Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Israeli despair

In a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick argued that Israelis have started to feel despair for their future and the future of Israel. The Zionist dream is fading, she says, in a desperate dawn of stark reality. Despite a soaring economy, a world-class educational system, a high standard of living, and the glories of the land itself, Israelis are losing their patriotism. The Zionist hope of bringing an end to the persecutions of the Diaspora centuries through the creation of an autonomous homeland in which Jews would be able to defend themselves from aggression rings hollow in the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, and last summer's rain of Hizbullah rockets. In the greatest irony of two thousand years, the most dangerous place on earth for Jews is the Jewish state of Israel.

One can hardly blame Israelis for experiencing despair under such circumstances. In Northern Ireland, where I'm from, the violent phase of the Troubles went on for about 30 years, and people despaired then of it ever ending; even now, with the violence largely under control, it's still proving hard to negotiate a political solution. Israelis have been coping with much greater levels of violence for about 60 years, or longer if you go back to the 1920s. Even at their height, the Irish Troubles never threatened the existence either of Northern Ireland (the worst thing that would have happened would have been integration in the increasingly properous Republic) or the UK mainland. What Israelis are experiencing is an existential threat, to themselves, their families, their townships, their houses, the places they walk in, the city and country views they admire, the cafés they frequent, the secluded places they go with their lovers, the graveyards that hold their dead, the sense of place brought home by long memory and reading the Bible. You can't just pick that all up and take it somewhere else, not when you have a bitter memory of having done it before, and of the suffering that came with the state of being in a diaspora.

More and more people are saying 'it's a pity Israel was ever established' — most recently London's obnoxious mayor, Ken Livingstone. The argument goes that, if there had been no Israel in the first place, and if the Palestinians had been given a state instead, there would be no unrest in the Middle East, no radical Islamic violence anywhere else, no war in Iraq or Afghanistan, no war on terror, and—who knows—even universal peace.

Of course, that's unbelievably naïve. Without Israel, things would have been and would now be different. But that's a bit like my saying, 'if I hadn't married my wife, things would have worked out differently'. Some writers use this concept effectively, developing a theory of the 'shadow self', the 'me' who would be a totally different person if this or that hadn't happened. For myself, I know with considerable accuracy the one tiny decision, a last-minute thing, that influenced the rest of my life totally and irrevocably. Most of us can do this, especially as we get older. The idea was very well expressed some years ago in a film called Sliding Doors. We may sometimes regret this or that choice, but we know that a different choice might have worked out even worse. (My wife worked out as an excellent choice, by the way!)

If Israel hadn't existed, the Middle East would have fallen into disarray anyway, thanks to the collapse of centralized Ottoman rule and the existence of numerous mainly religious divisions across the region. When empires collapse, their constituent parts inevitably fragment and turn on each other. The tensions the Ottomans kept in check have become vicious since 1918, and they would have been so Israel or not.

Of course putting a Jewish state down in the Arab world may not have been the most judicious thing. With hindsight, it can seem to have been unwise. But if we think about it, might it not also have been a very positive thing? After all, there were Jewish communities throughout North Africa and the Middle East in those days, and these communities often played major roles in the lives of the countries they lived in (Egypt, especially Alexandria, being perhaps the best example). When we look at somewhere like Alexandria around the turn of the century and for many decades later, not only was there a thriving Jewish community, but there were Greeks, Armenians, Iranians, Lebanese, Turks, and British. Nowadays, all that cosmopolitan vigour has gone. Was that the fault of Israel? What would someone like Nasser have done without Israel to focus on? What would the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi religious groups have done without Israel? In the case of Nasser, he might have taken his pan-Arabist ambitions and gone on to conquer or try to conquer other Arab countries. The Brotherhood might have concentrated on cleansing the Muslim world of its heresies and decadence. Who knows?

A positive Arab response to Israel, based on an understanding of the contributions made by the region's Jews (remember how hard the Moroccans tried to get their Jews to stay?) might have led to the creation of two viable, mutually reinforcing states with alliances across the region and beyond. Without al-Husayni, without the Muslim Brotherhood, without the German thrust for Palestine, how different it all might have been.

Is this reason to despair? Yes and no. To feel threatened, to feel afraid, to feel despondent because nobody seems to love you — all these are valid emotions. But if we give in to negative emotions, they can destroy us more effectively than our enemies. And if Israelis capitulate to their enemies, if Hamas et al one day establish a Palestinian theocracy, can anyone believe it will be the end of the story? For Jews, it will spell the end, exposing them to international obloquoy and the threats that will stem from it. For the rest of us, it will be a triumph for intolerance, for the rule of violence, and for hardline fundamentalism. Doctors tell patients suffering from depression that they have to do hard things, from forcing themselves out of bed in the morning, to going to work, to eating properly. It's tough, but the alternative is tougher. Israel's daily struggle isn't helped by the mood of despair. Now, I firmly believe, the only thing that will raise Israeli spirits will be a total victory over Hizbullah, whether that's this summer or the next.

A poor showing by Leeds university

Further to my post about the Matthias Küntzel affair, here are two letters, one from the university, giving rather weak excuses for their action, and my response to that.

On 19 Mar 2007, at 19:03, Roger Gair wrote:

Dear Dr MacEoin,

As the responsible officer, I write in response to your messages to the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor.

Dr Kuentzel's proposed public lecture last Wednesday evening was cancelled neither for any reason of censorship nor because of pressure from any interest group. It was cancelled because the organisers did not give us enough notice to provide the normal level of portering, stewarding and security (around twenty people in total) for such an event.

It is simply not true that we somehow capitulated to threats or complaints. As a matter of fact, we received no threats, and only a handful of complaints – fewer indeed than for a talk delivered on our campus the previous evening by an Israeli diplomat. The talk by the Israeli diplomat went ahead; the difference was that the organisers (the University’s Jewish Society) told us about that talk the week before and worked with us to make the necessary arrangements.

Assuming that we are given enough notice, and appropriate logistical information, I know of no reason why Dr Kuentzel should not deliver his lecture in Leeds at a future date.

For the record, and despite press reports to the contrary, the University did not in any way seek to prevent two other talks by Dr Kuentzel on (I believe) the same theme: as internal academic seminars, they did not require the same level of support as a large public meeting.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Gair


Dear Mr Gair,

I have had now had a chance to garner further information about the cancellation of Dr. Küntzel's lecture and seminars, and I have to say that I do not find your explanation of the university's action at all convincing. Nothing you write adds up. You speak of security matters, yet deny any threats or menaces that might make such measures necessary. You suggest that the need for such security came up entirely at the last minute, on the day Dr. Küntzel arrived in Leeds to give his lecture, yet it is patently clear that the university had known of this event for four months and had advertised it for three weeks. That can only mean that something fresh must have intervened some very short time before the 14th. Since I know that e-mails from Muslim students had been received by the university administration during that time gap, and that these messages might easily have been interpreted as indicators of possible protest or worse, I find it remarkably easy to connect the two things as cause and effect.

If those messages (and perhaps other communications to which I am not privy) did not serve as prompts to suggest a need for a very high level of security, I would like to know what other factor or factors did in fact prompt you. I have studied and worked in universities for forty years, teaching, among other things, Islamic Studies, yet I have never once known a situation in which a university has felt it necessary to provide other than the most regular level of security for an event — a porter usually, or notification of the university police. Dr. Küntzel's lecture was to have been on a valid academic subject, one on which I have myself written and talked, and to whose validity and urgency I can testify. The subject matter of Islamic anti-Semitism is neither unacademic nor, frankly, particularly controversial except to some (and by no means all) Muslims. Why should this one lecture out of a series have been singled out at the last minute for such draconian attention? It really isn't good enough to say that the department had not arranged for proper security soon enough, since I have to imagine that the same problem would then have applied to all lectures in the series. Or did the department only forget to do so for this one lecture?

I think the university did something disgraceful in cancelling this important lecture. I think veiled threats were made, or an assumption of threat was deduced (it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that a university based in Leeds of all places would not be sensitive to the potential results of Muslim grievance), and that the result was a denial of academic freedom. That it should be more important to give in to someone wishing to censor the dissemination of information than to grant a responsible academic the freedom to pass on the fruits of his research is to act in direct contravention of all standards of academic responsibility and, I am sure, the charter of your university itself.

Although I am not a member of staff at Leeds, I concern myself with this issue because I have known other examples of such pressure and am seriously frightened of the consequences of letting extreme Muslim opinion dictate what happens in academia wherever something seems to touch on radicalized sensibilities.

In conclusion, may I ask if it might not be appropriate for the university to hold or allow to be held an enquiry into the circumstances that led to this sorry business? You have a responsibility to everyone involved to provide better explanations than you have done so far and, should my interpretation or an approximation of it turn out to be correct, you owe an apology to all concerned. Such an apology must, without question, include a formal invitation to Dr. Küntzel to deliver his lecture and hold his seminars at a later date, the event to be given full and appropriate publicity.

I hope action can be taken to restore the university's integrity and to make it clear that censorship, threats, and bans form no part of Western academic norms.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The censorship of the study of anti-Semitism

I will reproduce here two letters I've written this week, one to Lord Melvyn Bragg, cultural icon and Chancellor of Leeds University, and an earlier one to Professor Michael Arthur, the Leeds Vice-Chancellor. As many of you will know by now, a lecture and workshop that were due to have been given in Leeds last week by Dr. Matthias Küntzel of the Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, were cancelled by the university on the grounds of 'security'. The subject was to have been Islamic Anti-Semitism, a keen research interest of my own, and tghe event would have taken place over three days in the university's German department. Some Muslims (possibly students, it isn't clear), perhaps a couple, perhaps many more, had objected to the sessions being given, and it looks fairly certain that the university administration, fearful of a protest and perhaps violence, caved in without even so much as a consultation. It is hard to understand what these Muslims thought they were protesting about in the first place. That a university should dare fulfil its obligation to provide a safe environment in which ideas can be explored? That someone in a university was going to say, heaven forbid, that many Muslims in the Middle East are flagrant anti-Semites? That this might somehow impinge on the dignity of Islam? That Dr. Küntzel might in passing refer to Qur'anic verses and hadiths of a less-than-friendly disposition towards Jews?

My own experience in researching and teaching in the field of religious studies has given me many memories of how easy it is to offend some religious people. My job as a teacher of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle was terminated when my sponsors, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, decided they didn't like me teaching two 'heretical' subjects, Shi'ism and Sufsim (as well as half of a course on the sociology of religion, which I devoted to my own 'expert' subject of Baha'ism). I've had flak from the other side as well. That's because the academic study of religion must, by definition, pass the limits of what believers may feel to be proper.

But Dr. Küntzel's seminar wasn't even about Islam as such. It was about a genuine evil, namely the ubiquitous presence of anti-Semitic tropes and images in parts of the Muslim world, especially Egypt, the Palesinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and, of course, Iran. That is exactly the sort of subject any respectable university should wish to encourage. It is topical, it involves detailed analysis of history (links between Islamism and the Third Reich), it offers possibilities for serious textual analysis and theory-based commentary on film, television, and cartoon imagery (why, for example, do Arabs, who are Semites and share Semitic features with many Jews, choose to depict Jews with hooked noses, a trope taken directly from the Third Reich, where the hooked nose was an exaggerated emblem of non-Aryan status?), it leads into a discussion of the differences and similarities between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israelism. It is a valid academic subject, but, without warning, a university chooses to remove it from its campus.

Does any of this relate to Israel? You bet it does. Understanding this legacy involves a study of the way the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the Palestinian leadership (above all Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jersualem) chose to ally themselves with the Nazis and how, after World War II this support for fascism mutated into bitter anti-Zionism and imitation of fascist methods. Today, members of Hamas and Hizbullah use the Hitlergrüss salute, something only neo-Nazi groups do in Europe or North America. Knowing this helps us place a different interpretation on anti-Israel rhetoric and behaviour. To say it's a pity Hitler didn't finish the job and kill all Jews in the world, and then to claim 'I'm only anti-Israel, not anti-Semitism' is to stretch credulity. Yet Western journalists and politicians seem to fall for this line every time. Unless and until we learn to see through this smokescreen of 'anti-Israelism' to the underlying Judaeophobia, we will go on praising some of our very worst enemies. Because these people aren't just anti-Semitic. They are fascists, who hate democracy, freedom, and the rule of law in sovereign states. They are as much enemies of Western civilization as Hitler and his mafia were in the 1930s and 40s. When a British university thinks it better to avoid controversy than to open up debate about a reality that threatens its core freedoms, then it's time to ask just where we are all headed.

Here are the two letters, for what they are worth:

Lord Bragg of Wigton,
The University of Leeds.

Dear Lord Bragg,

I am copying here a letter (via e-mail) that I sent some days ago to Professor Michael Arthur, the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University, on what is now becoming a notorious instance of capitulation to outside pressure to cancel a legitimate and (many may say) crucial academic venture. As my letter to Professor Arthur points out, I had myself given a lecture under almost exactly the same title last Saturday, and have researched in this area myself, so I feel qualified to argue the appropriateness of Dr Küntzel's research and lecturing.

I fully understand your non-administrative position within the university, but I'm convinced that the implications of this ban for the wider world of academe and culture are so great that the incident threatens to bring the university into disrepute (and, indeed, has already done so in some circles). Hence my writing to you in the hope that some form of intervention on your part may lead to a fresh invitation being extended to Dr. Küntzel and, should he accept, a three-day workshop being held on the Leeds campus, followed perhaps by a public lecture on this vital subject. Should this be done with appropriate publicity within the university, and if both the workshop and the lecture (or lectures) should be attended by larger numbers, it would serve both an academic and educational purpose, by alerting audiences to the existence throughout the Middle East of a virulent form of anti-Semitism that is ubiquitous, mainstream, popular, and derived in its largest part from the tropes and images of the Third Reich. It is inconceivable to me that any university should seek to favour objections to such information and to put a gag on the bearer of what may be an unwelcome message, yet a hugely relevant one for modern society. Forms of Islamic anti-Semitism have already moved to Europe and North America, making all the greater the relevance of this message to a British university in a city that has bred Islamist terrorists.

I hope you will at least speak to the university authorities on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin
Royal Literary Fund Fellow
Newcastle University


Dear Vice-Chancellor,

May I begin by introducing myself as a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University, where I am currently the Royal Literary Fund Fellow.

I have just received news of a decision made by Leeds University to cancel a talk and 2-day workshop series by Dr. Matthias Kuentzel of Hebrew University, both under the title 'Hitler's Legacy: Islamic Antisemitism in the Middle East'. Having myself given a lecture on Islamic Antisemitism a few days ago, I am horrified and outraged by this decision. As an academic who has struggled with religious pressures to censor and exercise control within my field, I place a high value on academic freedom within Western universities. I appreciate those freedoms the more for having studied at Shiraz University in Iran and taught at Mohammed V University in Fez, Morocco, where such freedoms are absent. An academic book of my own has recently been blocked from publication due to pressure brought on the publishers by a religious group. That is how keenly I feel about censorship contaminating the realm of academia, and why, in part, I am spurred to write to you in these terms. Academic freedom is the very foundation of all work carried in universities and colleges, and without it, as I know you must be very well aware, the entire project of unbiased, free, and honest academic teaching and research slips into degradation and abuse.

Since it is a research interest of my own, I can testify that the subject on which Dr. Kuentzel was due to speak is one of considerable importance, both academically and as a topic for public and governmental interest. Not to study it and not to debate it opens up a glaring gap in our knowledge of the Middle East, our understanding of Islam, and our analysis of Muslim relations with the West and with the Jewish community in particular. Anti-Semitism is in itself a subject studied internationally in numerous centres, and one about which innumerable books and articles have been written. Much of that latter work has originated in the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, at which Dr. Kuentzel works. It is beyond my comprehension that a scholar with his credentials, affiliated to such a centre and such a university, speaking on a topic of vital academic and general interest should be barred from speaking simply because a pressure group with blatantly vested interests has complained. What will be next? No lectures on Iranian nuclear strategy because someone in the Iranian embassy made a phone call to someone in your office? A lecture on animal research in your faculty of biological sciences cancelled because an animal rights group threatens to stage a protest?

I cannot believe that you yourself would for one moment consider letting outside interests exercise the least influence over the content of academic courses or guest lectures in any other context. Yet it has happened at your university, and I for one feel betrayed by that. If someone invites me to lecture at Leeds on this or a related topic, will I now be automatically persona non grata? Will I have to submit the text of my lecture to a censorship committee beforehand?

I wish to be reassured as to what action you and the university propose to take to remedy this serious breach of academic principle. I intend to forward details to the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, of which I am a long-standing member. They may in due course contact you as well. I do hope you can find a way to put this matter right, regardless of pressure from within or without your institution. I place my trust in you to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Supporter, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
Patron, Friends of Israel Academic Study Group on the Middle East