To the Editor:
Alan Wolfe's essay is deeply troubling on a number of levels (Free Speech, Israel and Jewish Illiberalism," Nov. 17). Professor Wolfe offers an outrageous indictment of pro-Israel forces for closing their ears, minds, and hearts to any dissent or alternative thinking on fundamental questions about Israel. He reaches this conclusion largely based on assumptions and innuendo stemming from the brouhaha over the decision by the Polish Consulate in New York to cancel the Tony Judt lecture, and actions supposedly taken by the Anti-Defamation League and others in forcing the cancellation. Complete with an illustration of one man gagging another, Wolfe leaves behind a damning portrait of pro-Israel groups that presumes their ability to not only control the debate on Israel, but to stifle all dissent.
Let's start with ADL's role in the Judt affair. Like the academics who authored the letter of protest, Professor Wolfe mischaracterizes and overstates our role in the cancellation of Judt's talk and questions our motives without attempting to ascertain the facts or even listen to our side of the story.
A member of our staff called the consulate to ask whether the talk was being sponsored by the Polish government. Having been told it was not, for us the matter was over. In answer to the consul general's question about why we were interested, we explained our concerns about Mr. Judt's positions on Israel. Any action taken by the consulate as a result was theirs and theirs alone. We did not ask anyone to cancel the event. Yet we have been tarred by Judt's supporters as having attempted to "pressure," "threaten," and "intimidate" the consulate.
Professor Wolfe takes ADL and other groups to the woodshed for being "not even willing to let critics of Israel speak." He cites a litany of examples of prominent Jews supposedly using their "extraordinary" power to stifle criticism of Israel. But this argument is foolhardy not only because it plays into stereotypes about Jewish control, but also because it denies the fundamental right of Israel's supporters to speak out in defense of Israel.
There is also a whiff of hypocrisy in this line of reasoning. There have been many instances in recent memory, for example, where Palestinian supporters have attempted to deny platforms to pro-Israeli speakers both on and off campus notwithstanding the frequent and odious calls for boycotts against Israeli academics and institutions.
Where were Professors Mark Lilla, Richard Sennett, Judt, Wolfe, and their co-signers when former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prevented from speaking at Concordia University, in Montreal? Where were they when ADL was called on to cancel an appearance by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman at a function in Los Angeles? Where were they when the Muslim author of a Jewish-Muslim interfaith book project sponsored by the American Jewish Committee was denounced and vilified by Muslim clerics and Muslim-American organizations? Where were they when pressure was recently applied on the administration of Brandeis University to dismiss a well-known professor? They did not speak out; indeed, their voices were nowhere to be heard.
Professor Wolfe also argues that "organizations such as the ADL ... ought to be less concerned with policing ideas and more preoccupied with promoting them." How outrageous. This, after all, is not the Soviet Union! We believe that in America, the debate over Israel and American foreign policy in the Middle East will continue to be shaped by a well-informed American public that is able to listen to all sides of a debate and form its own conclusions.
Finally, we were outraged by The Chronicle's decision to illustrate the Wolfe article, on the cover and then throughout the article, with extreme images suggesting that Americans cannot speak on the subject of Israel. Neither the reality in this country nor Mr. Wolfe's piece makes this kind of extreme claim. The illustrations are demagoguery and are unbecoming to a serious publication.
Far from closing our ears to critics of Israel, we are listening intently responding when necessary, while also seriously listening for alternative ideas and voices that might lead to a cessation of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities and a resumption of negotiations toward a final settlement. Certainly the life and death issues at stake in the Middle East conflict are far more serious and important than one academic's misguided and self-serving campaign to establish himself as the victim of a so-called "all-powerful" Jewish establishment.
Abraham H. Foxman