When a respected public figure in Washington DC describes the view that people should pay tax on large amounts of inherited wealth as "the morality of the Holocaust", one can only conclude that something has gone seriously wrong with political debate. The statement was made by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, board member of the National Rifle Association of America and general booster of conservative causes.
Norquist elaborated on his astonishing statement to the journalist Terry Gross, who pointed out that estate tax only concerns those who inherit more than $2m: "the morality that says it's OK to do something to a group because they're a small percentage of the population is the morality that says that the Holocaust is OK because they didn't target everybody... "
Reading about the famously rightwing Norquist, I was reminded of Ken Livingstone, the leftwing London mayor, who compared a reporter from the Evening Standard to a German war criminal, and then, when he was told that the reporter happened to be Jewish, to a greedy concentration camp guard. Either Livingstone and Norquist are both mad, which I very much doubt, or these historical references have been drained of all meaning. Anything undesirable seems to be associated with the Holocaust. We are all Nazis now.
Why didn't Ken Livingstone feel any need to apologise for his offensive language? Not because he believes that concentration camps or war crimes are trivial, but because, as he put it, he detests racism as "a uniquely reactionary ideology". Since he has always detested racism, Livingstone can happily liken a Jewish reporter doing his job to a German war criminal. As for anti-Semitism, Livingstone, writing in The Guardian, made it clear he was against it, and then switched the subject to Israeli "ethnic cleansing" of Arabs.
Racism is indeed a terrible thing. Notions of a racial hierarchy have justified many evils, from slavery to the extermination of Jews. Even though 19th-century pseudo-scientific racism was a European invention, discrimination on the grounds of skin colour or other ethnic characteristics has existed in many places for a very long time. But since the Nazi genocide racism has come to be viewed as the main, if not the only, source of atrocious behaviour. The ultimate paradigm of modern evil is the Holocaust. As a result almost every form of human brutality is now seen through the prism of Auschwitz. This has had the double effect of diminishing the horror of the Holocaust itself, and hindering legitimate debates on political differences by invoking the taint of racism.
Racism exists, but not all Israeli policies towards Palestinians, however harsh, are inspired by racism. And as Livingstone points out, protesting a little too much perhaps, not all criticism of Israeli policies is the result of anti-Jewish prejudice. Yet these are the terms in which modern political debates are increasingly couched. This is why a venerable institution such as Columbia University in New York has been in a state of turmoil.
The latest crisis was initiated by a documentary film, entitled Columbia Unbecoming, produced by a Boston-based group called The David Project, whose stated goal is to "train people to be pro-active in their Israel advocacy - to counter the unfair and dishonest discourse in our universities, media and communities". The film shows a number of students accusing professors in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) of alienating, intimidating and insulting them with their anti-Israeli views.
Two professors are singled out for special censure. One is Joseph Massad. He allegedly told a student, who had asked whether the Israeli army sometimes warned Palestinian civilians before using force, that he would not tolerate denial of Israeli atrocities in his classroom. Massad is also accused of asking an Israeli student outside the classroom how many Palestinians he had killed. And George Saliba was accused by a Jewish student of saying that she, having green eyes, had no ancestral claim to the land of Israel, whereas he, having brown eyes, was a bona fide Semite. Both professors have denied these allegations and claim that they are themselves the victims of an orchestrated campaign to deprive them of their right to speak freely.
Prominent figures soon joined the fray. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, visited Columbia and announced that MEALAC professors were encouraging terrorists in the Middle East. Introducing the documentary in Israel, Natan Sharansky, minister for diaspora affairs, spoke of campuses as "islands of anti-Semitism". Campus Watch, an organisation of "American academics concerned about US interests and their frequent denigration on campus," published claims that Columbia ("Bir-Zeit-on-Hudson") had become a hotbed of Arab-sponsored Israel-bashing. Phyllis Chessler, author of The New Anti-Semitism, wrote that "the academy has been fully and fatally Palestinianised". At a conference on anti-Semitism held at Columbia, Chessler compared a group of sympathisers with the Palestinian cause with the Nazi party.
Inevitably, this being the US, the spectre of McCarthyism was invoked, and Lee C. Bollinger, the Columbia University president, appointed a committee to investigate the whole mess. After careful deliberation, the committee decided that there were no grounds to accuse the professors of anti-Semitism, even though Joseph Massad's words had "exceeded commonly accepted bounds". No sooner had the committee pronounced, however, than accusations began to fly about its members being anti-Israel.
It is all a bit baffling. Never before have Jews been as secure as they are in the US today, particularly in New York City, and most particularly at an institution such as Columbia University, where 25 per cent of the students are Jewish, as are many of their professors. When 572 people signed a petition two years ago calling for the university to cut financial links with Israeli companies, 33,285 signed their names to oppose that idea. Apart from MEALAC, there is a Centre for Israel and Jewish Studies, with six endowed chairs, and Columbia is affiliated to a Jewish Theological Seminary. Alan Rabinowitz, a junior studying engineering at Columbia alongside his coursework at America's Jewish college, Yeshiva University, was quoted in Forward, a pro-Israeli New York paper, as saying: "This is the easiest place to be Jewish in America - unless you go to Yeshiva."
Columbia University hardly sounds like a place that has been taken over by McCarthyist Palestinians. On the contrary, Joseph Massad believes that McCarthyism is on the Zionist side, led by racists consumed by a hatred of Arabs and Muslims. He is the victim of attacks by Campus Watch and others who, he says, keep "Gestapo files" on him.
Judged from his work, Massad is neither a graceful writer nor a very lucid thinker. Massad's reasoning tends to be a little confusing too. Anti-Semitism exists, he says (in the Egyptian paper, Al-Ahram), but its victims are Arabs and Muslims, "who are being murdered by the tens of thousands by Euro-American Christian anti-Semitism and by Israeli Jewish anti-Semitism".
Whatever one thinks of the Middle-Eastern policies of the Bush administration or the European Union, "anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatred, derived from anti-Semitism" hardly seems to be the main driving force. But claiming this does not make Massad an anti-Semite. He may nonetheless have offended students. The committee of Columbia worthies believes that student complaints about their professors should have been heeded earlier, for then outside advocacy groups would not have become so involved.
This sounds right. Certainly the motives of such groups as Campus Watch, started by a conservative historian named Daniel Pipes, are dubious. Its stated aim is to "develop a network of concerned students and faculty members interested in promoting American interests on campus". The idea that scholars have a duty to promote national interests is disturbing. Who, in any case, defines these interests? This is surely a matter of opinion, which should be free from busybodies who feel the need to "monitor and gather information" on academics whose views they do not agree with.
In a way, Pipes and his fellow advocates are not so different from those they wish to expose. Like Massad, who calls his political opponents "anti-Arab" or "anti-Muslim", the Campus Watch crowd is quick to denounce people as "anti-American" or "anti-Semitic", even when this may not be merited. It is as though they, too, think that racism and irrational hatred are the sources of all that is wrong with the world.
What rallies the likes of Massad and other leftist intellectuals round the Palestinian cause is hardly irrational. They believe that US power is used to promote a new kind of imperialism in the non-western world, that Israel is the catspaw of US neo-colonialism, and that Palestinians are the victims of racist policies. There are good reasons to disagree with this view, but to simply accuse Massad, or Noam Chomsky, say, of Jewish self-hatred, irrational loathing of the US, or anti-Semitism, is to fall into the same trap as those who see nothing but racism. And so the blind end up lashing out at the blind.
The sanest analysis of the Columbia fracas came to me from Moshik Temkin, an Israeli PhD student in US history at the university. Of course Massad is biased on Israel, he said, but so are his critics. As far as "intimidation" is concerned, he thinks that US students are only intimidated because they are shielded from unorthodox opinions on Israel. Criticism of Israeli policies that would be standard, even banal in the Israeli press, is denounced in New York as heinous anti-Semitism.
As an example, he cites the case of Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian professor of Middle Eastern studies, whom he describes as "quite moderate". Khalidi is respected in his field and has not been accused of intimidating anyone. Yet, when Khalidi taught in an education programme for school teachers run jointly by Columbia and the Education Department of the City of New York, he was fired because of his views on Israel. Khalidi's idea that Israel was a "racist state" that practised an apartheid system was called "hateful" by one official. His appointment was "an abomination", said another. And Daniel Pipes used the phrase "extreme and unhealthy" to characterise Khalidi's views.
Temkin ended his e-mail to me by saying the accused professors may often be wrong about Israel, however their accusers do not aim to promote "fairness", but to "shut down debate, particularly about the occupation". They have had it in for Columbia long before this latest controversy. What they really want is to "make their view on Israel unquestioned doctrine and cast any alternative to it as anti-Semitic and even immoral". In this they may have succeeded. Even though the Columbia committee largely cleared the MEALAC professors from blame, the debate on Israel has been thoroughly poisoned. It is easier in Tel Aviv to discuss the politics of Israel and Palestine than it is in New York.
In any case, the verdict of the Columbia committee hardly made the news in New York. The story of "anti-Semitism" stalking the Columbia campus was overtaken by an even juicier scandal, the imminent death of Terri Schiavo, the young woman in Florida, whose severe brain-damage had reduced her to a vegetative state for more than a decade. Her husband, Michael, claimed that she would not have wanted to live on like this. Her devoutly Catholic family disagreed. When feeding tubes were disconnected, Michael said she was finally able to die in peace. Her sister, Suzanne, said she "was like someone coming out of a bunker in Auschwitz".