulated beliefs), an academic boycott against a whole nation of scholars is so random and untargeted that it has to be more about anti-Jewish bigotry than a sincere effort to effect productive change and move the Israelis and Palestinians towards peace.

There is no surprise that an academic association like the AHA would call for a boycott against only one country—Israel—precisely because a large number of its ranks are evidently steeped in a world view defined by post-colonial, anti-American, anti-Israel thinking, and dedicated to the elevation of identity politics and a cult of victimhood. That they profess to hold high-minded, well-intentioned motives, and speak with such rectitude, does not excuse the fact that their efforts are in the end a betrayal of what the study of history and the university have, and should, stand for—the free exchange of ideas, even ones bad, without political or ideological litmus tests.

“People we used to think of as harmless drudges pursuing mouldy futilities,” observed the wry Edward Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, in speaking about a professoriate that has lost its intellectual compass, “are now revealing to us the explosive power of boredom, a power that may well frighten us.”

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

When the office is a death camp

Seventy years ago this month, Germany evacuated 58,000 prisoners from the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, burning documents and blowing up gas chambers and crematoria. On Jan. 27 — the day now celebrated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day — the Soviet Red Army arrived, liberating several thousand sick prisoners left behind.

Two years later, the camp that has since become nearly synonymous with the Nazi attempt to eradicate European Jewry became a museum. Last year, 1.5 million people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, most of them from Poland, Italy, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The visitors generally come for a day, but dozens of people come to Auschwitz every day — the conservators, researchers and curators who work to disseminate new information about the Holocaust and preserve the museum’s legacy for future generations.

“For me, Auschwitz is a place of reflection and meditation,” said Piotr Kadlcik, the former president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and a board member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which raises money for the museum. “I think it is important for many people who come here to work. They cannot really imagine that they could work elsewhere. They are somehow shaped by this place.”

Below are short portraits of several employees of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Margrit Bormann, 34, is a conservator from Germany who works in the building where newly arrived prisoners were registered. Through the window is a clear view to the nearby cell blocks behind the barbed wire.

In 2005, as a university student in Cologne, she participated in a two-week educational program at Auschwitz, helping preserve objects in the museum. She returned later for a six-month internship.

“This stay has changed everything in my life,” Bormann said. “I got to know the place and its history even more. I knew a lot about the Shoah, but now I got to know the testimonies of Polish prisoners, about whom in German schools very little is said.”

After graduation, she went to work full-time at the museum. Two years ago she was asked to take care of the maintenance of six baskets of shoes that once belonged to prisoners.

“I wanted to be close to this place, these objects, but with shoes I felt afraid,” she said. “There was some bad energy. When I returned home from work, my whole body hurt.”

Bormann would pick up a shoe and stare at it. One seemed to have been repaired multiple times by a cobbler. Maybe the owner walked in it to work, perhaps wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Such thoughts would occur often, but Bormann would try to inhibit them and focus on the object at hand. One day she began to cry.

“I knew the story, the facts, the number of victims, the memories of former prisoners,” she said. “It brought me sadness, but I never cried so hard. I acted that day like I was at a funeral. When I cried for the victims, something was passing from me and I could get back to work.”

Piotr Setkiewicz, 51, the head of the museum’s Research Center, has worked at Auschwitz since 1988. His uncle died in the camp, and his grandmother was an employee of IG Farben, the chemical company that supplied the German army’s war needs. A plant producing gasoline and rubber was located at Auschwitz, and 20,000 prisoners worked there.

“During the school years I had no awareness of the uniqueness of this place,” Setkiewicz said. “That changed when I started working here.”

Setkiewicz is involved in efforts to disseminate new historical information about the camp. Occasionally he hears people asserting that there is nothing more to learn about what transpired there, but Setkiewicz says it’s not true. With advances in research and the emergence of new historical sources, there is always more to learn.

Several years ago, Setkiewicz caused a mini-crisis in Polish-Russian relations when he pointed out to a journalist errors in an exhibition about Soviet prisoners at Auschwitz prepared by the Russians. His comment led to claims in the media that Setkiewicz was denying the suffering of the Russian people. Shortly after, Russia stopped importing Polish pork.

“They began to connect me with this, as the one who stopped the delivery of Polish meat to the east,” Setkiewicz said. “To this day, on Google you can find several thousand hits on the subject.”

Pawel Sawicki, 34, works in the museum’s spokesman office. Among his duties is the photographing of personal items that belonged to the prisoners — shoes, glasses and other personal effects.

The photos show the scale of the tragedy that occurred at Auschwitz, but also its human dimension — what Sawicki calls “the power of a single personal experience” as reflected in individual objects.

Sawicki is also the compiler of “Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Place Where You Are Standing,” a photo album that juxtaposes archival photographs taken by the Germans in 1944 with contemporary shots of the same spots.

“Taking these photos, more and more I felt a special emptiness,” Sawicki said. “I missed the people who were the essence of the photo album. Today, those people are not here anymore. Only the place where most of them were killed still exists.” 

Piotr Cywinski, 43, has been the museum director since 2006. A historian whose interest was the Middle Ages, he was asked several years ago by his professor, a former camp inmate named Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, to help in the work of the International Auschwitz Council. When his predecessor retired, he was asked to take over.

Cywinski says it’s easier to work at Auschwitz than to visit. Visitors come for their own purposes, he says, while the museum employees work on behalf of others. At night he dreams of the camps and the war, though he prefers not to discuss the details.

“This place is impossible to ignore,” he said. “It is a turning point in human history. Nothing that preceded it will ever return. Ethics, morality, law, faith, science, enlightenment, positivism — all died here. A man lost his sense of innocence that he cherished and found so comforting.”

Cywinski is mindful of the survivors and their stories. He knows they will soon pass away and only the museum will remain, which will have to carry their stories forth for future generations.

“There will be no great silence,” Cywinski said. “We are too many and we know too much.”

Paving the Way for Anti-Israel Studies

The woman in the cover illustration is called “Mother Palestine.” Inside, articles by controversial Israeli historians Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, and Palestinian historian Nur Masalha, tell the tale of a bellicose colonial Israel that displaced innocent Arabs from their homes in 1948, and from then on prevented peace by provoking and murdering Palestinians.

No, this is not a Palestinian Authority history text, but part of a curriculum being taught in regular Santa Barbara classrooms and paid for by your tax dollars.

The above items were published in “A Reader and Resource Guide Introducing the Middle East Into Social Studies Curriculum: A Workshop for K-12 Teachers,” which was produced by UCSB in 2001 under a law called Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Title VI doesn’t fund pro-Palestinian courses per se, but it does provide millions of dollars in grants to universities for “Foreign Language and Area Studies.” There are some Jewish groups who feel that Title VI money is being used to teach courses and produce educational materials that are flagrantly anti-American and anti-Israel, and they are urging the U.S. Department of Education to employ some oversight for Title VI grant recipients.

Title VI is not a new part of the education act. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 had Congress convinced that the Soviets were ahead of Americans in education, particularly in areas of foreign languages and culture. Consequently, Congress voted to allocate money for tertiary and K-12 education in foreign studies, in the hope that Americans who knew more about the world could better serve America’s national and international interests. Thus, as Centers for African Studies and Centers for Asian Studies were funded under Title VI, so, too, were Centers for Middle Eastern Studies.

After Sept. 11, Title VI funding increased dramatically, with the government spending more than $20 million to fund Middle East studies and language centers at universities across America. There are currently 14 universities in America that have Title VI-funded Middle East studies centers, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, UCSB and UCLA. In some cases, critics say, Title VI means that the government is paying for its own anti-government propaganda to be taught in universities and schools.

Take, for example, another UCSB publication, “The September 11 Crisis: A Critical Reader,” which was distributed to K-12 teachers who attended a workshop held by UCSB’s Middle East Studies Center. The workbook claimed that America was to blame for Sept. 11 because of its foreign policy and funding of Israel, conveniently glossing over Islamic fundamentalism.

Gary Ratner, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) Southwest Region, said teachers were eager to take these workshops because teachers need continuing education for advancement, and federal government funding of the workshops made them very attractive to teachers.

The AJCongress is one of several Jewish groups, including Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Santa Barbara concerned about Title VI.

“The problem is that the criteria for making these grants has nothing to do with the content of what is being taught,” Ratner said.

Nevertheless, some people think that the Jewish groups are taking these and similar readers out of context. Stephen Humphreys, professor of history and Islamic studies at UCSB, said that the readers were approved by the Santa Barbara County Superintendent’s office, and they were meant to provoke discussion and not be considered a comprehensive guide to the Middle East conflict. He also said that a pro-Israel professor’s reading was left out of the guide because it was submitted late, but it was presented in the seminar.

“We feel that our seminars as presented to the teachers have been balanced and careful presentations,” Humphreys said.

Still, Ratner and his organization have been lobbying Congress and White House officials to get some oversight on Title VI grants, or to allow local school boards to have input into seminars taught with Title VI money. In March, they petitioned U.S. Secretary of Education Rodney Paige complaining that these outreach programs were “biased and lacked balance” and asking that the law be amended so that the secretary could assess content.

In response to the petition, Ratner met with Sally Stroup, the assistant secretary of education for postsecondary education, who told him that the department is not authorized to monitor content.

But Stroup agreed to look into new laws that would allow the Department of Education and local school boards to monitor content of the teaching training sessions.

There is a Title VI reform bill that is curretnly being considered. In September, the House Subcommittee on Select Education and the full Committee on Education and the Workforce passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act. The bill, authored by Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), demands that Title VI academic programs reflect a variety of viewpoints, and it also establishes an independent advisory board to review Title VI-funded activities. The bill is now going to the House floor for a vote.

“All we ask is that it be fair and balanced and recognized as professional scholarship,” Ratner said.

Giving Thanks

It’s not only that this year Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide, it’s that the calendar makes us focus on the thanksgiving aspect of Chanukah’s meaning. Every year, when we reflect on the glow of Chanukah’s lights, we are celebrating a different form of Thanksgiving.

Jewish tradition teaches us that one of the religious reasons we kindle the lights of Chanukah is "in order to give thanks and to praise God’s great name for God’s miracles, wonders and redemption." Traditionally, we recite these words along with the brachot as part of the candlelighting ceremony each evening.

For many of us, especially for our children, Chanukah has become a season of gelt and getting. The idea that Chanukah is really about giving thanks, thanks for all that sustains our lives, for our historical identity and for a future vision of goodness that defines our hopes and values, probably surprises many people.

My family and I also share in the commercial culture of Chanukah in America. I’m delighted to do so, to reinforce Jewish affinity and happiness for my children and our community. But I’m only comfortable doing this if they can also appreciate the spiritual core and moral message of this holiday. Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish religious identity.

In America, especially in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are fond of declaring that the Hasmoneans were fighting for religious freedom. Actually, they were fighting to preserve, and even promulgate, their faith in God’s Torah and Judaism. The focus of their liberation efforts was the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Most historians suggest that the Greco-Syrian ruler Antiochus’ persecution of Jewish practice was based on decrees that had been initiated by secular, assimilated Jews. A few other historians propose that those persecutions did not precede, but rather followed, the Maccabean revolt. They constituted the king’s punishment of the pious Jews who first rebelled against Antiochus’ rule in the name of Torah.

In either case, the Maccabees were motivated by the Jewish people’s covenant with God. It was their religious identity and practice that the they were seeking to protect. The purpose of rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. was to restore a powerful symbol of God’s dwelling presence in the midst of the people. The lights in our Chanukah menorahs represent that same belief and religious ideal today.

Yet, our celebration of the Temple’s rededication on Chanukah presents an interesting paradox: Why do we still celebrate the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. when, in the end, it was destroyed by the Romans 235 years later in 70 C.E.? Remember, the Temple was ancient Judaism’s central institution. The rites of offering and prayer observed there sought closeness to God for every person. With the end of that era, over time Chanukah, too, was lost — only to be recreated by later generations as the holiday we enjoy.

Today, Chanukah’s celebration of the Temple’s rededication acknowledges what was lost in spiritual expression because of its destruction.

On Chanukah, we hope for a restoration of nearness to God’s presence. We remember the Temple’s rededication in order to recognize the religious values that can live in the hearts of Jews in every generation. I hope that Chanukah’s popularity might reflect this desire to nurture Jewish religious values and distinctiveness at a time when religious images and celebrations are so important to many of our neighbors and friends.

Chanukah’s meaning lies in this reality. To live as a Jew today means to live distinctly within a larger society, to be challenged toward the fullest expression of Jewish life. We are blessed today with the privilege of seeking purpose in our particular religious identity and celebrations. We have that in common with the Hasmoneans, even as we acknowledge their zeal to be separate from the host Hellenistic culture of their own time.

Literally, a Jew, Yehudi, is "one who gives thanks to God." Judaism provides a structure for our lives and our values that inspires gratitude for the wonder and mystery of being.

Jewish religious identity is an expression of appreciation, humility and responsibility for human life and for our world’s destiny. The moral mandate of Chanukah is not to receive, but to give.

We give thanks to God for life and for that which is miraculous in our daily lives. We can also give something of ourselves to others — to our family, friends and the people of our society. In our attitude of gratitude and acts of thanksgiving, we truly celebrate Chanukah.

Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.