Interview With Manfred Gerstenfeld: One on One: Debunking Dastardly Debate

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Likening anti-Semitism to pollution, Manfred Gerstenfeld makes a distinction between that “which comes out of a chimney and spreads over a huge area,” and that “which comes from the exhaust pipes of millions of cars, each one contributing its little bit.”

The former, he says, was characteristic of the Nazi era – with its “boss,” Adolf Hitler, as the central smokestack the world over.

The latter, he claims, describes today’s post-modern form of the phenomenon: global, but fragmented, with no single leader or source – and primarily aimed at the Jewish state.

The academic area Gerstenfeld – chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) – has spent the last few years researching is one he feels has been given short shrift precisely among those most immediately and directly threatened by it.

It is what he sees as the gradual mushrooming of anti-Israel bias on campuses across the world, culminating in this year’s effort on the part of British academics to boycott Israeli universities.

To illustrate that academic anti-Semitism is “structural,” rather than haphazard or negligible, Gerstenfeld and the JCPA have just published Academics against Israel and the Jews [1], a collection of essays detailing this defamation campaign and placing it in a larger context.

Gerstenfeld, 70, a modern Orthodox Jew who was born in Vienna, raised in Amsterdam and made aliya from Paris in 1968, is no stranger either to academia (he has a PhD in environmental studies and a degree in chemistry from Amsterdam University, has studied economics at Amsterdam and Rotterdam universities and holds a high-school teaching degree from the Dutch Jewish Seminary) or to anti-Semitism.

He has published 12 books, including Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (2003) and European-Israeli Relations: Between Confusion and Change? (2006), as well as hundreds of articles at home and abroad – among them in these pages. In addition, throughout his professional life, he served as a business strategist to leading companies.

“We have to take actions which cost little but give high returns,” he asserts, using the language of corporate strategy to explain how, even with few resources, it is possible to “wreak havoc on the endeavors of your enemies.”

In an hour-long interview at his home in Jerusalem earlier this month, Gerstenfeld sums up the task at hand for genuine freethinkers in general and Jews in particular to combat demonization: “As we are small, we have to be smart.”

What your book appears to be describing is a climate in which Israel and the Jews are being vilified by the intellectual community. Is this reminiscent of the atmosphere prior to World War II?

It is absolutely a climate. But whether it is parallel to that of the 1930s has to be examined a little better.

There have been three stages of anti-Semitism. The first was religious anti-Semitism, initially Christian and now overshadowed by religious Muslim anti-Semitism. The second stage was nationalist-ethnic-racist anti-Semitism. And the third – the latest one – is anti-Israelism, against the collective Jew, the State of Israel.

Each of these has three characteristic phases. The first is demonization; the second is exclusion; and the third is expulsion or destruction. We see elements of all three phases today, directed against the collective Jew. Demonization – whereby Israelis are called the Nazis of today, citizens of an apartheid or colonialist state.

None of this is true, of course. Colonialists pulled money out of countries they came to; the Jews put money into Israel. The Jews were a nationalist movement, not a colonizing movement. Nor do the Israelis practice apartheid against the Palestinians.

Apartheid is a phenomenon specific to South Africa. And the anti-apartheid movement used violence as a last resort, whereas the Palestinian movements use it as a prime one. Furthermore, the Jews offered them a state twice. So, it’s all false, but that is why it constitutes demonizing.

Then there’s exclusion. Boycotts are a typical case of exclusion. Finally, there is expulsion or destruction. That is the Hamas version of the Palestinian state, or [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s goals.

But is today like the 1930s? Well, there is one major difference. During that period, anti-Semitism was centralized. Then there was one guy who was the boss of anti-Semitism – Hitler. He wasn’t the only one, but he was a single, major actor, who garnered international support from many people outside the confines of the Nazi Party in Germany.

That was the centralized anti-Semitism of the modern era. We are now in the post-modern era, in which anti-Semitism is fragmented, with no single dominant source.

It’s like with pollution. There is pollution which comes out of a chimney and spreads over a huge area; and there is pollution which comes from the exhaust pipes of millions of cars, each one contributing its little bit. So, to answer your question, the times are like the 1930s and also different from the 1930s.

How do you explain what appear to be more and more cars with exhaust pipes emitting the kind of pollution your book deals with? And why is it being spread among the educated, self-proclaimed freethinking classes?

We live under the fallacy that educated people – or specialists in a certain field – have better judgment than the man in the street. One of the myths about the Nazis is that they were primitive – that the party had no intellectuals. I’ve even heard that said by the opening speaker at a major anti-Semitism conference. But if you ask people to name the leading philosopher in Europe in the second half of the 20th century, the dominant answer would be Martin Heidegger – a Nazi.

And if you ask them to rate the 10 most important thinkers of Europe, at that time you often find a second Nazi on that list: German law professor and political theorist Carl Schmitt.

The second point is that in many European countries, if you were not a leftist, you set yourself apart from the leading intellectuals.

I lived in France in the 1960s, and if you weren’t on the Left – and even today if you aren’t there – you were an intellectual outsider. So we have a generation of intellectuals – in particular in the “soft sciences,” such as the humanities and social sciences, many of whom espouse a leftist ideology. These are often intellectuals who have no responsibility and carry their thoughts into a world totally separate from the real world – especially in today’s situation, where their salaries are paid partly by the taxpayer.

The academic system has three major lines of defense. The first is academic freedom. The second is tenure. The third is calling its critics McCarthyites. Now, any self-governing world is corrupt by nature. And universities are not very efficient places, as anybody who teaches there will tell you.

Among other forms of corruption, they have been corrupted in the realm of thought. Rather than promoting thinking and the advancement of knowledge, in the soft sciences, you find quite a few people who are promoting ideology instead.

With that comes another consideration. The 1968 generation wanted to conquer the world. They went nowhere. So they took refuge in academia, the only part of the world where they found a real home. This often failed generation ended up in that one refuge, where they could promote each other – and bring in their buddies. This is, among others, particularly true of Middle Eastern studies departments in the United States. Martin Kramer [who has a chapter in the collection, called “Columbia University: The Future of Middle Eastern Studies at Stake”] has outlined this very professionally in his book, Ivory Towers on Sand.

But if you dare call these guys crooks, they accuse you of being a McCarthyite. Such a claim is false. McCarthy had governmental power behind him. All those who criticize the pseudo-scientific crooks who have nested themselves among serious academics in some of the humanities, including in Israel, have no such power.

Are you saying that the “chimneys” tend to be on the Right, and the “exhaust pipes” tend to be on the Left?

Let’s understand this better. Today, there are three major currents of anti-Israelism. One of them – the extreme Right – is not important in universities. In the universities you only find two of these major forces – pseudo-humanitarian and Muslim. The extreme right wing is largely absent.

Define “pseudo-humanitarian.”

To do that, we have to look at what I call the “humanitarian racist.”

Everybody knows and accepts that Nazism and fascism have a very clear concept of superior people and inferior people, whereby the former should dominate the latter. This concept is partly behind colonialism, as well – where the white people were superior and the non-whites inferior. Almost everybody agrees that these are despicable opinions.

But you find the mirror-image of that on the Left. The humanitarian racist’s version is that only white people can be held responsible for their actions, while non-whites can only be victims. According to humanitarian racists, for example, the driving out of the Christians by the Muslims from the Palestinian territories is something happening among “colored” people, who are by definition not responsible anyhow, so they cannot be blamed. Therefore, Israel has to be blamed.

Now, if you say to an extreme leftist or a promoter of human rights who hold these views that they are racists, they are completely offended, because they have never thought it through. Yet they are no less racist than white supremacists.

Speaking of “thinking it through”: You say that the radicals of the 1960s ensconced themselves in academia. Did the Six Day War cause them to turn their negative focus on Israel? Is there a connection between the birth of the “humanitarian racists” and sympathy with the Palestinians?

Well, that was when the process started. But it was a long process. That Woodstock generation took a long time to gel. And those people who were then 20 are now 60, and have key positions in the universities. Academia consists of a small number of these ideologues and humanitarian racists, and a great number of largely politically indifferent people.

Among the faculty as well as the student body?

Mainly among the faculty. The boycott movement [against Israeli universities] started in England in 2002. But, because of the Internet, within a few days it generated also some support from abroad. This is where Israel’s weakness lies, because we are on the front line and cannot cope rapidly enough. We were unprepared and therefore didn’t perform brilliantly and responded too late.

It didn’t have to be this way. As far back as 2004, when Natan Sharansky (who was kind enough to write the preface to my book) was minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, I convinced him to convene the heads of Israeli universities to prepare for a new onslaught in the form of a boycott against them abroad. It took six months to get them together. When the meeting finally took place, it was clear that this very nice group of academics didn’t grasp what it was about. They said, “When it gets stronger again, we’ll get organized.”

The discrepancy between their so-called intellectual power in their fields, and the lack thereof in commonsense issues was almost dramatic. What they couldn’t grasp was that the anti-Israelism was structural. They thought it was temporary, because at the time there was a lull, just as there is now. But this is always the case in between storms. Right now, what is happening is that the British extreme left-wing academics are organizing after their defeat.

Here Academic Friends of Israel director Ronnie Fraser [who wrote the chapter in the book entitled “The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain?”] deserves an honorable mention. He was a pioneer in the battle against the boycott in the UK, who went after it almost single-handedly. Afterward, others followed. But even he says it wasn’t he or others who defeated the 2007 boycott attempt, but rather a result of the boycotters’ realizing that what they were doing was legally very doubtful, and that the moneys of their union might be at risk. After consulting with lawyers, they came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to take the risk.

Don’t many Israeli professors share the views of their counterparts in the UK who tried to boycott them? Can you address the seeming irony here?

There are a few hundred Israeli academics who, to different degrees, share the views of the haters of Israel. The psychiatrist, Kenneth Levin, author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege, talks about this phenomenon of identifying with one’s besiegers.

And you’re saying there are only a small number of such academics in Israel?

Well, it’s true they are very noisy. But, as is the case in most universities in the world, they do not dominate their universities.

How much of an effect do such professors have on their students? Are students really as malleable as we make them out to be?

No, but indoctrination often starts in high school. And whereas in academia some of this kind of teaching gets publicity, in the high schools it’s also happening, but one doesn’t hear about it. It is a phenomenon which is totally ignored. We are under attack from an endless number of sources, and we are both unaware of their extent and don’t have the institutions to deal with them. We are much more focused on individual incidents. This is stupid, because in the meantime, anti-Semitism eats into the ideological fabric of society.

Is it anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism?

Though not totally, the two largely overlap.

The point is that there is a battle of ideas going on. It is common to say that in this battle, the best ideas will ultimately prevail. People talk about it as though it were a kind of basketball game in which the best guys win. But that is only true if the court is level.

In this case, the playing field is tilted, because most of the Western media are dominated by leftists. We know, for instance, that at some point a poll in Sweden found that while maybe 5 percent of the population voted for the communists, 30% of the journalists did. This makes much of the so-called intellectual debate an uphill struggle for those who do not share the views of the Left.

Yet, your book indicates that in spite of everything you are saying, the battle is not lost.

Indeed, I claim that as we are small, we have to be smart. Here’s an example. In 2006, a petition was being circulated among American college professors to condemn Israel. One person signed it: “H. Nasrallah, Joseph Goebbels Professor, chair in communications, Duke.”

And they didn’t notice! [He laughs] That person undermined the whole petition.

Though we are too small to fight on all fronts simultaneously, we can do it little by little. Another example is the video produced by the David Project – called “Columbia Unbecoming” – documenting anti-Israel bias on campus. Afterward I heard that various administrators at other American universities said to pro-Israeli critics: “I hope you don’t do a ‘Columbia’ on us.”

This is a great example of picking a target and putting one’s resources into going after it, because it has a multiplier effect.

After all, that’s exactly what the enemy has been doing. They say, “We cannot fight America, but we can fight America’s small ally, Israel.”

Global enemies are one thing, but what motivates academics to go after Israel?

In some cases, it has to do with universalism. And Israel, of course, represents particularism. In others, it is anti-Americanism by proxy – Israel. A third factor, which isn’t so evident in the universities, is guilt in Europe about the Holocaust. If you can show that the Jews are also guilty, Europeans are less guilty. A fourth reason is anti-Semitism. A fifth element is copycatting, which comes back to your original question about climate. If, for instance, in the field of sociology you have to be a leftist in order to make a career, and if the going leftist ideology is to accuse Israel of wrong-doing, you go along with that. All these factors together create this climate.

How can you affect this climate, if not combat it?

By saying that there is something basically rotten in the world of academics, and that this decay targets their entire system. Once we have made Western universities understand that boycott attempts based on nationality undermine the entire system of academics – that it may begin with Israel and the Jews, but will certainly not end with them – then we have done something very major.

Another way is by saying that if university boycotting should be allowed, it should be done according to a ranking system, so that the first universities or professors to be boycotted should be those which openly call for murder. According to this criterion, it’s some Arab and Palestinian universities that should be first on the list.

Universities where suicide bombing is promoted should be outside the academic community. Just as universities can be ranked according to their academic performance, they can be ranked according to crime inclination. A list of the most criminal universities in the world could be compiled. And then there would be two different criteria for judging academia, quality and criminality.

But, judging from the seemingly arbitrary, often pernicious, way the UN ranks countries according to human rights abuses, ranking universities could be just as futile, could it not?

The point is forcing transparency. Just as in the business world, where transparency leads to the exposing of corruption, in the world of academia, you could establish an NGO whose purpose is exposing the crimes of universities. We have to take actions which cost little but give high returns. As someone who has been a corporate strategist for 40 years, I always look for low investment and high return. It took the person behind the “Joseph Goebbels professor” one minute to ridicule an entire anti-Israel effort. Ranking universities according to crime requires little energy, and debunks the whole idea of the boycott. In other words, with little effort you can wreak havoc on the endeavors of your enemies.

During the Ahmadinejad visit to Columbia University, there was much criticism among alumni and others. Still, many were paying fortunes of money to send their own children there, and will continue to do so, because they would rather die than have their kids in a state school or an unknown one. If every individual who was finding the climate at Ivy League schools objectionable would refuse to give them money, through tuition or donations, wouldn’t that do more damage than these other methods you’re describing? Are they not contributing to the problem?

No, because we have to understand that – perhaps with the exception of the MAUP Academy in Kiev – there isn’t a single really anti-Semitic university in the Western world. We cannot say that Columbia and Harvard are dominated by that spirit, though certain professions there definitely are. We are speaking about certain departments at certain universities; we are never speaking about universities in toto. Even at the universities which really got themselves a bad name, due to anti-Israel violence, such as Concordia in Montreal, it’s not all like that. One Jewish professor at Concordia said to me: “Before, nobody abroad heard of Concordia. Now, because of its bad name, they at least know where I teach.” [He laughs] Another one is a rather third-rate university, San Francisco State – which I often call San Francisco Hate.

Furthermore, the fact is that when more than 400 university presidents signed on to the American Jewish Committee initiative to protest the British boycott attempts – saying, “If you boycott Israel, you boycott us” – there was very little outrage on the part of left-wing professors.

Are you not merely knocking on an open door, and providing the people who already agree with you with something to read? At whom is this book targeted?

The people who suffer from this anti-Israel climate on campuses are fighting in isolation. I would love to have the funds to create a support organization for them. So far, I don’t have such funds. In the meantime, quite a few of them are very happy to have somebody to consult with, somebody with an overview. Because all they often see is their own university in their own country, and it is extremely important to them – even psychologically – to have a support system. This book is the first-ever source of knowledge on the subject that goes beyond a single country.

[1] This book is available through SPMEMart

Interview With Manfred Gerstenfeld: One on One: Debunking Dastardly Debate

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