For years, Jewish organizations and their leaders seeking to contend with blatant anti-Israel statements have encountered the response, "What do you mean? Similar statements are made in Israel, by Israelis."
A few weeks ago, there was a new precedent for this phenomenon. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to Hebrew University President Prof. Menachem Megidor demanding a public response to statements made by the head of the university's German studies department, Prof. Moshe Zimmerman. According to the letter, Zimmerman compared Israel Defense Forces soldiers to Nazis.
University authorities in effect failed to say a thing to Zimmerman. Moreover, the university rector, Dan Rabinowitz, demanded that the former leader of the Jewish community in Berlin, Dr. Alexander Brenner, apologize for his statement that "there are professors at the Hebrew University who compare the behavior of IDF soldiers to the behavior of SS soldiers."
Foxman decided to intervene after the matter was brought to his attention in repeated requests from one of the university's lecturers, Dr. Yaacov Bergman of the School of Business Administration. Bergman, who says that he leans to the political right since the events of September 11, 2001, is leading a campaign over Zimmerman's statements, not only on the political front but also mainly as part of a struggle for the image of universities in Israel. His own university, he says, "acts as a guild primarily protecting the interests of its own members, as opposed to the interests of the public."
In applying pressure to Foxman, Bergman took advantage of the fact that Foxman has been embroiled in a similar affair in New York in recent months. There, in a scandal that made waves across the United States, Foxman urged Columbia University leaders to denounce Arab professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, who regularly question the legitimacy of Israel.
In the wake of the media storm, Columbia President Lee Bollinger decided to cancel a controversial course entitled "Palestinians and Israel," taught by Prof. Joseph Massad. Massad was quoted as having said in a lecture that "The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist," and that Ariel Sharon "resembles Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels."
Another professor, Hamid Dabashi, was quoted as having said that Israel is "a ghastly state of racism and apartheid," and called Israel's supporters "Gestapo apparatchiks." Dabashi later announced that he had decided to exercise caution regarding his public statements, and canceled several public appearances.
Foxman writes to Megidor
Foxman did not enter lightly into the Zimmerman affair at the Hebrew University. Bergman says that he threatened Anti-Defamation League personnel that if they do not intervene here, he would "pick up the telephone and call Bollinger's office to tell him that he does not need to take them seriously."
In recent months, Bergman consistently leaned on Ken Jacobson, who heads the Anti-Defamation League's International Department, to the point where Jacobson angrily responded, "I do not respect your pressure tactics."
However, the pressure appears to have worked. On February 16, after a few weeks of correspondence, Foxman wrote a letter to Megidor. In his letter he notes that, "While any professor has the right to express his or her views, it seems to me that the university administration has an obligation to consider when certain views are beyond the pale and harmful to the institution and the Jewish People. I believe leaders of institutions have an obligation to speak out when hateful messages are conveyed, and to consider taking certain actions against those individuals who are articulating such messages."
As the letter's tone makes clear, Foxman does not point to specific actions. "Because of my feelings regarding the question of freedom of expression and academic freedom, I also did not demand that Columbia University take specific steps," he told Haaretz. "I only demanded that action be taken in this matter, and that is what I demand of the Hebrew University."
Foxman said he indeed approached Megidor with a measure of hesitation partially because a Jewish and Israeli institution was involved.
"However, I cannot finally adhere to a double-standard: One demand of Columbia University and another of Hebrew University."
The affair began in August 2001, with an article written by historian Anat Peri for Haaretz. Peri's article investigated the image of Europe and its relations to Israel. Peri wrote a sentence stating that while smaller European nations denounced Israel and compared Israel to Nazi Germany, "Germany, which cannot afford to denounce Israel as the equivalent of Nazi Germany, supports any Israeli person or group who compares Israel to the Nazis, from B'tselem to Prof. Moshe Zimmerman."
Zimmerman filed a libel suit against Peri and Haaretz. It is not Zimmerman's first libel suit. The late Rehavam Ze'evi sued him for libel in response to an article in the weekly Jerusalem that compared members of the right-wing to Nazis. In 2000, Ze'evi won that suit. This time, too, Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court Judge Yehudit Shevah accepted the assertions of Peri and Haaretz that Zimmerman did compare Israeli organizations and individuals to Nazis, on various occasions. She even cited some examples, "Between Hebron youth and Hitler Youth, between the motivation and conditions of service in some of the IDF's elite units and that of the Waffen SS, between Israeli soccer fans and those of the Third Reich, and between the Old Testament and Mein Kampf."
Zimmerman writes to Brenner
In January 2004, about two months before Zimmerman's suit was dismissed, Alexander Brenner was interviewed on Israel Radio in a program about new European anti-Semitism. "The fact that Hebrew University professors compare Israel to the Nazis fans the flames of German anti-Semitism," he complained. A few days later, Brenner received a letter from Zimmerman demanding an apology, on the grounds that, "The faculty at the Hebrew University may assume that you were hinting about me."
He received another request to apologize several weeks later. This letter, signed by Hebrew University Rector Haim Rabinowitz, actually included a proposed script outlining the language of the apology.
Bergman is convinced that the timing of both demands for an apology is not coincidental. "Zimmerman knew that a judgment in his case was about to be made public, and believed that Brenner's apology regarding such an indictment would influence the magistrate."
The demands made of Brenner were exposed in another article, written by Peri for Maariv in July, entitled, "The Hebrew University's Disgrace." The article was accompanied by a response from the university's spokeswoman, Orit Sulitzeanu. According to Sulitzeanu, "The rector believed, based on information which he received, that Dr. Brenner was interested in apologizing to the professors of the university, and, therefore, he was offered a proposed transcript of a letter which would make it possible for him to withdraw his general indictment of them. In retrospect, the rector believes that he should not have become involved in the matter. Zimmerman's reaction to this reticent response was a letter to Maariv attacking the rector for his failure to meet his obligation to protect fellow members of the academic faculty at the university."
Brenner's response was unavailable this week. University spokeswoman Sulitzeanu reiterated her claim that the rector believed, "that Dr. Brenner is interested in apologizing in order to put an end to the affair."
Even when asked, the spokeswoman failed to address Foxman's demand that the university administration respond to Zimmerman's statements. According to Sulitzeanu, the letter reached the university president's office only this week.
Zimmerman, for his part, does not hesitate to attack. "Brenner's accusations toward me are unfounded, even after Judge Shevah's ruling," he said. "Because, with all due respect, we are talking about the Magistrate's Court, and I have already filed an appeal with the District Court."
Zimmerman does not deny the existence of comparisons he has made between aspects of the Nazi period and present-day Israel, but concludes that they are "The comparisons of a historian, based on his professional principles. Comparison does not mean that both sides are necessarily equivalent."
Regarding the involvement of Bergman and Foxman in the affair, he says, "I don't have to respond to every barking dog in the street," and criticizes Foxman's failure to contact him before turning to university administration. "People have to know the facts before they start running around," he says.
Foxman, in turn, said: "It is not my role to conduct a dialogue with this professor. And what could he possibly tell me? That Israel really does resemble the Nazis? What concerns me is that the university handle this."
Foxman promises to continue to confront those who compare Israel with the Nazis in the future, "exactly as we do in regard to people who are not Israelis or Jews. We must not say that it is forbidden for some and permissible for others."