Representatives for a powerful roster of academics and writers this week rejected the Anti-Defamation League’s invitation to meet and discuss their charge that the ADL applied pressure to shut down a prominent critic of Israel’s New York lecture.
Professors Mark Lilla and Richard Sennett, organizers of a protest letter to ADL signed by 113 intellectuals, rejected ADL’s denial that it had not, in fact, threatened or pressured the Polish Consulate to deny a platform to New York University historian Tony Judt.
In a reply to ADL National Director Abraham Foxman’s invitation to meet and discuss the matter, they wrote: "Precisely because providing a public forum for discussion was the matter in dispute: we do not think that the kind of private meeting you suggest would be appropriate."
They instead invited Foxman to reply in writing in The New York Review of Books, which will publish their protest letter next week. Foxman is expected to do so.
In their protest letter, the critics wrote Foxman: "What does surprise and disturb us is that an organization dedicated to promoting civil rights and public education should threaten and exert pressure to cancel a public lecture by an important scholar."
In a statement to be reflected in his New York Review of Books response, Foxman accused the writers and intellectuals of espousing "free expression in a democratic society" while employing "techniques which completely debase those values."
"Neither the principal authors of the letter nor any of the co-signatories ever sought me out to get the perspective of ADL," he said. "They have acted as judge and jury without engaging in the least bit of due diligence. … ADL did not intimidate or pressure anyone."
The letter (and the number of well-known intellectuals who signed it) have clearly rattled the ADL. They include a number of prominent writers known for their sympathies for Israel who, in the spirit of Voltaire, nevertheless have rushed to ramparts to protest Judt’s loss of a platform to voice views they, in some cases, abhor.
Signatories to the letter include Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, well known for its pro-Israel views; New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier; Dartmouth College professor Susannah Heschel, a well-known scholar of feminism and Judaism, and daughter of the late theologian of Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margolit; Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe; Columbia University historian and Holocaust refugee Fritz Stern; and prominent conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, a former chief editor of The New Republic.
Wieseltier in particular seized the Voltairean mantle with alacrity. In a New Republic diary piece this week he mocked Judt’s claim to be a free speech martyr caught in a Kafkaesque snare, attacked the "shabbiness" of his writings on Israel and challenged the truthfulness of Judt’s account of what happened with Foxman.
At the same time, wrote Wieseltier, "I am satisfied that this was an attempt to interfere with the free expression of Judt’s thinking.
"L’Affaire Judt was launched Oct. 3, when the Polish Consulate abruptly canceled a long planned lecture by Judt less than three hours before he was to speak there. The lecture’s sponsor, an outside group called Network 20/20 that had long used the consulate for its meetings, got word of the cancellation in a phone call from a consulate official as caterers arrived and attendees were on their way.
Polish Consul General Krzysztof Kasprzyk acknowledged he acted after receiving calls that day from "maybe four" organizations and also individuals expressing concern about Judt’s appearance: among them the ADL and the American Jewish Committee.
After researching on the Internet Judt’s writings, said Kasprzyk, he concluded Judt’s appearance would undermine Polish foreign policy goals of cultivating positive relations with Israel and American Jewry.
"It’s not true they threatened or made any pressure," he told The Jewish Week, referring to the callers. "I’m the sovereign consul general of a foreign state, and I am taking decisions for my state’s interests."
As a foreign diplomat whose primary mission here is to advance his country’s interests, Kasprzyk explained, "I don’t have to subscribe to the First Amendment. This [the consulate] is not Hyde Park. This is not an issue of censorship."
Later, in an interview with The Washington Post, Kasprzyk somewhat amended this stand. Still staunchly rejecting allegations of threats or overt pressures from the Jewish callers, he acknowledged, "The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure. That’s obvious: we are adults, and our IQ’s are high enough to understand that."
Judt, in an e-mail, recounted something much more brutal and heavy-handed. When Patricia Huntington of Network 20/20 called to inform him of the cancellation, he said she told him: "Serial phone calls from ADL [leader] Abe Foxman warned them [the consulate] off hosting anything involving Tony Judt. If they persisted, he warned, he [Foxman] would smear the charge of Polish collaboration with anti-Israel anti-Semites (=me) all over the front page of every daily paper in the city (an indirect quote)."
Judt’s e-mail, sent around the world to a long list of academics and intellectuals, led Lilla, a professor on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and Sennett, a highly regarded sociologist and public intellectual at the London School of Economics, to organize the protest letter to the ADL.
Foxman and Kasprzyk acknowledge that an ADL official (not Foxman) was in touch with Kasprzyk the day of the event. But according to Foxman, once Kasprzyk told the official it was an outside group, "We said, as long as you’re not sponsoring it, that’s fine."
Judt, director of New York University’s Remarque Institute, devoted to European studies, is a former Zionist who has lived in Israel but now advocates a single binational state as a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He has expressed doubt about Zionism’s continued legitimacy and viability due to the demographic changes wrought by Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank. Judt also lambastes pro-Israel groups here for allegedly squelching public foreign policy debate; indeed, this was the topic of his canceled lecture.
Over the past week, in another development, Huntington of Network 20/20 publicly disavowed Judt’s account of their conversation: but also disavowed her own earlier confirmation of parts of it.
In three e-mails to The Jewish Week, Huntington wrote that, contrary to his claims, she never told Judt that Foxman, over "serial phone calls," had threatened the consul general of Poland if he did not cancel her group’s lecture."
I never said anything about Abe Foxman saying he would smear charges of Polish collaboration with anti-Israel [forces] and anti-Semites over the front pages of newspapers," wrote Huntington.
According to Huntington, "I only told Tony that [Foxman] was on the phone with the consul general when I received the phone call [from the consulate canceling the lecture] and that he had been on the phone a long time, which is why I could not speak with the consul general directly."
I clearly stated (no confusion) that I had not spoken to the Consul General and did not know what had prompted the abrupt decision . . . all I knew was that I had been told that he was on the telephone to Abraham Foxman. Tony speculated concerning what kind of pressure the ADL could have exerted, and he and I both bemoaned the loss of free speech in America today.
"Huntington claimed the New York Sun "misquoted" her in an Oct. 4 story in which, it reported, she said that the ADL had "forced," "threatened," and exerted "pressure" on the Polish Consulate to cancel the talk.
But she was unable to reconcile this claim with emails she sent Lilla on Oct. 6 in response to questions he asked her before composing the letter to the ADL.
"I do stand by my Sun statements," she wrote then. Citing The Jewish Week’s story on the issue that week, she derided Foxman’s denials that ADL applied pressure: "Who, including his fans, really believe this when he was on the phone with the consul general less than an hour before the event?" she asked.
This moved Lilla to say this week, "It would not surprise me" if Huntington herself was now being pressured. But Huntington denied any such pressure.
This week, Judt, too, backed off (a bit) from the incendiary e-mail account he sent around the world of his discussion with Huntington.
Despite labeling as an "indirect quote" Huntington’s recounting of a threat from Foxman to smear the Polish Consulate as anti-Semitic if it failed to cancel his talk, he said: "I was not quoting it for publication. I can’t swear it was verbatim. But the thrust was made very clear to me. The Poles had backed off because the implications for them of having me speak there were made very clear to them by Foxman and others.
"The issue for them, she said, was that they’d worked very hard to establish good relations with Israel and the American Jewish community. And these would be ruined if I spoke there."