Inside Higher Ed: Academic freedom and Holocaust denial

By Dan Berrett, for Inside Higher Ed

October 26, 2010

A Pennsylvania English professor whose anti-Israel rhetoric and denial of the Holocaust as a historic certainty have ignited controversy is citing academic freedom as his defence.

Kaukab Siddique, associate professor of English and journalism at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, appeared last month at a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington, where he called the state of Israel illegitimate. “I say to the Muslims, ‘Dear brothers and sisters, unite and rise up against this hydra-headed monster which calls itself Zionism,’ ” he said at a rally on 3 September. “Each one of us is their target and we must stand united to defeat, to destroy, to dismantle Israel – if possible by peaceful means,” he added.

While many professors engage in anti-Israel rhetoric, Siddique is getting more scrutiny because his September comments prompted critics to unearth past statements that the Holocaust was a “hoax” intended to buttress support for Israel – a position that the professor didn’t dispute in an interview on Monday with Inside Higher Ed.

Siddique maintained that his comments should be placed in the framework of academic freedom, as an example of a questing mind asking tough questions. He also warned of dire consequences if universities can be intimidated by politicians and outside commentators. “That’s freedom of expression going up the smokestack here,” he said.

“I’m not an expert on the Holocaust. If I deny or support it, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said, before invoking the firebombing of German cities during the Second World War and the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of the moral ambiguity of the war. “We can’t just sit back in judgement and say those guys were bad and we were the good guys,” he said. “I always try to look at both sides…That’s part of being a professor.”

Siddique cited as scholarly evidence the work of notorious Holocaust denier David Irving, whom a British judge described as an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi sympathiser. “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence,” High Court Judge Charles Gray wrote in a ruling shooting down Irving’s claim of libel against the historian Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University.

The Siddique case isn’t the first one in which a tenured academic has been criticised for questioning whether the Holocaust happened. Northwestern University periodically faces debate over Arthur R. Butz, an associate professor of electrical engineering who is a Holocaust denier, but who has avoided the topic in his classes.

Siddique’s embrace of Holocaust denial could be treated differently because of what he teaches. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and a staunch defender of the right of professors to take highly unpopular positions, said that academic freedom protects the professor’s right to criticise both Israeli policy and the moral legitimacy of the Israeli state. Holocaust denial is another matter entirely, said Nelson.

“Were he an engineering professor speaking off campus, it wouldn’t matter,” said Nelson in an email. “The issue is whether his views call into question his professional competence. If he teaches modern literature, which includes Holocaust literature from a great many countries, then Holocaust denial could warrant a competency hearing.”

Siddique’s anti-Israel comments were first seized upon by conservative Christian commentators; links to video footage of his remarks at the rally appeared on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Siddique said that the firestorm that has erupted has been stoked by allies of Israel, and he says his criticisms of the nation are no more harsh than those espoused by Jimmy Carter.

“This is actually a concerted act by the extreme right wing aligned with Israel to destroy someone who spoke out against them,” said Siddique.

He said he had received hateful emails and phone calls every day since the controversy broke. Some simply bore four-letter words. Others threatened death. “I see this as a tremendous dumbing-down of the discourse,” he said.

Siddique’s statements also prompted a letter from two Pennsylvania state senators last week who questioned whether the professor had expressed these views in class and what steps were being taken to prevent him from doing so. Both Siddique and the university said he had never broached the subject in class.

Lincoln University sought to distance itself from the professor’s comments, calling them “offensive” in a prepared statement, and adding that his “personal views and expressed comments do not represent Lincoln University”.

Lincoln is a historically black college that is about 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia. It is one of Pennsylvania’s state-affiliated institutions. In the current budget year, Lincoln is receiving more than $13 million in operating money from Pennsylvania, according to the state budget.

The letter from the senators follows a resolution introduced in the state Senate in April that condemns what it calls the resurgence of anti-Semitism on college and university campuses. The resolution calls upon the state’s education agencies to “remain vigilant and guarded against acts of anti-Semitism against college and university students”, although it recommends no sanctions for those who fail to do so.

State Senator Anthony Williams, who is one of the two who wrote to Lincoln, and who sponsored the resolution, took to the floor of the senate in April to speak on its behalf.

“I come from a community that has felt the sting of oppression and discrimination,” said Williams, who is black. “To see that anti-Semitic feelings have evolved in this country on college campuses is not only paradoxical, but it is an oxymoron. It is absolutely polar to the example that universities should be establishing and setting across this great country.”

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