Tying Down Academic Freedom

September 2006

Earlier this month, after 37 years of teaching, I retired from the chair of Early Christian and Early Jewish Studies at Utrecht University. In my valedictory speech, "The Myth of Jewish Cannibalism," I intended to trace the accusation that Jews eat human flesh from its Greco-Roman origins through the Christian Middle Ages and the Nazi period to the present-day Muslim world. Much of the Islamic vilification of Jews has its roots in German fascism. Hitler's "Mein Kampf" has been on the best-seller lists in many Middle Eastern countries. The sympathy for Nazism goes back to the F├╝hrer's days. Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, even closely cooperated with Hitler. He spent the war years in Berlin and visited Auschwitz, a trip that inspired his plans to build a concentration camp in Palestine.

In the Middle East of today, the demonization of Jews has reached unprecedented levels. Jews are accused of every evil under the sun, from cannibalism to the attacks on the Twin Towers, to causing the tsunami, the bird flu, AIDS and so on. At the end of my lecture I wanted to point out that it is our shared duty to combat this kind of anti-Jewish propaganda in the Muslim world. Nothing too controversial for a speech at a European university -- or so I thought.

Much to my surprise, though, the dean of the faculty asked me to delete the passage on Islamic Jew hatred. When I refused, she referred the matter to the highest university administrator, the rector magnificus, who summoned me to his office to appear before a committee of four professors (including the rector himself). The committee presented three reasons for removing the Muslim passages.

They claimed it was too dangerous to give the complete lecture because it might trigger violent reactions from "well-organized Muslim student groups" for which the rector could not take any responsibility. The committee also said it feared my speech would thwart efforts at bridge-building between Muslims and non-Muslims at the university. Finally, they claimed my lecture was far below the university's scholarly standards, especially because of some sarcastic remarks about Dutch public figures (whom I criticize for their anti-Jewish position). "We feel we have to protect you from yourself," I was told. The rector said I had 24 hours to drop the controversial section. If not, he would have to assume his "rectorial responsibility." I wasn't sure what this meant, but it sounded very threatening.

I went home in a state of total confusion. I sensed the committee had exaggerated the dangers to make me toe the line of political correctness. At the same time, I could not independently assess the risks. And so I decided to submit an expurgated text because I did not want to expose myself and others to potential danger.

But since the committee also challenged my academic reputation, I decided to ask several scholars for their opinion, including three professors of Islamic studies, history and philosophy. They all praised it as an excellent piece of work, well documented and eminently relevant. They agreed that my polemical remarks about the tenacity of this anti-Jewish myth are wholly appropriate and did not in any way diminish the academic value of my work. Most importantly, they concluded that the text would definitely not infuriate Muslims because I do not say anything offensive about Islam as such, the prophet or the Quran. When I informed the rector of the conclusions of my peers, his sole reaction was: "Yet my solution is the best."

Only a day after my farewell lecture in its castrated form, the news about this case of academic censorship was on the front pages of many Dutch newspapers and broadcast on radio and TV. Without my knowledge, the colleagues who had reviewed my lecture had contacted the media.

The university soon launched a counterattack. The rector first suggested that my account of censorship was untrue, that no one had exerted any pressure and that I voluntarily adopted the university's advice. When I insisted that the meeting I remembered was much more of a nightmarish nature than the friendly chitchat the university portrayed, a second, nastier line of attack ensued. I was suddenly pictured as someone who could have disgraced the university with a lecture that was supposedly beyond the pale. In the meantime, though, several newspapers had published the uncensored text so that everyone could form their own opinion. The expressions of support and gratitude I received were overwhelming and came from many academics at Dutch universities and prominent members of the Jewish community in the Netherlands. I did not receive a single negative, let alone threatening, Muslim reaction, although some of them said I could have spoken in less general terms, which is fair enough.

Fortunately, there are signs that the debate is gradually moving away from my incident toward the important issues at stake: academic freedom and Islamic Jew-hatred. If for fear of violence, real or imagined, academic freedom is curtailed, it bodes ill for our universities. If something as serious as Islamic Jew hatred cannot be subject of public debate, it bodes ill for society at large.