Historian in free speech row after an article criticizing Israel prompted a backlash from Jewish groups
A LEADING British historian has sparked a row about free speech in America after an article criticising Israel prompted a backlash from Jewish groups and the cancellation of meetings where he was due to speak.
Tony Judt, a liberal Jew and former kibbutznik, was accused of calling for the destruction of Israel after he wrote an article in The New York Review of Books in 2003, and in The Sunday Times, arguing for the creation of a secular bi-national state of Jews and Palestinians.
More than 100 leading academics signed a letter in last week’s New York Review of Books protesting at the suppression of Judt’s talks.
The former Oxford history don, who has been professor of European studies at New York University for 20 years, again became a magnet for criticism this year when he defended an essay written by Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago which criticised the “Israel lobby” in America.
Judt was due to give a talk on the subject of the lobby at the Polish consulate in New York last month, but it was cancelled at an hour’s notice after two Jewish organisations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, signalled their displeasure.
“The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure,” said Krzysztof Kasprzyk, the Polish consul-general.
Judt said: “It is a very sensitive issue for Poles. They are uniquely vulnerable because the country has a long history of moral ambivalence towards Jews.”
The historian also withdrew from a lecture on the Holocaust at a Catholic college in New York after learning that it was to be picketed by Holocaust survivors dressed in pyjamas.
The academics’ letter supporting Judt — whose latest book, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, was well received and was Cherie Blair’s holiday reading this summer — said: “The Polish consulate is not obliged to promote free speech. But the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather than stifle public debate.”
Judt intends to hit back with a lecture on December 4 in New York on self-censorship and free speech in open societies. “I’ve been accused of being a self-hating Jew, a conspiracy theorist and an anti-semite,” he said. “It’s absurd but it is an echo of what is said to non-Jews when they criticise Israel.”
He contrasted the lively debate about his views in Israel to the reaction in America, where he has been accused of advocating a “genocidal liberalism” that would lead to the slaughter of Jews.
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