At Northeastern, an abused remembrance

This article was first published in The Jewish Advocate on March 29, 2012

Next week, Northeastern University hosts its annual Holocaust Awareness Week. Highlights includes the movie “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals”; and a talk by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon, whose 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” follows the lives of two Jewish cousins – one a refuge from Prague – who became major figures in the comic book industry in the World War II era.

This year’s offering are varied, provocative and anything but-run-of-the mill. I encourage everyone to attend. But over the years, Northeastern – an otherwise excellent university, not known for expounding radical ideology – has provided a platform for a small group of anti-Zionist professors who have exploited the Holocaust to defame and delegitimize Israel.

Until this year, Holocaust Awareness Week was administered by the university’s Spiritual Life Center. Last November, some of the center’s staff – one wearing a kaffiyeh – attended a campus lecture by Norman Finkelstein and cheered as the pro-Palestinian author spewed his usual anti-Semitic poison. The Jewish students who were present were shocked, and the administration, responding to their concerns, launched an investigation. That may be why the Spiritual Life Center no longer runs the Holocaust Awareness Week.

A couple of months before last year’s Holocaust week, The Advocate published a column by Steven Stotsky expressing concern that the planning committee intended to invite Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir, whose documentary “Defamation,” which features Norman Finkelstein comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, suggests  that Jewish bureaucrats overplay anti-Semitism to drum up financial support. That Shamir was being considered was especially painful to Steve because his father, Dr. Bernard Stotsky, had made a generous gift to the university to establish the Stotsky Professorship in Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies to further study of the Holocaust.

In the end, Shamir did not appear during Holocaust week. But Stotsky is understandably concerned about some of the scholars selected to fill his father’s chair.

From 2006 to 2009, the Stotsky Chair was held by Professor Inez Hedges. Hedges, who writes for Marxist publications, combines a far-left outlook with support for the Palestinians and for the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel. In 2008, Northeastern’s Cinema Studies Department, head by Hedges – sponsored the Boston Palestine Film Festival. It commemorated the “Nakbah” (catastrophe) – the supposed expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948

That same year, Hedges invited Boston-based anti-Israel activist Alice Rothchild. During her talk, Rothchild likened Israel to an abused child who in turn has become an abuser and claimed that “out of our catastrophe [Holocaust], we created another catastrophe [Nakbah].” Thus she compared the Jewish struggle for independence in face of annihilation in 1948 with the planned genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis.

In 2001, the Holocaust Awareness Week was organized by Professor William Miles, who then held the Stotsky Chair. Miles invited Tufts University Professor Nadim Rouhana, an Israeli Arab and a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist who believes that Israel should cease to be a Jewish state and whose organization participated in a fraudulent campaign that portrayed Israeli soldiers as sexually exploiting Palestinian women. Rouhana admitted in his speech that he had no scholarly knowledge of Europe’s genocide of the Jews, but he used the platform to repeat the lie that Israel committed the largest ethnic cleansing of the 20th century.

In 2005, the Holocaust Awareness Week featured a talk by Claudia Koonz, an author and scholar who in 2003 signed a petition claiming that the government of Israel was planning to use the Iraq war as a “cover” to carry out large-scale ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians.  When no such thing took place, Koonz failed to issue a retraction.

The Holocaust Awareness Committee was founded by now retired Northeastern Professor Philip Backstrom who opposes recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and asserts that Israel is based on a ‘racial nationalism.’  In a letter to a fellow member of the committee, he likened Israeli behavior to the Nazi concept of “Lebensraum.” He referred to the Jewish effort to remember the Holocaust as “the Holocaust industry,” and he echoed the classic Arab claim that the Jews are merely a religious group, with no claims to peoplehood and hence to statehood.

Astonishingly, the very structure established at Northeastern to help Jews commemorate those millions murdered by the Nazis has been used to demonize the Jewish state – the one place that was created to protect them. Yet no university professors have protested or tried to set things right, and the Boston Jewish community remains largely ignorant about the nature and scope of the problem. Steven Stotsky says that the dishonest, ludicrous and offensive views such as those of Finkelstein, Rouhana, Rothchild, Hedges and Koonz are being legitimized and given credence by Northeastern University.

The Northeastern administration needs to launch an independent investigation to explain what has happened and apologize to the Jewish community and to the Stotsky family.

The university needs to assure us that Holocaust Awareness Week will be run by a committee composed of people with academic integrity and who do not have hidden anti-Israel agendas.

Finally, it is extraordinarily unscholarly, insensitive and hurtful for university professors to promote the views – to Jewish students in front of their classmates — that Jews today act like Nazis, and that, unlike all the world’s others peoples, Jews don’t have the right of self-determination. To prevent this kind of bigotry in this future, the university should extend its existing minority sensitivity training (for both faculty and students) to include the Jewish people.

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